Ecotourism around Virelles lake, a paradise for biodiversity in Wallonia


Pedal boats, canoes, sailboats, motor boats, fishermen/women, hunters, noisy playgrounds and the smell of fried food have long since left the area to make way for a wide variety of birdlife, lush vegetation, tranquillity and cleaner air, to the delight of visitors! Discover a vast 80-hectare lake surrounded by a reed bed, marshes, wet meadows, an old park with remarkable trees and a magnificent forest that flourishes without human intervention. This site, which has the appearance of a small Zwin, is located three km from Chimay, in Hainaut.

From economic boom to unbridled tourism

The lake was dug as early as the 16th century for the needs of the local metallurgy industry. To guarantee the water flow, a dam was installed on the Ry Nicolas in the centre of Virelles, creating a shallow (around 2 m) but extensive basin. The excess water that feeds the Eau Blanche was once used to supply the bark and water mills downstream that provided the energy needed to power the region's forges.

The owners, the princely family of the beautiful neighbouring town of Chimay, later rented the pond and its surroundings for hunting and fishing activities. Tourism gradually gained ground after a whole series of crafts such as the weaving of baskets, seats and backrests for chairs, harvesting reeds for roofing and haymaking for the meadows became obsolescent in the mid-20th century. This period of "theme park" operation was by far the most catastrophic for all living things on the site.

An ingenious ecotourism project led to a major turning point

At the beginning of the 1980s, the site was transferred to three nature protection associations in the form of a 99-year lease, which marked the starting point of a sustainable and harmonious conciliation between nature protection and soft, environmentally friendly forms of leisure. In recent years, well thought-out development work, including the creation of a string of no fewer than eleven islets in the large lake, has significantly increased the site's biological richness, particularly in terms of bird and dragonfly species. This is sometimes thanks to global warming, we must admit. A quick overview of the species that can be observed flying or walking around the pond includes red warbler, nightingale, cuckoo, stork, lapwing, gadwall, stilt, great egret, small gravelot, black-headed gull, polecat, common sandpiper, barking sandpiper, snipe, common tern, Anax parthenope and many other species, some of which are very rare. And the flora is in no way inferior to the fauna in terms of diversity.

The Virelles site is a real paradise for ornithologists and nature-lovers in general. Walkers, cyclists and water sports enthusiasts will also find something to do in the immediate vicinity of the site or in the region. Chimay also has a lot to offer culture-lovers. In short, there is something for everyone.