Finding the nature in Holland

In 1968, two ecologists planted the seed of an ambitious plan to join 20 large nature reserves in the Netherlands into one continuous corridor. Economic turmoil has now halted these plans however, but the wildlife doesn't seem to be noticing and are coming back to areas where man had once wiped them out.

By Andrew Balcombe


It is seen often if one pays attention to the news. A wild animal found off the beaten track in the midst of suburbia. Sometimes it ends well, sometimes not so.


A couple of incidents have occurred in Holland of late, just in The Hague area alone. A young deer found wandering on the busy A12 Utrechtsebaan highway near Prins Clausplein. A fallow deer shot by a ranger in someone’s front yard in Leiderdorp.


Both animals had most likely been driven from their range by competing deer. When they tried to find new territory, only roads, cars and houses lay in their path.


The number of confrontations between man and wild animal goes on and on. So it is no surprise that like those in our society who want to expand roads, housing and farmland, there are also those 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, described as one of Europe’s most unique animal and habitat refuges.


Stag at dawn in Oostvardersplassen


In 1968, Vera and his associate Fred Baerselman created the reserve as just one oasis in a series to be connected by natural land corridors.


“Our aim was that the corridor would make a way through the sea of agriculture. These species can’t cope with farms, so we take them out,” says Vera.


In its entirety, the scheme is known as the Ecological Main Structure, a joining of 20 large nature reserves in the country.


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 European Union's National Ecological Network (NEN) Natura 2000. The NEN is an agreement made to the EU by the Dutch to protect its own nature.


Areas of interest are 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 slowed down once Prime Minister Mark Rutte's governing coalition took power. Then, the economic crisis struck, and the dream of creating a nature corridor was put on hold.


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


Nature's crowned 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 animals onto its plains and swamps. Heck cattle and konik horses are functional equivalents of their exterminated wild ancestors aurochs and tarpan.


Stag in the fog in Oostvaardersplassen


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 of the thousands of horses, deer and cattle left totally to their own devices, allowing nature runs its own course.


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


Heck Cattle and calves in Oostvardersplassen


Animals do die, for instance, the males after they have not eaten enough in the autumn during the rutting time. Then, the cold and hunger might kill them, just as nature does everywhere.


However, the rangers 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 a red deer or some of the cattle and horses, is left for the foxes and other scavengers, such as the rare sea eagle.


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


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


“Many of us think nature is what we see in agricultural land, but that’s not true nature,” says Vera.


“Is it so strange to have these vast herds of wild grazing animals in Europe, like we still see in parts of Africa?”


Stag and hinds


Farming vs. Nature


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


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


Much of the blame is aimed at the agricultural sector and its supporters, according to him. “It’s no secret the Netherlands is the most polluted country in Europe and also the country with the most nitrogen in the ground, from farmers fertilizer.


“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 and to find a suitable habitat. If they can’t move, then they’re on a kind of death row.”


Urbanisation also plays a part. “When we see an ecoduct or a viaduct, its because a road has cut through the reserve and the animals need to travel within their own territory without being hit by cars.”


For the time being, Vera and his fellow ecologists accept things have ground to a halt. That came with the first and most severe 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,” says Vera.


Yet nature itself is not taking notice of the economic crisis or feuds between farmers, conservationists and politicians. New visitors are coming, and some have not been seen for hundreds of years, like the breeding great white egrets and sea eagles now visible in the Oostvaardersplassen.


Old friends return


Hand in hand with the strategy to expand natural habitat is the re-introduction 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, another is the Lynx.


“Is it so strange to think of moose living in the Netherlands, or perhaps European bison or even wolf?” asks Versa. “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 position. Thanks to its geographical location and EU mandate, animals that arrive through migration to the country must remain.


“I feel sorry for the British being on an island, because every species that was made extinct must be brought in and that causes a lot of problems,” says Vera.


Already, an animal causing much debate in the UK has started spreading naturally in this country. The much-maligned beaver has escaped its natural holding areas and can now be found in the city limits of Almere and in several other regions of the country.


The beaver's habit of shaping it's own environment, such as chewing down trees and damning up rivers, has not charmed everyone in the UK.


Because the beaver is a vegetarian, it is not as susceptible to pollution as the fish and crustacean eating otter, so it is doing well in Holland.


“People often don’t realize that these animals were kicked out by man, because they have never seen them,” says Vera. “They must be kicked back in by man, they won’t just appear naturally.”


Case in point is the reappearance of the wolf. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, wolves are no longer shot by border guards and have thus migrated naturally from Poland into Germany.


Released animals have also set-up house a few hours out of Rome near the Apennine mountains and as far west as Nice in France, Spain and Portugal.


But with vulnerable livestock and old taboos, will the introduction of a corridor system mean a resurgence of fears that we will be swamped with these killers?


Vera says that 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.”


Breeding pairs have already been seen in Germany, and wolves stayed just 150 kilometres away from the Dutch border. “Wolves may have already ventured into the Netherlands and they will come over more often,” Vera predicts.


Indeed, drivers near a roundabout outside Arnhem recently spotted an animal they described with 90 percent certainty as a wolf. Thought to be a juvenile, it was probably looking for new territory.


The municipality of Nijmegen is now addressing the possible arrival of the wolf. “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.”


Vera offers advice to at-risk farmers, warning they keep young lifestock in protected environments. He also suggests keeping a close eye on free roaming domestic dogs who, because of a lack of wild prey, may fall victim to a wolf's hunger.


A good example of how to handle the reappearance of the wolf comes from Germany, says Vera. They are very tolerant of the animal and, “if a livestock animal is lost, they pay the farmer for another one.”


The Italians, too, set a positive approach. They “just leave the wolf alone and they get on fine. I think the wolf can also live with the Dutch,” Vera says.


Fox in the undergrowth


Nature's future


Despite the set-backs, the future of the Ecological Main Structure is not all bleak. It is likely that the 6,000 hectares of Oostvaardersplassen will be enlarged by The National Agency for Forestry and Nature Mangement (Staatsbosbeheer) to include a 900 hectare forest adjacent to the Oostvaardersplassen. An 1,850 hectare natural land corridor will also be created to connect the reserve to a planted forest of 6,000 hectares.


The additions would bring the total area of connected reserves to 14,000 hectares in the Oostvaardersplassen region alone, and sharing the ground with the deer, horses and cattle will also be wild boar and European bison.


When a new Dutch government is elected, Vera hopes funding for the rest of the nature network will return. But for it to succeed, a clear separation of agricultural land from nature must be attained.


“We have to make sure the national government supports the large reserves and the provinces and local municipalities do their job to connect the network through the road systems,” says Vera.


“People need to realize that farmland is not true nature. It is a human sculpted form of nature for the benefit of production of milk and crops.”


Text and photos
Andrew Balcombe


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