Private Land Conservation Ambassador

Alan Phillips

This article was written in cooperation with Margot Leemans and Alec van Havre. 

In the diversified Campine countryside, in the north of Belgium, landowner Alan Phillips manages a picturesque estate where woodlands, crescent dunes, purple heather, grasslands and marshes landscape the sandy soils.
Alan explains about forest management. Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele.
After his industrial career, Alan inherited part of his ancestor’s estate, “Scherpenbergen – De Hutten”, 30 years ago and doubled its size by acquisition.  He grew up there as a child and still has beautiful memories of his youth at the estate, where he was intrigued by nature and the landscapes.
As he grew older, he took forestry and nature conservancy classes and passed his hunting exams. His childhood memories and continued interest formed his fondness for the location, which is of utter importance for the continuation to safeguard such rural businesses for the next generations to come. Indeed, the estate has been in the family for several generations.

How to unlock the natural potential of the area

What makes Scherpenbergen – De Hutten so interesting is that it has many types of nature close to each other, making it especially attractive for Alan to develop them. And so, after acquiring the necessary knowledge, he started experimenting with nature to restore all parts, bit by bit, to their former glory. Once an experiment was successful on a small scale, he copied it to a larger area.

Fern growing in a wet forest (top left), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) occurs in wet grasslands and fens (top right) and a field on Alan’s land (bottom). Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele

Forestry management

When Alan took over the management, he started to take care of the overdue management of the forests. The pine trees were cleared out to allow more light to pierce through to the bottom, providing light for low shrubs and plants to grow. The heather that disappeared started forming a new purple carpet under the trees. There was also a natural regeneration of the oak-birch forest.

Step by step, Alan transformed the uniform pine tree forests into a heterogenous complex of pines and indigenous hardwoods. With is work, he transformed the former poplar forests lower in the valley into alder and willow forests.

Pine trees on land dunes. (left) Creating open spaces in the pine forest. (right) Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele.

Heather landscape

In the 18th century, the area was a vast heather landscape with ponds and marshes. The heathland got cleared and transformed into meadows where the soil was wet or pine tree forests where the ground was dry. In the 19th century, the soils were fertilised, irrigated, and of course, after the 2nd world war, agriculture became more and more intensive. To develop management packets, Alan contacted the neighbouring managers of the Nature NGO, who had already created lovely heather fields. They shared their knowledge, and the NGO gave Alan seedlings from mowing their heather. Alan also studied old archives from his ancestors to obtain crucial information about historical land management. In several areas heath, sundew, white beak-sedge, common broom and gentiana reappeared.
Cross-leaved heather. (left)  Sundew (Drosera) is a carnivorous plant that just caught a dragonfly. (right) Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele

Alan checking a heather plant. Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele.

“My strategy is to start testing in a small area to see if the management succeeds.”

Bogs restoration

One of the most exciting restorations was the restoration of a former bog. The result was very satisfying and created a lively spot on the estate, where a lot of rare species now harbour: bog-rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos), common cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium)…
The scarlet dragonfly (Crocothemis erythraea) likes to sit in the sun along puddles. (top left) Alan explains the hydrological system and plants in the bog. (top right) Marsh St John’s worth (Hypericum elodes), with flowers smelling like resin, growing in acidic conditions, typically around bog pools. (bellow) Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele

Semi-natural grasslands

Later, I transformed the meadows into heather and semi-natural grasslands. Scottish highlanders first maintained the grasses, but after the mowing, their growth proved more efficient. Some of the grass was not suitable enough for agricultural purposes. So, I try to compost these grasses now. I agreed with the Nature NGO that they could use my land for composting the grass they cannot use. They provide the machinery to air the compost piles to produce good quality compost. It is still difficult to market this compost that I now use to improve my wildlife plots. The hunters then provide me with seeds for wildlife.

The Queen of Spain fritillary (Issoria lathonia) is a butterfly typical for dune areas and dry grasslands. The caterpillar survives only on violin species. (left) Heath spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza maculate) is a rare species that occurs in marshes, heather or semi-natural grassland with low acidity. (right) Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele 

Good quality compost from grassland waste. Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele

Future vision

When I first came here as the new manager, there was much mistrust against me. The nature NGO wanted to buy and take over my land; we competed to purchase land to complete our visions.

But as we got to know each other better, we made a gentlemen’s agreement on a kind of perimeter where we would not compete against each other. We now help each other with the management, machinery, volunteering etc.

The local people of the village also came to understand that I manage for the good of nature conservancy. A few times a year, I organise guided tours on the estate to explain the management, and some of the grounds are open to hikers. I provided a good network for soft recreation with the local forestry group and the municipality.

The management of nature is expensive. I paid all costs on my account until the government provided subsidies a few years ago. Without these subsidies or economic revenue, most private landowners can't engage in nature conservation on a high level.

With the help of the local nature NGO, local volunteers can help me with some of the conservation work, for example, to eradicate shrubs to keep the heather open. If sustainable non-intrusive hunting were allowed, I would even have officially made my land a nature reserve (type 4 management plan).

Common heather (Calluna vulgaris) with shooting birch trees in the front right are pulled out by volunteers. Photo credit: Valérie Vandenabeele

The Contact Point for Private Management – Nature and Forest (APB-NB) was established in 2014 as an umbrella
organization of the Flemish Forest Groups and the Flemish Landowners Organisation. The purpose of the APB-NB
is to take the role of focal point for private managers willing to contribute to European nature objectives. The APBNB
provides two-way information between the government and individual private site managers. The APB-NB
provides a customized service for the individual private site manager. The APB-NB is also responsible for policy
development, advice, communication, research, guidance and information.


The news items collected on this blog have been written by project partners of the LIFE ENPLC project.