A fresh look on nature

Introducing the world to a child gives conflicting feelings.

We started using the GR-routes – meandering throughout Europe – to discover the beauty of the world around us

On the one hand, there is a feeling of doom: how do I dare adding another child to this deteriorating world, without asking her if she wants to live in it – and without being able to promise her the safe and happy live I got myself, when our nature wasn’t on the brink of destruction yet. It is an argument recently more frequently used to restrain from procreating at all.

If the best nature around her is straight and artificial canals like this one – what is left to love?

Yet, perhaps a bit surprisingly, what I feel is mostly hope. Introducing the world to this fresh set of eyes, filled with wonder and curiosity, made me realize much more clearly that all is far from being lost. Even in our heavily populated corner of the world, between Brussels and Antwerp in the heart of Western Europe, there is natural beauty around us that fills my child with aw.

In a recent survey of more than 1200 Belgians and Netherlands, we asked if people experience a decline or increase in nature around them. 75% reported the former: they had the feeling that nature had deteriorated over their lifetime. This paints a gloomy picture at first sight, and the decline over time is undeniably there.

The open horizon with view of the church tower – a landscape that has been getting harder to come by in Flanders over the last decennia

Yet what that babies amazement made me realise more clearly is that we shouldn’t dwell too much in the past. Observing what has been lost is important to see the gravity of the situation we are in, but what matters is what we do with that knowledge, now and in the future. She did not observe a decline yet over her lifetime, and we can do our absolute best to keep it that way.

Impressed by an oak leaf

What I also realized this way, is that nature can be in the smallest things – an oak leaf, a bird or a meandering stream. It is not only about the forests or mountains, or the world heritage sites those lucky few on your Instagram feed get to visit. But that’s another thing we asked our 1200 survey respondents: what IS nature to you? Results are mixed: those agricultural landscapes that made me and my baby so thoroughly happy this weekend, would you call those nature? For us, at that moment, it most definitely qualified.

A Flemish agricultural landscape. Nature? Or not? The definition is far from clear on the matter, but dear lord that place was beautiful!

This baby has given me lots already, but one important present is a fresh look on nature around me. I am ready to fight harder than ever before to save this precious resource for her and everybody.

Want to help? You can start by giving us your opinion on your definition of nature (if from Belgium or the Netherlands), via www.natureornot.be!

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Belgians see nature in their municipality deteriorating

This is the main preliminary result of a large-scale survey conducted by the Universities of Antwerp and Liège among more than 1200 Belgians. 60% indicated that the quality of nature in their municipality has decreased over the last 5 years, 75% observed a decline during their lifetime.

But on what exactly defines as nature, respondents showed much less agreement. The researchers asked which types of landscape were considered ‘nature’ by the participants and which were not. Respondents as expected strongly agreed that forests could be considered nature – and most found them beautiful. Wastelands however resulted in much more disagreement: they could either be seen as Noah’s arks where nature can express itself, or as abandoned areas craving for a clean-up.

“The definition of such a simple word as nature is far from obvious,” Jonas Lembrechts, one of the researchers, explains. “There is a large grey zone, landscapes on which everyone has a different opinion. It is precisely this grey zone that the researchers want to map out with this large-scale survey. Lembrechts explains: ‘we can expect that the definition will differ from one person to the next, depending on their experiences with the greenery around us’. For example, your place of residence can strongly influence your definition of nature: those who live in the city have a completely different picture of green space than those who have spent their entire lives in the countryside. In addition, age can also play a role: the older generation, for example, remembers how you could hear a lark chirping above almost every field. For young people on the other hand, it is a surprise that no noisy parakeets flew through the parks of Brussels a decade or two ago. Often we are hardly aware of these differences in perception.

The researchers also asked how people experienced nature during the Covid-19 lockdown period. Interestingly, a high proportion of people (60%) participating did not feel they had to miss nature, with about 70% saying they had spent more time in nature during lockdown than before. Although most respondents live in urban and suburban areas, most of them did consider themselves surrounded by nature on a daily basis. As about 80% of respondents reportedly has a garden, and 50% of them visit a green area in their municipality at least once a week, the importance of these local green patches cannot be underestimated.

A better understanding of what we experience as nature can explain what we hope nature will look like in the future. Even more importantly, it gives nature managers the opportunity to take this range of personal definitions into account in their policy and communication and increase support for much-needed nature management. Indeed: the definition might be vague, but survey participants showed strong agreement on at least one topic: that nature conservation matters.

You can still express your opinion about nature! The survey runs until November 1st and can be found at http://www.natureornot.be.

The #NatureOrNot project is an initiative of the University of Antwerp and Liège. For more information, contact Jonas Lembrechts (jonas.lembrechts@uantwerpen.be, 0471475321) or visit http://www.natureornot.be.

Nature or not, that’s the question! Do the typical heathlands, agricultural areas and fallow lands fall under the definition of nature for you?  

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Belg ziet natuur in zijn gemeente achteruitgaan

Meer dan 1200 Belgen en Nederlanders namen al deel aan de grootschalige natuurenquête #NatureOrNot van de Universiteit Antwerpen en Luik. 60% geeft aan dat de kwaliteit van de natuur in hun gemeente de laatste vijf jaar is afgenomen, 75% vindt dat er tijdens hun leven een verslechtering is opgetreden.

Maar wat die natuur is, daar zijn we het veel minder over eens. De onderzoekers vroegen namelijk ook welke landschapstypen voor de deelnemers onder het begrip ‘natuur’ vielen, en welke niet. Dat een beukenbos of een heidevennetje mooi is en als natuur geldt, daar waren zowat alle respondenten het over eens. Maar als het bijvoorbeeld gaat over het opschietende groen op een braakliggend stuk grond, lopen de meningen sterk uiteen – tot 50% vindt dan nog dat we van natuur kunnen spreken.

“Je zou het niet verwachten, maar de definitie van een eenvoudig woord als natuur is helemaal niet zo vanzelfsprekend”, vertelt bioloog Jonas Lembrechts, een van de onderzoekers. “Er is een grote grijze zone, landschappen waar iedereen een andere mening over heeft.”

Grijze zone

Het is net die grijze zone die de onderzoekers in kaart willen brengen met deze grootschalige enquête. Lembrechts legt uit: “We kunnen verwachten dat de definitie zal verschillen van persoon tot persoon, afhankelijk van hun ervaringen met het groen om ons heen. Zo kan je woonplaats je definitie van natuur sterk beïnvloeden: wie in de stad leeft, heeft een heel ander beeld van groen dan wie zijn hele leven ‘op de boerenbuiten’ heeft door­gebracht. Daarnaast kan ook leeftijd een rol spelen: de oudere generatie herinnert zich bijvoorbeeld nog wel hoe je boven haast elke akker een leeuwerik kon horen kwinkeleren. Voor jongeren is het dan weer een verrassing dat er vroe­ger géén luidruchtige parkieten door de Brusselse parken vlogen. Vaak zijn we ons nauwelijks bewust van die verschillen in perceptie.”

De onderzoekers vroegen ook hoe mensen de natuur ervaren hebben tijdens de Covid-19-lockdown. Interessant: een groot deel van de respondenten (60%) gaf aan de natuur niet te hebben gemist, en 70% bracht juist meer tijd in de natuur door tijdens de lockdown dan voordien. Hoewel het merendeel van de respondenten in (rand)stedelijke gebieden woonde, voelden de meesten zich op dagelijkse basis toch door natuur omringd. Vermits 80% rapporteerde een tuin te hebben, en 50% aangaf wekelijks een lokaal groengebied te bezoeken, wordt hiermee het belang van dat lokale groen nog eens extra onderstreept.

Broodnodig natuurbeheer

Een beter begrip van wat we als natuur ervaren, kan uitklaren hoe we hopen dat die natuur er in de toekomst zal uitzien. Lembrechts: “Nog belangrijker: het geeft natuurbeheerders de kans om in hun beleid en communicatie meer rekening te houden met die waaier aan persoonlijke de­finities, en zo het draagvlak voor broodnodig natuurbeheer te vergroten. Want de definitie zelf mag dan niet altijd duidelijk zijn, over één ding zijn zo goed als alle respondenten (98%) het toch eens: natuurbeheer is belangrijk.

Wil jij ook je mening laten weten over de natuur, dat kan nog! De enquête loopt nog tot 1 november en kan je vinden op www.natureornot.be.

Natuur of niet, dat is de vraag! Vallen de typische Vlaamse heide, landbouwgebieden en braakliggende terreinen voor u onder de definitie van natuur?  
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Fieldwork night

PhD candidate Jan is currently representing the team in the high north. Tonight: spectacular yet lonely dinner-with-a-view in the waffle house on top of Låktatjåkko mountain, cosely tucked away from the windy 2°C that rules outside. The coronavirus has made him the only customer brave enough to face the top of the world tonight, but that doesn’t make the views any less breath-taking.

View from Låktatjåkko’s waffle house on an autumn evening. This cosy place at the end of a 800 meter climb is highly recommended for anyone visiting the Abisko area in northern Sweden.

The tough conditions outside are compensated by the good news from the plots: many germinated seeds in the experiments, and all in good condition, the occassional tree falling into the plot aside. Looking forward to the results coming in!

Microclimate logger braving the alpine tundra
Tough little seedling!
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The 3D lab waves goodbye to another master student, with Sam having defended his thesis last week.

Sam travelled to the northern Scandes to study the drivers of plant community composition, and brought home some fascinating findings: while plant species turnover is mostly driven by climate, community structure is largely determined by soil conditions, such as the pH. That means: same diversity, different species in plots with the same acidity at different elevations.

Moreover, he dug up some proof for the existance of microrefugia: cold microclimates at the lower limit of alpine species distributions, where they can survive in a warming climate.

With that, we again lost a team member, but gained more knowledge!

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The best moment of the season to visit Flanders’ heathlands

Finally got another field day again – they really are scarce and far between nowadays. But what a field day it was: heading back to Flanders’ most beautiful heathland to harvest our temperature loggers we have been hiding there for a year.


Minuscule logger, 1 cm in diameter, yet I found it back under the tree where I hid it over a year ago!

This little bit of fieldwork – not much more than criss-crossing through forests, heathlands and dunes on a search for tiewraps sticking out of the soil – provides invaluable data for three big projects we are working on.


Another logger dug up, right at the root where it was supposed to be

First of all, the plots are part of the global Dark Diversity Network, a network with a somber name, yet focussing on an important part of biodiversity: that what is NOT growing there. More here.


A lonely pine seedling on a sandy dune. What is not growing at a location can give us as much information on biodiversity as what is there.

Secondly, the soil temperature will obviously feed into our growing global microclimate database, providing another 20 droplets in a sea of over twelve thousand. More here!


Stormy skies with autumn setting in

Finally, the data will become part of our community science project ‘CurieuzeNeuzen’, that will ask people from across Flanders to install microclimate loggers in their gardens. With the data collected in this heathland – together with other forest, agricultural and meadow-sites, we will be able to model the microclimate in all Flanders’ habitat types with an unprecedented resolution. More here.


How does vegetation and human structure alter the microclimate? With our dense network of microclimate loggers across Flanders, we will be able to answer this question!


Fabulous colours in this swampy heathland

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