In May 2017 I visited the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in Flevoland, north-east of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The trip was organised by EuCAN in their drive to keep the conservation channels open in a post-Brexit landscape and my thanks go to Nigel and Kathy for their work in making it all happen, as well as my fellow travellers. The Oostvaardersplassen is renowned in conservation in the United Kingdom as one of the foremost ‘rewilding’ projects. I won’t attempt to completely deconstruct the project, its successes and failures, its history and ambitions, here. I didn’t gather enough information whilst there to attempt that. Instead I’ll offer a few observations and ideas regarding what we saw.
The Oostvaardersplassen’s landscape
Oostvaardersplassen is a 22 kilometre-squared area of woodland, marshland and wetland reclaimed from the sea. Where the ‘free-roaming’ herbivores reside is completely fenced on all sides, though attempts have been made to create a wildlife corridor connecting them with other areas of the country. The site has been stocked with grazing animals – cattle, konik horses and several species of wild deer have entered in. The grazing regimes brought about by the inclusion of these animals are an attempt to recreate the prehistoric mosaic of open habitats that were once the ‘natural’ state of the European landscape. For some there is an argument that the landscape was coast to coast woodland, dark and overgrown, with few clearings. Another view, propounded by Franz Vera, a key figure in the Oostvaardersplassen, is that in fact the landscape was more open and that large herbivores (European bison, wild ox or aurochs, deer, elk and indeed geese) held back the woodland through their chomping, meaning a mixture of more open and wooded habitats. I am more convinced by the latter, especially after seeing the impact of the grazing here.
The majority of the landscape is wetland, of open water and reedbeds. It is rich in birdlife and its geese populations are of European importance. This means that very little of the reserve is easily accessible but there is an excellent visitor centre and some footpaths and hides available for tourists. The most striking sense was of the large scale dieback of trees. As far as the eye could see willow trees were dead and dying. Speaking to one of the rangers for a short time, there is a great pressure from visitors whose views are based on aesthetics. The view from the neighbouring trainline has been voted the most beautiful in the Netherlands. Our guide spoke of how visitors perceived the landscape in terms of suffering, be it because animals that died were left to decay and that trees were not lollipops with a full compliment of leaves. This is not something confined to the Netherlands but it was clear these views stung the land managers and interventions had been made to ensure that animals, especially cattle and horses, were not allowed to suffer in ways that appeared negligent.
The animals were the reason for the sea of deadwood that was immediately evident. The konik horses and deer had ring-barked the trees, meaning that the passage of food and water to the tops of the trees was impossible and the trees died. I found some real comfort in seeing this landscape of untidiness and it challenged my sense of ‘what a landscape should look like’. We are so used to formalised landscapes in the places that we live, be it the urban environment or the agricultural rural landscape. Why does a landscape have to look any way at all? It is an utterly middle-class concept. The ranger reminded us that there was no ideal vision for how Oostvaardersplassen would look. It was a matter of seeing how rich the landscape would become by returning it to one of free roaming grazing animals with limited human intervention.
In terms of flora, there was almost nothing bar a few dandelions due to the intensity of the grazing. Birds seemed to fare better, with male redstarts singing from song perches provided by the dead branches. The lack of leaves also gave an excellent opportunity to observe and photograph them.
Redstarts are African migrants, preferring this kind of wood pasture habitat that grazing animals can create. The New Forest, though it has far more in the way of living trees, is another similar habitat type where redstarts still can be found breeding in Britain.
To our delight, another species which enjoyed the prevalence of dead wood song perches was the bluethroat. At first hunkering down low in the reeds, the bird here nipped into a tree and belted out its medley of tunes and trills.
In continental Europe the pied wagtail is replaced by a subspecies, the white wagtail. It has a greyer appearance. This bird was gathering insects to feed its young in the nest.
There was an area of woodland accessible to visitors and free of grazing pressure. This was richer in plants, though limited mainly to nettles and other nitrogen-favouring species. In this area pied flycatcher was nesting and the insect life came to the fore.
At the roadside a crowd had gathered to watch this eagle owl roosting in willow. It is a very big bird indeed, with a wingspan of 2 metres and a diet of buzzard and raven. It’s not a bird to meet in a side alley on the way home from the pub. There were reports of an eagle owl in Lelystad, the closest town, the previous day and there were rumours it could have escaped from a collection.
There was a pleasing diversity of bee-life, with several species of Nomada bee potted and identified. This nomad bee had stopped to preen its antennae.
A golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle. Outrageous.
The map butterfly is always a pleasant sight because it’s not found in the UK. It has two broods with separate markings, the latter being darker, seen in the Czech Republic in July.
The most common insect to be found was probably this Empid or dance fly. It spent most of its time drinking from hawthorns or else hunting crane flies. It would attack the crane flies and fly away with them, legs akimbo.
What is rewilding?
Rewilding is a conservation movement which seeks to return large areas of land to natural processes where human intervention is limited, sometimes to almost nothing. There are strong arguments for moving away from tree planting, for example, in areas where (as Oliver Rackham said) the simple lack of grazing animals will allow woodland to flourish on its own. In Britain there are arguments to allow ‘the uplands’ to be returned to a more ‘natural state’ (sorry about the inverted commas, but the terms used are often subjective) to prevent flooding by ending intensive moorland management and allowing trees to recolonise and therefore store more rainwater to reduce flooding in the land below, where most towns and cities are located.
Other ideas are to introduce wolves or lynx to areas where wild deer numbers are out of control and their grazing pressure is severely damaging woodlands. Something closer to reality is the return of the beaver to the English landscape and the positives they certainly can bring in reducing flooding and diversifying riverine habitats and boosting other species. One interesting idea is the return of pine marten to reduce the number of invasive grey squirrels, and the return of the otter resulting in a reduction in American mink through competition. There are many ideas, some hugely exciting. They are experiments which, due to the utterly changed nature of the British landscape, will remain a mystery in many cases.
Personally I see big problems with the concept as it has been conceived and amplified in recent terms, largely related to my experience as a land manager, not merely an ecological theorist or environmental campaigner. But then rewilding is also thought to be achievable in an urban setting, something that is otherwise alien to the concept.
Rewilding has experienced a massive spike in interest since the publication of Feral by George Monbiot but it was not first thought of then. Sometimes it is hard to be convinced it is a concept at all, such is its similarity to other conservation projects which are currently in action, as with the beaver reintroduction in Devon. Rewilding could be a response to the apparent bureaucratisation of the conservation movement. People don’t want their donations to conservation charities to be spent on printing and electricity bills (sorry but it actually has to sometimes). Rewilding has become a populist movement, largely thanks to Monbiot’s ability to inspire people in ways that previous proponents have failed to.
Monbiot is a popular environmental writer who seeks to tie in his economic and social writings with those of environmentalism, connecting the impacts of Western consumer lifestyles with the shocking loss of species in the past fifty or more years. He is one of the only writers to be given column inches and use the phrase ‘British wildlife’ in a grown-up way, rather than simply recounting childhood memories. On the opposite end of the scale to Monbiot, there are xenophobic reimaginings of rewilding, highlighted in a twitter page called Rewild Britain, which uses the notion of species decline to lambast ethnic minorities, immigrants and anyone who is not ‘indigenous’ to Britain. Many people today have not understood that there are no ‘pure’ or ‘indigenous’ Brits. Our farming systems evolved in the Middle East, our language a melange of foreign ones, and Britain has been enjoying immigration ever since it became an island. Suffice to say the social media account in question has no accountability, no name, no website, and is easily confused with the official account of Rewilding Britain.
Is rewilding open to misanthropy? I have spoken to proponents of what they deem to be rewilding who have stated that they think, in essence, that humans are bad and that we should not be a part of nature as they conceive of it anymore. We are a part of nature, our place is still in the natural world, it is simply that our place in the food chain, in the temporal sense, has been warped by technological advances: it takes longer for our species to be impacted by environmental change. Climate change is impacting upon species with a low trophic-level (butterflies, bees, birds) right now and it will meet us in the same way later on, in terms, because of our protective measures buying us time whilst our damaging measures draw difficulties closer.
Doing it the Dutch way
Back to the Netherlands. On our merry way around the five-lane motorways of the north-west Netherlands, we stopped in at the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland to visit an area where European bison were acclimatising. Bison are thought to have been present across the entire Northern Hemisphere before humans began to impact on their populations. Though there is debate about whether they were in Britain, they are now being introduced across Europe thanks to successes in Poland’s Bialowieza National Park. The bison in this part of Holland were living in an area of ancient sand dunes close to the sea but, as the photo above illustrates, close to human habitation. The place was a riot of nightingales. On our tour of this closed site, the manager of the bison told us that he wanted people to see that we can all live alongside these animals. They are not dangerous, they are unpredictable. He was underlining something we have lost in regard to wildlife: respect. That is something I can get behind, planning the reintroduction of extinct megafauna with people in mind. There can be no other way to do it when our population is set to increase further in the coming decades.
What is the point of releasing these bison here? It’s conservation of a gene-pool. By introducing the animals in as many different locations around Europe it makes them more resilient to population loss, allowing their genetic diversity to to evolve and for inbreeding to be reduced.
The work being done here was admirable. Rather than sitting in front of a computer postulating about the possibilities they are getting on with it. But how wild can rewilding this way actually be? The bison we saw here were penned in, accounted for and cared for, just like livestock. Our impact on the environment is now so far reaching that reintroducing larger animals immediately has connotations in terms of animal welfare. Many of the species we want back in the landscape travel long distances, are predators of livestock and are greatly feared by people, for reasons that are largely unfounded. In Britain we struggle to live with badgers, foxes, cormorants, hen harriers and wasps, let alone wolves or lynx.
The Oostvaardersplassen is a case in point but then its managers have never called it a rewildling project. They have no plan for how it should look and no desired outcome other than to learn from its results. It gives a sense of hope, perhaps that’s what so draws people to rewilding. We are growing bored of the endless stories of negativity when positives exist and must be sought. The very existence of nature is a positive that sometimes conservationists have to draw on to keep going. That should be the very point, whether it’s rewilding, nature conservation or simply good stewardship, we have a duty of care to the planet and its wildlife. Finding out the best way of making it work is the challenge we and wildlife face. That we can surely all agree on.