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Belgium's 'fairytale' bluebell forest a victim of own beauty

Hallerbos forest facing deluge of tourists as bluebells bloom

HALLE, BELGIUMA: carpet of bluebells bursts into flower in Belgium in a wonder of the natural world - but one that is at risk of being trampled by tourists drawn to its beauty.

For two or three weeks in April, the ground of the Hallerbos wood just outside the drab capital of Brussels is transformed into a breathtaking sea of shimmering purple, straight out of a fairy tale.

Tens of thousands of visitors from India, Finland and Japan flock each year to what has long been one of Belgium's best kept secrets. At the start of spring, the tall beech trees are still bare enough to let enough sunlight reach the forest floor and allow the flowers to bloom.

Huge swathes of the 555 ha woodland are covered in millions of the delicate purple flowers for as far as the eye can see.

Bluebells have been growing in Hallerbos for centuries, experts say.

The forest was largely cut down by the invading German army during World War II but replanted afterwards with beech trees and a few Californian sequoias, and the fresh cover has allowed them to really flourish.

But its growing popularity in recent years comes at a cost.

On weekends, the sheer numbers coming to visit the forest have forced Belgian authorities to set up special parking lots and shuttle buses, with visitors finding themselves among school parties, groups of tourists and photographers lugging their equipment.

More importantly, they set up signs asking visitors to keep off the carpet of flowers and stick to the pathways, with especially vulnerable areas being taped off.

"When there's too much trampling the bluebells disappear and it takes dozens if not hundreds of years for them to grow again," says Mr Bruno Verhelpen, a guide who organises nature walks at Hallerbos.

"The interest in this forest is only going to grow. There are photographers, naturalists, members of the public. So we have had to take measures to limit traffic." - AFP

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