Dutch Rewilding Experiment Missing a Vital Component.

Posted By Caroline Grindrod on May 3, 2018 |


Dutch rewilding experiment missing a vital component… By Georgia Wingfield-Hayes.

I visited the Oostvaardersplassen as part of a ‘rewilding’ study trip, in October last year. This vast reserve is mainly marsh, the area open to public being tiny in relation to its entirety. We walk out from the visitors centre to a beautiful big hide from where one can view a vast grassland plain. We were excited to learn that in 2006 the sea eagle, formally extinct in Holland, had returned due to the availability of carrion from the natural die off of the herbivore populations present in the Oostvaardersplassen – Heck Cattle, Konik Horses and Red Deer.

Scanning the plain with my binoculars I started to pick out the Red Deer in the landscape and was startled by their sheer numbers, all grazing without a (predator) care in the world. Within our group we had heated debates about the choice of management of the Oostvaardersplassen. All these animals had been designated wild, so no human intervention was required.

In the winter of 2005, 22% of animals died and there was a public outcry. From then on the management policy to try and appease this, has been to shoot any animals likely to die. This week however the government has intervened and called for a cap on numbers, and a halt to the rewilding principles of allowing ‘natural processes’ to determine herbivore populations.

A simple fact seems to be being missed here, in that the ‘natural processes’ that control herbivore populations anywhere in the world, are predators. In Europe this means wolves, who by predating on the herbivore populations actually increase the health of the herd. They cause the animals to move in tight groups, and this is the very thing that then improves the health of the rest of the ecosystem. The way that herbivore populations move in the presence of predators allows for woodland regeneration in areas where being ambushed by a wolf is more likely. Riparian areas typically benefit, thus providing habitat for birds, beavers, etc, and so the trophic cascade continues.

Another thing I was struck by on my visit to the Dutch rewiding project was that the grazed grasslands contained many dead trees, but there was no woodland regeneration. The grazers were eating everything. In contrast, areas inaccessible to the animals, were burgeoning with new woodlands.

Without predators to keep these animal populations healthy, the Oostvaardersplassen starts to look more like a prison-camp than a wilderness. The site is fenced, so animals can’t move out. As their numbers increase, the available forage remains the same and starvation results. To my mind this is a serious ethical issue, but the misunderstanding of natural systems is a bigger problem still.

At one point the Oostvaardersplassen was going to be linked by a wildlife corridor to other wilderness areas.  Holland in many ways is ahead of the game in thinking of ways to bring back wilderness and habitat connectivity. This is possible because they had lost so much. The Otter, even the Raven were extinct from Holland until their recent reintroductions. When you drive across the country you see wildlife bridges across the motorways, but unfortunately the bigger plan for this habitat connectivity was halted by political change in 2011.

Natural ecosystem processes, without habitat connectivity and predators, simply cannot function correctly. When the Oostvaardersplassen was set up, they drove for a “wild” rather than “domestic” designation of the herbivores. This meant that dead animals could be left on site. Domestic animals by EU law have to be removed, and this is a problem all over Europe, for carrion eaters such as vultures, eagles and wolves. The sea eagles in the Oostvaardersplassen have expanded to an impressive 10 breeding pairs, quite an accomplishment when you think that England has not one breeding pair of any species of eagle.

So it is important that we make a distinction between death in a healthy ecosystem being an essential driver of new life, and death due to the prison-camp like situation the Oostvaardersplassen has ended up in.

One of the key things missed by the rewildling and conservation communities alike (and I get shot down for saying this) is that we seems to have forgotten that humans are also a top predator. Rewilding by removing humans from the equation is not necessarily a good idea. The health of many national parks across the world deteriorated when created due to the removal of the wild human populations, who, like the wolf, played a vital part in maintaining the balance and health of the ecosystem.

If we are going to get our ecosystems functioning properly again, we humans, need to reimagine ourselves back into nature. We see ourselves as separate, but we are not, and cannot be. The word ‘nature’ itself is a problem as it infers this separateness. This crisis of perception has created the conditions for us to catastrophically undermine our very own life-support system.

Currently we have split the world in two. On one hand we have protected areas – wilderness and nature reserves, many of which, as we have seen with the Oostvaardersplassen, are not functioning well. Then the rest of the world is largely decimated by modern agriculture. The results are the depressing figures on catastrophic species loss. The outcomes for both farming and conservation would greatly improved if we move beyond the reductionist paradigms of conservations – single species protection, and farming’s – war on nature approach to producing food.

Things need to change, and in some corners of the world already are. Regenerative agriculture is, I am happy to say, becoming something of a buzz word, and not before time. There are some fantastic pioneering minds like Alan Savory, Gabe Brown and Leotino Balbo leading this revolution. At the heart of what they all do is a simple fact: if you get soil ecosystems functioning properly, the results are higher yields (greater than any other agricultural model), and the return of biodiversity. This biodiversity itself, being essential to the health of the food (be that crops or livestock), and therefore it’s resilience to pests and diseases. Leotino Balbo’s sugar cane plantations yield higher than those of his old-school farming neighbours, yet they also host an extraordinary diversity of invertebrate and bird species, even wolves roam these sugar-lands in Brazil.

Allan Savory has pioneered this regenerative agriculture story in the management of the worlds grasslands. His principles of Holistic Management again are simple: grassland soil health is dependent on large herbivore populations being moved by predators. Holistic management is a way of managing domestic grazing stock to mimic this. Animals are moved in tight herds to create a short burst of disturbance, and then the land is left to rest and regenerate. The results are excellent for the animals, farmers bottom-line and biodiversity.

Here the UK, with Wilderculture CIC we are taking these principles and working with conservation organisations, landowners and farmers in the upland areas of England and Scotland. By changing management in this way, so that livestock are not just produced for food, but are also used as a tool to bring life back to the soils, with the health and livelihood of everything else, coming from there.

Finally, back to the Dutch rewilding project at Oostvaardersplassen. This ecosystem has regenerated a lot already since the land was reclaimed from the sea back in the 1930’s. But it could be much healthier still, if the role of herbivores was employed correctly. In real wilderness there are no fences, so as long as the movement of these animals is restricted, they are not really wild. Human’s created this situation and could do a whole lot more to manage it with positive outcomes for both animal welfare and biodiversity.

Georgia Wingfield-Hayes

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