Oostvaardersplassen – how wild can it be?

Mirjam Hazenbosch

A silent march, crosses, a coffin – things you would not normally expect in a nature reserve. However, they now appear in the Oostvaardersplassen. This Dutch nature reserve is an internationally celebrated flagship example for rewilding in nature conservation. A range of large herbivores (including Konik ponies, red deer and Heck cattle) have been introduced to the Oostvaardersplassen since the early 1980s. This winter, over half of the 5230 large herbivores died, most of them as a result of starvation. Animal welfare activists are outraged and demand a change in the management of the reserve. That explains the crosses and coffin. It’s not the first year the reserve has come under scrutiny. The protests raise the question: is the death of large herbivores part of a successful rewilding project or are we facing the results of a failed experiment?

Figure 1: Geese and Konik ponies in the Oostvaardersplassen. The death of a large number of large herbivores in this nature reserve raises the question whether the area can be seen as a successful rewilding project or whether it is a failed experiment (photo credit: Staatsbosbeheer).
Figure 1: Geese and Konik ponies in the Oostvaardersplassen. The death of a large number of large herbivores in this nature reserve raises the question whether the area can be seen as a successful rewilding project or whether it is a failed experiment (photo credit: Staatsbosbeheer).

Background

The Oostvaardersplassen are located in the newest province of the Netherlands, Flevoland. The land of the Oostvaardersplassen was reclaimed from the water in 1968. It was initially designated for industrial development but that never came through. Greylag geese saw their chance and colonised the area.

The geese turned out to drive the succession of the marsh vegetation. The geese fed on grass. Their droppings were a source of nutrients for fish, invertebrates and amphibians. They, in turn, attracted birds, and after a few years the area was an oasis for many bird species.  

By the end of the 1970s there were concerns about the future of the reserve. Geese mainly feed on grass and avoid woodland trees like the willow. This led to the concern that a dense woodland could develop, which would significantly reduce the value of habitat for water birds.

Frans Vera, a Dutch ecologist, suggested introducing large herbivores into the area. Vera is best known for challenging the current paradigm for European paleaoecology. The orthodox assumption is that the vegetation of Western Europe at the end of the Pleistocene consisted of a closed-canopy forest. Vera, however, proposed an alternative model of shifting forest-pasture landscapes, kept partially open by the grazing of large herbivores. Vera suggested to introduce large herbivores into the Oostvaardersplassen to diversify the grazing performed by geese and to keep the area open.

In 1983, 32 Heck cattle, 18 Konik ponies and 40 red deer were introduced into the area. The State Forestry Service, which manages the reserve, decided to intervene as little as possible. The large herbivores are allowed to behave as wild animals. Only sick animals are shot to prevent unnecessary pain. The management style of the Oostvaardersplassen was unique in the West, and over time the site gained the attention of the international community. The Oostvaardersplassen became known as the Dutch Serengeti and is now often flagged as a successful example of “rewilding”.

Silent march, crosses and a coffin

The Heck cattle, Konik ponies and red deer prospered in the Oostvaardersplassen. In September 2017 around 5230 large herbivores were living in the area. However, the long and cold winter caused 3226 of these individuals to die, mostly of starvation.

This upset some people and they started to demand a change in the management of the reserve. Initially, the State Forestry Service refused to meet the protesters’ requests. This caused tensions to increase and led to social unrest. On multiple occasions the police had to forcefully prevent people who were trying to feed the animals from entering the reserve. Rangers reported that they received threats and that they no longer felt safe. And actions from the protesters, which included putting coffins and crosses in the reserve, shook up the country. In April, 122.000 people signed a petition to “stop animal cruelty at the Oostvaardersplassen”.

Figure 2: Protesters put crosses in the Oostvaardersplassen to commemorate the more than 3000 large herbivores that died this winter (photo credit: Linda van Stam).
Figure 2: Protesters put crosses in the Oostvaardersplassen to commemorate the more than 3000 large herbivores that died this winter (photo credit: Linda van Stam).

Solutions

We have ended up with a situation that what was supposed to be one of the flagships of Dutch nature conservation, is now a center of social tension in the Netherlands. The question is: what is the way forward?

There are multiple options. The current land is clearly at capacity so one option would be to increase the area available to the herbivores. We could do so by building corridors for animal movement between the Oostvaardersplassen and a nearby nature reserve called De Hoge Veluwe. This would provide extra food and shelter for the animals, especially during harsh winters. However, this solution is costly and logistically challenging.

Another option would be to actively manage the population sizes of the cattle, ponies and deer in the park. This would be in line with the management of other nature reserves in the Netherlands. For example, in De Hoge Veluwe the population sizes of wild boars and mouflons are kept under specified targets through hunting.

We can also take active management further and start feeding the animals. This is preferred by most protesters. However, the worry is that by feeding the animals population sizes are kept at an artificially high level which may further impoverish the site.

Finally, we could stick to our guns and not change the current management practice of minimal intervention. By doing so we will need to accept that at certain times many animals may die as a result of a lack of resources.

Take a step back

I believe that before we decide on what road to take, we need to think about our goal for the area. At the moment it seems that different people have different opinions on why the Oostvaardersplassen are there, which naturally causes them to promote different management options.

The original goal of the Oostvaardersplassen was to promote bird life. At the moment the site is so impoverished as a result of the grazing by the herbivores that many bird species have left the area. If we want to bring back the birds, we will have to start actively managing the population sizes of large herbivores. We could do so by hunting and castrations.

Some people argue that the Oostvaardersplassen offer a unique opportunity to experiment with large ungulates living in the wild and to test Vera’s alternative ecological hypothesis. If this is our main aim, we need to outline our research goals clearly. Depending on what exactly we want to investigate, we will need to adapt our management strategy. We will also need to adhere to the ethical standards that have been developed for involving animals in scientific experiments, and apply for ethical approval.

We could also decide that the main aim of this park is for people “to enjoy nature”. Currently the Oostvaardersplassen are not open to the public, which has caused some people to describe the area as a secretive experiment devised by distrusted elites. There are opportunities to get rid of this image by opening up the site to visitors. However, Heck cattle and loose Homo sapiens may not go well together so in this case it might be a good idea to limit the size and variety of large herbivores living in the area.

Figure 3: At the moment the Oostvaardersplassen are not open to the public, apart from safaris into the reserve organised by the State Forestry Service. We could decide to increase access to the area (photo credit: Staatsbosbeheer).
Figure 3: At the moment the Oostvaardersplassen are not open to the public, apart from safaris into the reserve organised by the State Forestry Service. We could decide to increase access to the area (photo credit: Staatsbosbeheer).

Looking ahead

After many weeks of social unrest, the State Forestry Service agreed to feed the remaining animals. They emphasized that they only did this to prevent further protests, not because they agree with this intervention. At the same time a committee was established to advice on how the Oostvaardersplassen should be managed in the long run. The committee has suggested to “reset” current populations. They advise that the total population of Heck cattle, Konik ponies and red deer should not exceed 1100 animals and that we should bring down current populations by either moving the animals (in the case of the Konik ponies) or shooting them (in the case of the red deer). Some protesters have already resumed their posts because they are against the killing of so many animals. The Province of Flevoland now needs to decide whether they will follow the committee’s advice. They promised to do so before August this year.

We see things as we are

Anaïs Nin once said “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”. I believe this is particularly true for the Oostvaardersplassen. Depending on who you ask some people will tell you that the Oostvaardersplassen are a success story of rewilding, whereas others see a bare field full of neglected animals. It is time for us to align our views, define our goals and adapt our management strategies accordingly.