New natural world, or hell on earth?

Written by Femke van Iperen

No consensus on ‘Oostvaardersplassen´

When the area of the Oostvaardersplassen was created in 1968, and its first large grazers were introduced to it in 1983, no one could have known how controversial the rewilding experiment would become. Today, there is not one person in The Netherlands who has not seen the dramatic images of the emaciated, on-the-verge-ofdeath animals, or followed the debate on the management of the large grazers in the area. Should we be feeding, shooting, or leaving the animals to their own ´natural´ devices? Images have even reached international news. ‘Animal carcasses and dead trees litter the landscape of Oostvaardersplassen,’ and ‘protesters are feeding the animals alongside high speed trains,’ it was written in The Guardian in April. ‘The experiment has failed,’ said Biologist Patrick van Veen, who had gathered 123.000 signatures to say so, attributing this to the lack of natural herd-controlling mechanisms and possibilities for animals to migrate.

With the increase in herd sizes, so has the pressure on the available food supply. Combine this with a particular harsh winter and the situation has become a far cry from when the experiment was started. At the beginning of the year, Omroep Flevoland reported that almost 700 large grazers had been shot in the Oostvaardersplassen since the 1st of December last. In March, at the request of the Province of Flevoland for intervention, the local forest management scattered the area with hay. In April, a long-awaited independent report was brought out by an external supervisory committee. In the report it was advised, among other things, for a large number of grazers to be shot. Whilst the number of cattle should remain the same, horses should be reduced by approximately 180 by rehoming them elsewhere, and at least 980 red deer should be killed. This ‘reset’ would allow regrowth of grassland, and a more versatile vegetation. During the consultation of the report the opportunity of introducing certain predators had also been discussed. ´The worst scenario that the committee could have come up with,’ was the response of Dutch MP Femke Merel Arissen of the Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD)). ´Far too evasive´, agreed the Animal Protection.

There are others however, that paint quite a different picture. Perhaps we have forgotten what living in nature entails, they say. Han Olff, professor at the University of Groningen, said in The Guardian that in the Oostvaardersplassen ‘horses can choose their own mates and form social groups,’ and that ‘dead carcasses and trees and thinner-than-livestock animals are part of the cycle of life.’ He also endorsed the option of a ‘natural bridge’ between the Oostvaardersplassen and the Veluwe. ´We are no longer used to seeing animals survive,’ said Joke Bijl from the area’s forest management in another newspaper, at a time the grazers were living of the fat they stored in the summer. Here animals are only shot when it appears they will not make the winter, she explained. According to local forester Jan Griekspoor, feeding the animals had done more harm than good. He argued that animals with a full stomach stop making an effort to look for food, whilst their bodies are not yet set to convert food into fat. ‘We sometimes find them dead. With a full stomach,’ he said in another news report.

5600 hectares of nature reserve, sandwiched between built-up areas of Almere and Lelystad, with marshland and seventeen lookouts, large grazing animals able to roam freely. The beautiful New Wilderness film from 2013 was unambiguous; in this beautiful part of The Netherlands there is hope for a new natural world that would be unique in Europe. Unfortunately, for now, the future of the animals in this experiment is uncertain, and opinions around human intervention remain deeply divided.