Out and about in the country’s largest nature conservation area

By Barbara Fischer

‘Haard Hesselsbierg Staebierg’ – the rather wordy name of the nature conservation area which, at 600 hectares, is Luxembourg’s largest. The reserve, officially elevated to the status of nature conservation area in 1994, is also part of Europe’s Natura 2000 network. More or less wedged in between the municipalities of Rumelange, Kayl and Dudelange, this former open-cast mining area was mined for almost a century until 1972 for minette, the mineral containing iron ore. The area, previously mostly woodland and agriculture, was transformed into a lunar landscape dominated by the extraction of raw materials. Traces of this industrial past can be found everywhere. Wherever you walk, the way is lined with imposing rock walls and former quarries, their red rocky faces still crumbling, slag heaps with blobs of slag sizzling in the sun, rusted wagons and the remains of rails. It is well worth the effort to search for the old slag carriage – the view is spectacular. Abandoned by mankind, the area has been reclaimed by nature, with the bare red sandstone now clothed in a green fairy-tale woodland. A new habitat for numerous rare plants and animals. Today, the landscape derives its special charm from the interplay of former open-cast mining areas, original cultivated spaces for agricultural purposes and almost natural woodland. With a little luck, you may encounter the nomadic shepherd, tending his flock of around 350 Ardennes sheep and goats as they graze in the nature conservation area from May to September. The soft bleating of these delightfully beautiful and gentle creatures can be heard from some distance away. Perfectly controlled by three sheepdogs, their nibbling ‘manicures’ the countryside.

The Haard – Hesselsbierg – Staebierg nature conservation area can be explored along numerous trails and paths. Official entry points, complete with information boards, can be found at all points of the compass. Walkers, cyclists and horse riders are all well catered for with excellent trails suited to their needs. There are just under 26 km of trails specially for mountain bikers and horse riders. Hikers can choose between 14 different routes. There is something here for everyone – from a short trail for children, through two nature discovery paths to a long-distance hiking trail. To ensure that visitors don’t get in each other’s way and to allow the natural world to live undisturbed in the protected areas, everyone is expected to keep to the designated trails.

On Shanks’s pony through the cradle of the mining industry
Strange black mounds of stone lie around as if cast on the ground from a mould. These are blobs of slag, transported here by rail in tilting vessels nicknamed ‘tankards’ installed on railway carriages and into which the still liquid slag was poured. Today, this lunar landscape is a sanctuary for animals and plants needing light and warmth. The sharp-eyed may be lucky enough to spot lizards, smooth snakes or the elusive wheatear. Pioneer vegetation alternating with biodiverse lime-beech woods, natural woods and dry grassland are habitats for over 25 species of orchids, more than 120 species of birds and around 25 different mammal species, many of them included on the Red List. For specific information on the fauna and flora, you are advised to follow the two well-signposted nature and cultural educational trails, complete with numerous information boards detailing the many inhabitants and plants of the nature reserve and of its cultural history. The educational trail consists of two circular walks – the red one 8.6 km and the blue one 5.8 km in length.

Pure adrenaline
The two RedRock mountain bike trails ‘Haard – red’ and ‘Haard – black’ lead right through the heart of the nature conservation area. The ‘Haard – red’ trail, some 24.5 km long, is technically not too demanding but even so very full of variety. It is ideally suited to beginners aiming to gain experience on single trails. The black track ‘Haard – black’, 27.6 km long, is considerably more demanding. Rugged tracks strewn with roots and rocks, steep descents and climbs and a variety of obstacles make severe demands on physical fitness and cycling prowess. Narrow trails, precipitous cliff edges, deep holes and lofty plateaus with fantastic views of distant locations all combine to guarantee the right adrenaline kick on both trails. The nature conservation area can also be explored on horseback along many long sections of the mountain bike trails. The same applies to everyone – bikers and riders alike – that cycling and riding off the designated trails is not permitted.