In 2010 Wapke Feenstra explored the Limburg landscape by following the movements of land-based products.


It rained for a while at eight o’clock this morning. But the weather in the past few months has been far too dry. When that happens new shoots form on the potatoes and suck the strength from the tuber. The potatoes become glassy. There’s nothing you can do about that. The tractor, with crop-sprayer, drives gently back and forth along the furrows. Last week the plants were sprayed with pesticide to kill Colorado larvae. With an approving look Chris Coenegrachts checks out a plant now and then. Sometimes he gets down from the tractor to unclog the sprinklers on either side of the machine. Today the tanks contain foliar fertiliser mixed with fungicide to combat blight.


All misshapen and damaged apples and those that have ripened prematurely or are too small are at risk. Koen Martens is about to thin them out, because the best ones need to get every chance to mature into top-quality apples. The Belgica is scrutinised, measured and occasionally one is cut in half as a test. The rejected apples lie scattered on the ground to serve as compost in the future. The misshapen apples are the result of the frost in April. They have only one pip. The ripe ones are spoiled; premature ripening is a sign of trauma. Then there is the predacious mite, which sounds dangerous but is actually very welcome. It is a tiny yellow insect that settles on leaves and feeds on spider mites. A few branches that are blocking the sunlight are pruned away and placed on young trees so that the predacious mite can cross over and eat the spider mites on the new shoots.


It is 7 a.m. when Johan Schouteden collects his gelding from the field. He saddles it, then herds the sheep across the military exercise terrain to an enclosed area of heath. The sheep walk quietly without bleating. The lambs are already mature and the young rams were separated from the rest of the flock last month. Here and there the ewes stop to graze, seemingly intent on stripping bare any young trees in their path. But the border collie moves them on. “I fetch them again in the evening. They walk faster then,” says Johan. These daily trips are excellent training for the Great European Shepherds’ Tour. Johan has signed up for the Flemish stretch, starting 1 September. (See


Geologist Michiel Dusar talks most about the gas drillings carried out here by the Belgian Geological Survey in the 1980s. Johan remembers them well, the last was performed on their land in the early 1990s. Michiel was present at the time and explains why it was impossible to extract gas. I don’t know much about mine gas, I obviously don’t come from these parts. I’m better at reading Sonnisheide via Google Earth: when you look closely at wet and dry pieces of land you can make out the contours of old silted fens. You also find out more about wind directions and sand ridges.


Chris Coenegrachts waits at the potato field. This farmer – unlike others we visited – never gets stones in his plough. He tells us that when he ploughs deep at the top of the hill he finds a yellowish layer of soil. Michiel Dusar explains that beneath the loam is a layer of yellow loess; the combined loess-loam layer is between 8 and 20 metres thick. And beneath that layer is marlstone dating back 65 million years. The marlstone slopes upwards, eventually rising at Kanne just outside Maastricht. Michiel draws a sketch of the soil for me and Chris chivvies me to find sword fragments or the bones of slaughtered cavalry horses, because these very fields were the setting for the Battle of Lafelt, a bloody confrontation in 1747.


Luc Vanoppen is on the look-out for typical spoil heap flora. He points to Stinking Hawk's Bead and Ploughman’s Spikenard, saying that some species have managed to survive here by developing special characteristics. He discovers a fine specimen of Proliferous Pink and searches earnestly for Wild Pink at the spot where it grew last year. Could it have moved? At the foot of the heap a remarkable amount of White and Yellow Sweet Clover has been devoured by sheep. “The sheep are already doing their job,” says Luc. Differences in grazing will aid the biodiversity here. Every year Luc keeps his eyes peeled for new plants. And as for the wooded slopes… who knows what will turn up there?


The flock sleeps in the pen on the spoil heap. René Vertommen drives up at 8 a.m. and the first thing he does is open the gate. Right away, 156 sheep start grazing. Two energetic border collies come along every day to round them up and herd them on command. You can’t herd sheep without dogs, says shepherd René. It is such a shame that one of his best dogs was injured when it trod on glass last week. “There, a bit farther, near the cycle path”. We head off via the woodland path to where the flock will eat the Wild Black Cherry. They attack it with gusto but there is rather a lot to get through. René mentions another danger besides broken glass: roaming dogs. He tells us crossly that last year a sheep was bitten to death. So every dog-owner is risk-assessed on the basis of leash and breed. He even keeps an eye on joggers from KRC Genk. “They aren’t from the first team,” he says. He knows them all.