Oostvaardersplassen: tensions rise as judge gives green light for more than 1,800 red deer to be shot

Edition 1 February, by Femke van Iperen

The continued tensions around the welfare of the large grazing animals inhabiting the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve reached a new high, when on 6 December 2018 a judge gave the green light for 1.830 of its red deer to be shot, it was reported by Dutch media.

A permit for culling the animals, which was said to take place between 1 September 2018 and 1 April 2019, was challenged by a number of animal welfare and environmental organisations, which argued that there are other ways to keep animal numbers down. They also claimed that an outdated, incomplete and unclear report was used to decide whether this permit should be allowed or not. However, according to an Oostvaardersplassen press release on 6 December 2018, the judge decided there were no legal impediments to proceed with the execution of the assignment of the Province of Flevoland, and that the Forestry Commission (Staatsbosbeheer) would be able to start at very short notice with the culling of the animals. This, it said, would help improve the living environment for the remaining animals, with more food to share between them. Earlier suggestions for alternatives, such as transporting the animals to other nature reserves, had allegedly been rejected by Staatsbosbeheer, which deemed it too stressful for the animals.

Herd control

On 10 December 2018 De Telegraaf reported on the first culling. Activists from the Animal Welfare Oostvaardersplassen group were reported to have kept a night watch; it was described how they had been approached by the authorities several times and had to show their identity cards. An Oostvaardersplassen press release of that day read: “Today we started reducing the number of red deer in the Oostvaardersplassen. The Province of Flevoland in July 2018 approved a new policy for the nature reserve…. One of the consequences of this … is that the number of red deer in the area will be brought back to 490. Staatsbosbeheer executes this decision of the province.”

According to Staatsbosbeheer, about twenty animals a day would be shot by four game managers from a fixed point or a stationary car. It was further reported that more females would be killed than males to balance out the current herd, and that, whilst some of the dead animals would be used for human consumption, the remainder will serve as food for other animals or be destroyed. The exact number of animals to be culled followed a headcount by helicopter, which showed that there are currently 610 Konik horses and 200 Heck cattle in the reserve. 180 Konik horses will be taken to another area, while the number of Heck cattle can remain unchanged, Omroep Flevoland reported on 5 November 2018.

Opinions divided

It is not the first time that animal control in the Oostvaardersplassen is causing strongly divided opinions. Previously, many protesters demanded for the large grazers to be fed during the winter, whilst others said the animals should be left to their own devices, as they would be in natural circumstances. On 7 December 2018, AD published an article reflecting the views of an animal activist and those of a local ranger. The activist claimed to have seen several dead deer with ‘more than one bullet hole,’ which could imply the animals are not killed as humanely as supposed. She rejected the argument that the deer would suffer too much stress during relocation, as they had been transported to the area in the first place. In addition, she called the whole ‘natural’ experiment, in which animals are left defenseless in a fenced-in area, a failed one, and labelled the policy of culling ‘pointless’, as animal numbers would continue to grow. She also warned many Dutch people would not tolerate this policy for much longer.

The ranger meanwhile showed concern with what he called the aggressive approach of protesters. He said that the area is not natural, but protected and subject to human intervention. He added that humans are now so far removed from nature “that we cannot cope with the fact that animals die, that herds expand and contract. In every nature reserve in the world, animals are faced with cycles of abundance and scarcity,” he concluded. For the moment, the culling is proceeding as planned, even in the face of continuous protests on the site and on social media.