a green jewel that was inhabited more than 4,000 years ago!


An exceptional natural place for hiking, horseback riding, cycling… The beech cathedral is to be discovered or rediscovered urgently.

By Florence Pirard

The forest of Soignes is located southeast of Brussels. It covers 4,380 hectares. The Walloon part with an area of 275 hectares covers the areas of the municipalities of La Hulpe and Waterloo. This former state forest is currently managed autonomously by the administrations of the three regions that share its property and have recognised it as a Special Protection Area in accordance with European Directive 92/43 “Fauna, Flora, Habitats”. It is therefore part of the Natura 2000 network.

A bit of history

The beloved Campanule blooms from May to September. ©Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

About 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age, a large forest developed on muddy, sandy soils. Flint from the late Mesolithic (6,000 to 4,000 BC) was discovered near the ancient edges of the Soignes Forest. Around 2300 BC, people from the east settled in the region, especially in La Hulpe, Genval and the Boitsfort Ponds. In the 4th century, a Roman author recalls a “coal forest” that probably stretched from Thudinia to the soignes forest. Probably this was isolated during the Carolingian period by the clearing of the remaining coal forest.

The Counts of Leuven, then the Dukes of Brabant, took over the property of Soignes in the 11th century. They protect it from wood thieves and poachers. From the 12th century, many religious communities settled on the outskirts. From 1404 to 1482 the forest passed into the possession of the Dukes of Burgundy, from 1482 to 1555 the Habsburg-Burgundy. Charles Quint ordered his complete abornment to prevent incursions; one last stone remains at the hermit (Braine-l’Alleud). The magnificent tapestries “The Beautiful Hunts of Maximilian”, which are kept in the Louvre, are woven during his reign. They illustrate the princely hunts through the forest of Soignes and faithfully depict the forest species, flora, fauna and landscapes of the time.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the forest suffered great damage. In the 19th century it was systematically bo0s, but many plots of land were sold to private individuals who rushed to clear them. To facilitate access to these countries, a straight road from Waterloo (Joli-Bois) to Tervuren (Four-Bras) is pierced. A third of the forest was finally preserved and ceded to the Belgian state in 1842. In 1909, artists, writers and parliamentarians founded the Association of Friends of the Forest of Soignes, which has since worked to preserve this forest heritage.

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World heritage

The forest is also a place of remembrance and poetry.  ©Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

Part of the Soignes Forest was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2017 and joined a number of European forests that were declared World Heritage Sites in 2007 and 2011. This transnational assets cover twelve countries. Since the end of the last ice age, the European beech has spread within a few thousand years from some isolated refuges in the Alps, Carpathians, Dinarids, the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. This process continues to this day.

The success of beech progression is explained by its adaptability and tolerance to different climatic, geographical and physical conditions. The Soignes Forest has not been fully declared a World Heritage Site: only those parts designated as integral forest protection areas, which are not subject to management measures, are affected. The same applies to other countries where strictly protected parts have also been selected, characterised by the presence of exceptionally old trees and exceptional biodiversity. Thus, every element of this family makes it possible to understand what the primary and ancient forests of Europe were.

This recognition as a Natural World Heritage is unique in our country. In fact, all other World Heritage sites are recognised as cultural heritage. In addition, the Soignes forest massif covers the territory of the three regions, which justified the establishment of a common structural system, which was the result of very close and intensive cooperation between the three foresters and the three cultural services.

The Flora…

The Dombuchenwald covers almost 70% of the territory of the Soignes Forest, a vast area of a single species that makes the forest vulnerable. Despite the unique aspect of this landscape, it is not conducive to the development of a large number of animal and plant species. In addition, more and more scientific studies are reporting on the effects of climate change. Increasingly warmer and drier summers have a negative effect on beech, except in the valleys. For this reason, it was decided to extend the scope in the future. However, the characteristic landscape of the Beech Cathedral will be preserved in some parts of the forest, as will the majestic rows of trees that line the Dréléves.

In the future, the forest will promote a greater variety of trees, with young and adult elements living in close proximity to each other. The aim is to maintain a varied and bright forest in which many animal and plant species live. Rare and endemic forest species must also be protected. An inventory of remarkable trees was carried out on the Brussels part of the massif; about 100 of them could be identified and marked.

Over time, parts of the Soignes forest have been transformed into parks, arboretums or racetracks: Cambre Wood, Solvay Park, Tervuren Park, Watermael-Boitsfort and Groenendael racetracks. These areas enhance the diversity of landscapes and habitats in the Soignes forest. Just like waters, certain trees, pastures and lawns, very different from the forest itself, but no less noticeable.
The edges between these semi-open areas and the soignes forest are home to a large number of animal and plant species that are not found in the forest. In addition, the parks, which welcome a large part of the visitors, form a natural buffer space.

… and wildlife

Many species coexist in this great ensemble. In the forest ponds live about 60 nesting birds, among them the kingfisher, the black woodpecker and the jumping beekeeper. In the beech forest we find the garden or black-headed hawk, the fast pouillot, the climber, the pine of the trees or the owl. The abundance of birds is greater in oak parcels and wet valleys, where the large beak and loriot nest. About thirty species of mammals also occupy the site: deer, hare, rabbit, hedgehog, squirrel, shrew, bat as well as small carnivores. The orvet and lizard are the only reptiles. There are eight species living in wetlands, including the rare and protected mud.

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Archaeological and historical heritage

The richness of history is reflected today in the valuable historical and archaeological sites of the forest: the Tumuli, the prehistoric camp of Boitsfort, the castle of Trois-Fontaines, the castle of La Hulpe, the Priories of Groenendael and the Red Monastery, the park of Tervuren, the old post roads…

The preservation and enhancement of this heritage is one of the main concerns of foresters. Thus, the Tumuli and the Neolithic camp boitsfort-Etangs were classified as archaeological sites, and the sites of Groenendael and the Red Cloétre, two ancient priories belonging to the Augustinian Order, were completely restored. The parks of Tervuren, Tournay-Solvay and La Hulpe and their heritage have also been completely renovated.

Belgian properties on the World Heritage List

Today, Belgium comprises twelve cultural assets and one natural property among the 121 world-listed goods.

Brussels : the Grand Place in Brussels (1998), the main apartments of the architect Victor Horta in Brussels (2000), the Stoclet Palace (2009).
Flanders: the Flemish Beguines (1998), the bell towers (1999), the historical centre of Bruges (2000), the Plantin-Moretus House Workshops Museum Complex in Antwerp (2005), the architectural work of Le Corbusier, an extraordinary contribution to the modern movement (2016).
Wallonia: the four lifts of the Central Canal and its location (1998), the bell towers (1999), the Cathedral of Our Lady of Tournai (2000), the Neolithic flint mines of Spiennes (2000), the four major mining sites in Wallonia (2012).
Brussels-Flanders-Wallonia: the Forest of Soignes (2017).

Preparing for a visit

Many routes and hikes cross the forest of Soignes. In order to allow walkers and cyclists to walk around without damaging the premises, a website takes up as much practical information about the doors. Forest entrance and paths to be followed by visitors. You will also discover a lot of information about flora and fauna.