Leisure, nature and agriculture … The Nordic slag heaps are changing

At the foot of slag heap 144 in the small town of Rieulay, a small sandy beach. Opposite a large pond, with an ornithological reserve on one side and a leisure area – sailing, paddling and canoeing – on the other. Higher up, the 140-hectare black slag heap has turned green. The wall lizard, the blue-winged grasshopper and the beach toad have taken their peace here. Circuits have been laid out for hikers with an impressive panorama of the mine basin that straddles the North and Pas-de-Calais.

The northern slag heaps in full conversion

“It’s not Mont Blanc, but when we’re on our mountains, made by hand, it makes sense,” said Gilles Briand, director of studies at Mining Basin Mission, an association set up by public authorities to support the transformation. In a territory “urbanized and highly populated”, these places are “precious”, he says. But the balance remains complex between “conservation of nature, recapture and development of leisure …”.

Goats to preserve the ecosystem of the northern heaps

Lower down on the slag heap, goats graze, those from the farmer Julien Graf, a former organic engineer, who founded an organic goat and cheese dairy there in 2014. At first glance, it is not an agricultural landscape, but the environment fits well. them because they are animals made for relief and dry areas, ”with“ vegetation that crisp as they please, ”he says.

Goats, “brushcutters”, also help to preserve the ecosystem. “The slag heaps are conservatories for biodiversity that protect a primary fauna and flora, which tend to disappear if the forest settles,” explains the goatherd.

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What is a slag heap?

The approximately 300 slag heaps in the mine basin, most of which are public property, are stone heaps from mining. “The mined coal was marketed while the rocks fed the slag heaps,” sums up nature guide Hélène Decarnin, from the top of the twin slag heaps in Loos-en-Gohelle, the highest in Europe: more than 180 meters. Here the terrain made of black slate still seems moon, though nature slowly emerges, with yellow poppy and acid with cam leaves.

“We have a re-acquisition of the places by families, tourists, athletes … With the first confinement (due to Covid-19) and (traffic restriction limited to one) radius of one kilometer, people have rediscovered these minefields”, rejoices Mrs. Decarnin.

Ski slope, path and vineyards

On some slag heaps have “a logic of sanctuary, on others an artificialization logic”, as the ski slope laid in 129 meters above sea level at Noeux-les-Mines, notes Gilles Briand.

At slag heap 94 in Noyelles-sous-Lens, which has become the “Arena slag heap”, equipment dedicated to trail running training (stairs, arena, fitness and balance equipment) has been installed.

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30 kilometers away, in Haillicourt, vines grow on the slag heap, making it possible in 2021 to produce 800 bottles of “Charbonnay”, a dry white wine, sold for more than fifty euros. The benefits of the land: “The slope that drains the water; the almost constant wind that sweeps the vines to avoid disease; and the heat because the slag pile still burns and gives off heat”, explains Johann Cordenier, vineyard worker responsible for managing these grounds all year round.

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“But at first, people thought we were a little crazy,” he admits. With the slag heaps “we talked about consequences, now we talk about inheritance”, emphasizes Gilles Briand. Some “were in a logic with pure blackboard of this legacy”, but “it is physically impossible”, he continues. And “above all, what banality! We would become a fairly common heritage …”.

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