SPECIAL REPORT: Bringing nature back to Holland

Posted: 8 June 2012

The Netherlands’ ambitious plan to conserve and encourage wildlife back to this low-lying country by linking its nature reserves through a network of migratory corridors has been put on hold. But the ecologists are fighting back, as Andrew Balcombe reports.

The number of confrontations in crowded Holland between man and wild animal goes on and on. Only recently deer have wandered onto a main road and into a suburban garden in the Hague area.

So it’s no surprise that like those in our society who want to expand roads, housing and farmland, there are others who want to give space to animals that need new territory.

One such person is Frans Vera. He is a leading Dutch ecologist and the co creator of the nature reserve Oostvaardersplassen – a reserve described as one of Europe’s most unique animal and habitat refuges.

In 1968, Vera and his associate Fred Baerselman created the reserve to be just one oasis in a series to be connected by natural land corridors. “Our aim was that the corridor was to make a way through the sea of agriculture, said Vera. These species can’t cope with farms, so we take them out.”

Nature network

The scheme in its entirety is known as the Ecological Main Structure, which aims to join 20 large nature reserves in the country. Where there were roads and other man-made obstacles, come ecoducts (tunnels), viaducts and former farmland returned to its natural state.

Stag on the grassland
Stag on the grassland. Photo © Andrew Balcombe

The government’s aim was to create 728,000 hectares of linked nature reserves by 2018. Much of this area falls under the protection of the EUs National Ecological Network (NEN) Natura 2000. This network is an obligation made to the EU by the Dutch, to protect its own nature.

Areas of interest were not only the forested central parts of the Netherlands such as the Veluwe, but also river corridors such as the Waal between Nijmegen and Gorinchem, the North Sea dune regions, Wadden sea and the hill line known as the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, to name a few.

Everything was set, there was money to fund the projects and support from the government and EU. It was ambitious, yes, but the momentum was there.

Yet, this momentum was stalled when the Rutte government’s coalition arrived. The economic crisis also struck home. The dream of creating a nature corridor was put on hold.

The corridor’s creators however, have far from given up. And one of the mainstays of the project is the extraordinary Oostvaardersplassen.

Nature’s jewel

Developed from reclaimed land from the Markermeer just south of Lelystad in 1968, Oostvaardersplassen covers an area of 6,000 hectares.

Apart from the initial reclamation work to form and shape the reserve, the place has pretty much been left to its own devices as have its animals. From the 1980s red deer, Heck cattle and konik horses were released as wild living animals onto its plains and swamps, they are wild ancestors of aurochs and tarpan.

Some ecologists have likened the area and its vast herds to how parts of Europe may have looked during the Stone Age, before man began shaping the land with livestock, farming and agriculture.

A volunteer ranger called Kees runs tours around the Oostvaardsplassen, he tells that the thousands of horses, deer and cattle are left totally to their own devices and nature runs its own course.

“The animals usually only breed when they have enough food”, said Kees, “or if the winter is not too hard. This ground only supports a certain number of animals and nature finds that balance without interference from us.”

Wild horses
Wild horses. Photo © Andrew Balcombe

However, the rangers do intervene when they see an animal suffering or when it becomes clear it will die soon anyway. Then it will be quickly euthanized and the carcass of the red deer and some of the cattle and horses are left for the foxes and other scavengers, such as the rare sea eagle.

Other birds have also found their way to the refuge, thousands of migratory birds such as the spoonbills, graylag geese and hundreds of wading species.

The only animals missing from the equation are the large predators such as wolf, bear and lynx. But perhaps that too will change in the future.

Wilderness and agriculture

Frans Vera says modern Europeans have lost touch of what true nature is.
“Many of us think nature is what we see in agricultural land, but that’s not true nature. Is it so strange to have these vast herds of wild grazing animals in Europe, like we still see in parts of Africa?”

The current state of nature in the Netherlands is a few islands in a sea of agriculture, says Frans Vera.

“If these islands are not connected, plants and animals in reserves will become extinct. One single event can destroy a population and won’t be replaced through natural migration.”

Much of the blame is aimed at the agricultural sector and its supporters.

“It’s no secret the Netherlands has the most nitrogen in the ground, from farmers fertilizer in Europe.

“Many people don’t or are not willing to understand that only a limited number of animal, plant and insect species can live on agricultural land. Those who can’t adapt are made extinct. That’s not good for biodiversity.”

The ecologist also says that the changing weather patterns are endangering the species that are left. “Because of climate change, animals need to stay with the moving climate belts in order to adapt to this change and to find a suitable habitat. If they can’t move, then they’re on a kind of death row.”

For the time being, Vera and his fellow ecologists accept things have ground to a halt. But, he says, the first and most radical decision by the government is to stop funding the acquisition of new land for farmers whose old land was taken over by the nature corridors.

“We will only have one true nature corridor now and that is between the Oostvaardsplassen and the Horsterwold”,” said Vera.

Yet nature itself isn’t taking notice of the economic crisis or feuds between farmers, conservationists and politicians. New visitors are coming to Oostvaardersplassen, and some not seen for hundreds of years, like the breeding great white egrets and sea eagles now seen in the wetland areas.

Old friends

Hand in hand with the strategy to expand natural habitat, is the reintroduction and natural migration of European species that disappeared hundreds of years ago. The wolf has already made at least one venture back into its old stomping grounds in the Netherlands. The Lynx is another.

Egret with fish
Egret with fish. Photo © Andrew Balcombe

Frans Vera asks: “Is it so strange to think of moose living in the Netherlands, or perhaps European bison or even wolf? Well once, a very long time ago, all of these species called this flat swampy land their home, and they thrived, until man pushed them out”.

In some ways, the Netherlands is in a privileged geographical position.
“I feel sorry for the British” says Vera, “being on an island, every species that was made extinct must be brought in and that causes a lot of problems.”

“In our country, they just arrive through migration and thanks to the EU, we must accept them. As soon as a wolf crosses our border, they are a protected species.” The much-maligned beaver for example, is doing well and spreading into several regions of the country.

As for wolves, since the fall of the Berlin wall, they are no longer shot by border guards and have arrived naturally from Poland into Germany.

Old fears die hard but Vera believes that the wolves will come whether a corridor is here for them or not. “The river corridors are probably the easiest ways for wolf to come here,” he says.

Breeding pairs are already in Germany, and wolves stayed just 150 kilometers away from our border. “Wolves may have already ventured into the Netherlands and they will come over more often.”

Already the municipality of the city of Nijmegen is talking about the arrival of the wolf, says Vera. “They’re asking each other what preparations need to be made for its arrival. They’re making people aware of what it means. Wolves are not dangerous for people, but they can be for livestock.”

“My advice to farmers is to keep young livestock in protected environments.
The Germans are very tolerant towards the wolf, he says. “If a livestock animal is lost, they pay the farmer for another one, it’s pretty simple.

“The Italians give a great example where people just leave the wolf alone and they get on fine. I think the wolf can also live with the Dutch.”

But will the joined up nature network ever happen? The prospects are not all bad. It is likely that the 6,000 hectares of Oostvaardersplassen will be enlarged by Staatsbosbeheer (The National Agency for Forestry and Nature Management) to include a 900-hectare forest adjacent to the Oostvaardersplassen.

A 1,850 hectare natural land corridor will also be created to connect the reserve to a planted forest of 6,000 hectares. This brings the total area of connected reserves to 14,000 hectares in the Oostvaardersplassen region alone.

Sharing the ground with the deer, horses and cattle, will also be wild boar and European bison.

Vera also thinks that when a new government is elected, funding for the rest of the nature network will start up again. But for it to succeed, “a clear separation of agricultural land from nature must be attained”, he says.

Andrew Balcombe is an Australian journalist based in the Netherlands.