The Vennbahn is an old railway line which used to connect Aachen in Germany to Troisvierges in Luxembourg via Belgium. It has a 790 m long tunnel which is still to this day the longest railway tunnel in Luxemburg. Like many local railway lines, the Vennbahn has not been in use since the early 1960s. But this lack of activity has turned out to be a blessing for nature, as the abandoned tunnel has since become an important winter roosting site for bats. At least 12 of the 19 bat species present in Luxembourg are now found there, which is why it has been designated a Natura 2000 site.
The Our Nature Park, which is an inter-municipal syndicate with 8 municipalities working together for the development of their rural region, had the idea recently to convert the unused railway into a cycling path linking three different countries to promote local tourism. The initial plan was for the path to go through the tunnel but it soon became clear that this would have a devastating effect on the bats. This put the entire project at stake and many of the stakeholders who were interested in promoting local tourism began to see Natura 2000 as an obstacle, preventing the social and economic development of the region.
The Our Nature Park and its partners were determined to find a solution that was acceptable to all. They started by organising conciliation meetings with the stakeholders with different interests - biking, tourism, nature conservation, bat specialists, roads authorities amongst others. The meetngs continued for 2 years.
After examining all elements and possibilities, a collective decision was taken to build the bike path around the tunnel and to restrict access on both sides of the tunnel via a series of gates placed 75 meters from the entrances on order to prevent disturbance of the bat colonies. An adventure trail was also developed to inform the visitors about the presence of bats in the tunnel and their status as endangered species, and about the railway and its past uses. The adventure trail is identical on both sides of the tunnel and contains a wooden bicycle rack, wooden benches, information panels, a hearing station and finally a multimedia station with a touchscreen in front of the gates. It has videos, images and additional information about the bats and the railway.
Before this Interreg funded project, not many people were aware of the fact that the tunnel was part of a Natura 2000 site, but thanks to the information displayed and the explanations provided during activities, people became informed about the importance of the site and Natura 2000 on the whole. Although some inhabitants still question the need to close the tunnel, the general attitude of the stakeholders is much more positive and benefits are acknowledged and appreciated.