The main feature of the Virelles estate is the pond that takes up most of the site. Covering an area of 80 hectares this is one of the largest natural freestanding bodies of water in Wallonia. However, it is not as natural as all that, as it did not always exist in the past. Long ago, the site was simply a marshy depression crossed by various streams.
First the Celts and later the Romans were attracted by the mineral wealth of the region, starting an iron industry that eventually reached its fullest development in the 15th and 16th centuries. You may ask, what has that got to do with Virelles pond?
The link is energy, which was necessary to power the forges. In these days the energy came from water power. The regular fall of water from the pond drove water wheels which in turn drove bellows and hammers.
It was for this reason that in 1580 the Virelles forge operators dammed the Nicolas stream to the North of the present pond, so as to create a reservoir some 50 hectares in extent. In other words, Virelles pond is basically a mill pond. Around 1750 a second forge was built on the Eau Blanche stream, thus expanding the pond to its present 80 hectares.
Towards the end of the 19th century the forges were in terminal decline: the mineral deposits had been worked out, and the forests that supplied wood for charcoal had been stripped. The end came with competition from steam engines and the use of coke as an alternative fuel. The mill pond created by the ironworkers lost its original purpose, but gradually it acquired new uses. As the property of the princes of Chimay, it was rented out for hunting and fishing. The reeds and willows that grew on the banks of the pond supplied a family of basket weavers with the materials to make not only baskets but also mats, wickerwork and chairs. The rushes too were harvested by neighbouring villagers and used for thatching, wattling (fences, roofs etc. made of interwoven materials) and bedding for animals. All these former activities, whether pre-industrial, handicraft or agricultural, helped to shape the present-day landscape of the pond and create ideal habitats for various rare species of plant and animal.
Today all these activities are a thing of the past, but the reeds still have to be cut annually, and the Association is looking for ways of using this abundant raw material.
The arrival of mass tourism in the 1940s posed a serious threat to the balance of nature in Virelles, a situation that lasted into the 1980s.
Over the years various facilities were built, bathing beaches were created and the shore of the pond was concreted to provide access for rowing boats, sailing boats, motor boats and even pedalos. All these tourist facilities dealt hammer blows to the natural flora and fauna in and around the pond. The nadir was reached in the 1970s when herbicides were deliberately poured into the water to eradicate the vegetation that impeded the boating activities. This certainly cleared the reedbeds, but it also killed off many plants and birds, as well as causing a massive die-off among the fish.
The new face of Virelles
In 1981 the site was placed on the market. There were various plans for parcelling up the estate and creating yet more tourist facilities. These all posed a new threat to the natural environment of the pond, which despite all the damage already caused by years of rampant tourism was still considered as a wetland site of major importance. It was then that three nature conservation societies stepped in: WWF (the Worldwide Fund for Nature), Aves (ornithological research society), and RNOB (Belgian nature reserve and ornithological society) joined forces to lease the estate, and a board of management for the Virelles pond natural site was set up. Fortis Bank (or Générale de Banque, as it was at the time) was persuaded by the naturalists to purchase the site in 1985 and to entrust its management to the three societies under a 99-year lease. After such a disastrous period, things were looking up once more.
A major project
On 2 April 2004 the site launched a major project under the name of Aquascope. This included not only setting up a Nature Learning Centre but also restoring the banks of the pond. The concrete banks that had been built for tourist activities in previous decades were not very hospitable for the flora and fauna of the reserve, to say the least. The edges of the pond where therefore completely reshaped so as to create a “fringe effect,” with a mixture of lagoons, little islands and steep banks. This led to a rapid increase in the number of species observed. Back to the future, you might say ...
Aquascope represents an ambitious challenge of combining tourism with protection of the environment. The goal is to keep the site as a tourist attraction but to reduce the impact on the natural environment and use it as an educational tool to raise awareness of nature.
Today, the nature conservation and educational services have joined forces to contribute towards preservation of the environment in the wide sense of the term.