We share an inherent connection with our natural resources and are responsible for safeguarding the future of our waters and their environment. Recognised by many as a pioneer of sustainable development in Europe, we have long championed ambitious climate actions. Healthy water comes from a healthy environment, and a healthy environment relies on a healthy biodiversity. Patrick Jobé, hydrogeologist and Group Environment, Water & Carbon Manager takes us on a historic nature walk in the second of our articles on biodiversity.
Spadel first took measures to safeguard our water catchment area in Spa in 1772. And by 1889 it had become the very first officially protected natural area in Europe. As scientific knowledge advanced, we learned more about the risk of human activities to nature, and so during the 1960’s we started lobbying to expand protection of our water catchment area. An agreement with the Belgian authorities allowed us to start implementing measures to further improve our water catchment area and its biodiversity from 1967 onwards.
Back then sustainability wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. But it was clear to us that a healthy balance between the forest, the marshes and their waters is essential if we don’t want to deplete our natural resources. Spa Monopole is a natural wetland surrounded by the forests of the Ardennes. Our first measures focussed on protecting these marshlands from all risks. There is no industry or agriculture in our water filtration area. From banning road salting in the area during winter (we spread sand for traction on icy roads) to using biodegradable machinery oil and waterproofing the parking areas, every measure takes into account possible effects on the purity of our waters.
From Coniferous to Deciduous
Next up were the trees: coniferous trees (which have needles) absorb a lot more water than deciduous trees (which have leaves), and so we shifted the balance towards leaf trees to protect underground water tables. Changing the balance in favour of leaf trees had the additional benefit of improving overall biodiversity. If you take a walk through the woods, you’ll quickly see their impact on biodiversity. Deciduous trees shed their leaves in autumn, creating a rich feeding ground for anything from mushrooms to beetles, enriching both soil and biodiversity along the way.
Another thing we didn’t know back in the 60’s, but that we have now learned, is that the peat that forms the top layer of soil in marshlands is an exceptionally effective reservoir of greenhouse gas emissions. Protecting and restoring these wetlands is therefore a double win for the environment: it reduces global warming and increases biodiversity all at the same time.
From the Brink of Extinction
Joining the EU’s LIFE programme in 2012 was another key moment for the preservation and restoration of our wetlands. We have always invested in partnerships and when the Walloon region announced they wanted to restore the marshes of the Ardennes, we immediately jumped on board. After all, we had already done this in Spa and were very keen to extend these works westward. The LIFE programme has allowed us to be part of some pretty amazing projects over the years. From working together under a public-private partnership to establish the Parc Naturel des Sources, to the Life-Ardenne Liégeoise Project, we have helped restore some 7,600 ha across eighteen different sites between 2012 and 2019.
Furthermore, partnering with the region of Wallonia, the University of Liège, the Natural Science Museum in Tervuren, WWF Belgium and Pairi Daiza meant we were able to reintroduce black grouse to the area. When we launched the project in 2017, they were on the brink of extinction. Natural enemies such as foxes and degradation of the environment had reduced the once healthy population to just three individual birds. Although it might seem strange to spend so much effort on a single species, the black grouse is emblematic to the region and an umbrella species in terms of biodiversity. You will only find them in areas where life is in perfect balance. Restoring biodiversity was the first step, reintroducing the birds the second, and we’re happy to report that they are thriving.
Another major partnership of ours is with BeeOdiversity: an organisation that helps companies and municipalities restore the quality of the soil, air and water through bees. An average beehive houses around 50,000 bees, and using them as guardians of the environment is a great way of monitoring biodiversity. Bees don’t follow roads and travel much deeper into the hills or forests than we would. When we first introduced bees in 2014 we were able to set a baseline for our catchment areas in Spa and Stoumont. Today they help us monitor the impact of the improvements we make.
Biodiversity tends to be a fairly abstract notion for most people and different experts will have different definitions. But everybody understands the importance of bees and most of us like honey, so it’s a great way of explaining the importance of biodiversity to the general public. The insect hotels and wildflowers around our factory sites and visitor centre are also great ways of bringing biodiversity to life for adults and children alike. People get to take a walk around the pathways and get up close and personal with nature.
The success of the BeeOdiversity programme has led us to roll it out across all of our sites: Spa and Bru (Belgium), Carola and Wattwiller (France), and Devin (Bulgaria) and has been instrumental in improving local biodiversity.
At Carola, bees showed us that biodiversity could be further improved simply by introducing wildflowers to the area. The valley between our borehole in the forest and the factory site to which the water is pumped is full of vineyards. The study’s results helped us convince local winegrowers to invest in organic farming over more traditional methods, and the wildflowers make for a lovely walk for tourists.
At Wattwiller, we decided to tackle problem of the highly invasive Japanese Knotweed that was found near the river. It’s almost impossible to get rid of, especially without the use of chemicals. But thanks to our annual One Citizen Day and an eco-pasturing partnership we are seeing the amount of Japanese Knotwood decrease year on year.
Although we don’t have an actual site in The Netherlands, they are a hugely important market to our brands Spa and Bru, and so here we’ve teamed up with IVN Nature Education. Together we are developing an educational programme on the habitat of bees, will be creating Tiny Forests in a number of iconic locations and educate young people on combating litter.
Devin is the newest brand to the Spadel portfolio and as such we needed to understand the business, local management and authorities before we could introduce our Group vision. BeeOdiversity proved to be ideal: Bulgaria and Romania are Europe’s largest producers and consumers of honey, so people were quick to understand the importance of what we are doing. Devin’s catchment area is located in the heart of the Rhodopian mountains; truly in the middle of nowhere. Even so, our studies have shown that there are some invasive plants in the area, probably brought back by people over the years.
Yes, the work we do benefits our final product, but the result of our actions is for the benefit of all mankind and our planet. We may be responsible for the care of almost 300,000ha of nature, but we are merely its guardians. We must leave our planet in a better state for future generations. Our CSR strategy for 2015-2020 was to implement beehives across all our sites to monitor their health and enter into key partnerships that would help us improve local biodiversity. The next five years will be spent deepening this process and further expanding local partnerships across all our sites and brands.
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