Gabriel de l'Escaille ©Diego Franssens
Nature in Flanders can count more and more on the money and time of entrepreneurs and the wealthy. They expand biotopes and launch nature management plans on them. Not for returns, but as a moral duty or as a passion.
In his professional life, the green of the billiard table rules, in his spare time the green of nature. Alan Phillips, managing director of the Walloon world leader in billiard cloth Iwan Simonis, owns more than 200 hectares of nature reserve in the Kempen.
Through targeted purchases, he managed to double the size of the inherited family domain in Meerhout. "I now have almost all habitats and biotopes in the Kempen: open water, swamps, peatlands, wet meadows, heathlands, forests and even dunes," says Phillips.
Phillips ended up in conservation through his love of hunting. That hunt now comes in second place, he says. He certainly does not do it for the financial return, because according to him that is negligible in Flanders. "The real return is the pleasure I get from forest management. That is priceless. It's a passion. "
Gabriel de l'Escaille also fell under the spell of nature through a family estate. "My father has always attached importance to nature management on the family domain in Hamont, Limburg, so that I grew up with great respect for nature. In the meantime, this has become a moral obligation due to climate change and the consequences for nature and biodiversity, "says 35-year-old De l'Escaille, who is a director of food giant Danone in Amsterdam. Through purchases in 2017 and 2019, he owns 40 hectares of nature reserve in Limburg. Together with a few Belgian private individuals and a Spaniard, he bought several thousand hectares of mountain pastures in Argentina, against the Andes.
"We have noticed an increase in private individuals who own a Flemish nature reserve," says Jurgen Tack, the managing director of Landelijk Vlaanderen. His organization groups private landowners who together own 36,000 hectares of forest and nature reserve. In addition, he represents a further 40,000 hectares in the hands of "forest groups", small owners - sometimes as small as half a hectare - who group together and join a common nature management plan to pursue specific objectives.
The nature management plan, which the Flemish government introduced in 2017, is intended to boost nature conservation in Flanders. Not only by replacing the maze of earlier plans with a single instrument, but also by giving private individuals the prospect of the same subsidies that associations such as Natuurpunt receive. The Flemish government anticipated a possible legal imbroglio after private landowners in the Netherlands had demanded equal access to subsidies through a lawsuit in order to prevent market distortion.
In Flanders, 58 percent of the forest area is privately owned.
The result is that, by submitting a nature management plan, private individuals can from now on count on subsidies for the realization of "nature objectives", such as certain vegetation or habitats of animal species. Those who plant an oak-beech forest on acidic soil can count on a subsidy of 63 euros per hectare per year.
For subsidies, at least a nature management plan of type 2 is required, which means the objective of realizing nature targets on a quarter of the surface. The objectives are much more ambitious for types 3 and 4, but there are also additional tax incentives, such as the exemption from inheritance and gift tax and property tax.
"The nature management plan is a success story, with more than 100 plans submitted, 70 percent of which come from private owners," says Jan Menschaert, who oversees the management plans at the Agency for Nature and Forest, part of the Flemish government. Types 2 and 4 appear to be the most popular plans, where type 4 - which aspires to reserve status - is mainly a matter for governments and associations. It is a good thing, according to Menschaert, that donations during life are stimulated, because the know-how can be passed on to the next generation and the nature reserve is safeguarded for the long term.
Private individuals have a major role to play because they own 58 percent of the forest area in Flanders. There are many small owners among them who got hold of a piece of forest through legacies. Through the creation of forest groups, they too can draw up nature management plans and acquire subsidies.
According to Tack, the subsidies should enable nature owners to cover their maintenance costs. They do not go far with their own income from forest management. Nevertheless, the nature management plan explicitly puts forward "profit" as one of the pillars.