The PhD summer school is a six-day event during which students work in interdisciplinary teams on NPHK cases related to management problems. They are supported by keynote speakers, followed by methodological introduction sessions, and fieldwork and analysis sessions. Senior researchers provide feedback to ensure active participation and learning. The summer school ends with an additional one-day event where students present their projects to an international audience of relevant stakeholders.
Methods and strategies to monitor and manage human impact on urbanized protected areas - OVERALL CASE
During the last decades, outdoor recreation has become progressively more important, especially in Urbanized Protected Areas (UPA), while biodiversity continues to decline by among others human-induced stress (such as hiking, biking, etc.). Currently, the legal framework to protect ecosystems and ecosystem services is scattered around many laws. In this arena of conflicting demands, careful planning of the area, its infrastructure and activities, is needed to sustain the value of UPAs. In this process, stakeholder participation and visitor management are very important, in order to develop effective management strategies.
The case of the National Park Hoge Kempen
The NPHK is a protected area in a highly urbanized area, and is of great value to Limburg as a natural environment and as a tourism destination. The NPHK currently has a surface area of about 6000ha and is the only national park of Belgium. NPHK consists of large areas (41%) of planted pine forest (Pinus sylvestris and Pinus nigra) which are gradually being transformed to a more natural deciduous forest (9%), characterised by Quercus or Betula species. Moreover, it it is known for the presence of valuable heathland (11%), both dry (Calluna sp.) and wet (Erica sp. and Myrica sp.) as well as patches of shrub vegetation (7%; Molinia sp.). These heathlands once covered vast areas in Belgium, generating ideal conditions for specialized species (like the nightjar, smooth snake, common lizard, crickets, tiger beetles, …). In the last 150 years, however, these habitats have decreased by 95% due to anthropogenic activities.
There are also large numbers of wild boar (Sus scrofa) present in the NPHK. Their presence needs appropriate management from two ways, the wildlife and the human side.
On the one hand, the impact of wildlife on the natural ecosystems needs to be addressed by the managers; are the functions of different ecosystems maintained after wild boar has rummaged the area? Is the goal of protecting that particular ecosystem still maintained? Moreover, what is the impact of the presence of wild boar on humans (how do they perceive this).
On the other hand, the presence of human beings in the UPA also has an impact on the behaviour and spatial use of the wildlife. Many walking trails run through the different habitats of the protected area. What is their impact on wildlife? Per year, the NPHK attracts more than 600.000 visitors, so it is an important recreational destination in the region, with enormous economic consequences. Currently, there is a lack of insight in travel flows of visitors within the NPHK; appropriate monitoring is needed. Results could indicate popular visitor routes and possible threats of a high (or too high) impact on the environment. Appropriate actions to manage visitor flows need to be identified.