7 March 2018 • Helen Kopnina
The Tragedy of Oostvaardersplassen
At rewilding initiative the Oostvaardersplassen activists oppose Dutch wildlife management organization Staatsbosbeheer. They ask to stop animal suffering and try to feed the animals, stating that the large grazers are land-locked in a “concentration camp”. THUAS researcher Helen Kopnina explains what is going on.
Every year since the documentary film about Oostvaardersplassen, De Nieuwe Wildernis, won a selection prize at the Environmental Film Festival and was awarded ‘Best Dutch Movie of the Year’, discussion erupts about the need to make choices between “humane shooting” and starvation.
To understand better what is going on, let us discuss briefly the case of rewilding and then turn to the situation in Oostvaardersplassen. Rewilding is conservation that focuses on the restoration and protection of natural processes and wilderness areas, connecting these areas to one another and reintroducing apex predators and keystone species to their original habitats (known as “cores, corridors and carnivors”). It entails re-establishing natural ecosystem processes and reducing human control of landscapes.
In the Netherlands rewilding initiatives usually involve setting aside small pieces of land for wilderness that often need to be closely controlled or managed. This approach to rewilding resembles other European-level rewilding initiatives, and fits within the general trend towards a self-proclaimed environmental push for sustainability in the Netherlands.
The prevailing view in the Netherlands was that nature was something to be managed, like a farm. From this view, a reserve needs to be planted, pruned, and mowed, and the bigger the reserve, the more intervention it requires. Yet, rewilding efforts in the Netherlands, as elsewhere, testify to the idea that experiences of wild nature may be able to transform environmental attitudes and benefit sustainability. Yet, great caution needs to be exercised as to how this feat can be accomplished.
Hundreds of non-native grazers were introduced to a 56 square kilometre area. In Oostvaardersplassen this included bird species that had become very rare or disappeared in the Netherlands. Aside from birds, smaller mammals like foxes and hares, as well as amphibians and reptiles established themselves in the area.
Perhaps, the most remarkable animals to be introduced were red deer, Heck cattle, and Konik horses. Heck cattle are the result of a controversial Nazi breeding program in which modern aurochs were selectively bred with Spanish fighting bulls to resemble extinct European wild cattle called the aurochs, and resurrect the long-extinct breed. In recent reports, farmers found the Heck cattle too aggressive to breed. The Konik and Heck cattle were eventually introduced to the Oostvaardersplassen because they have undergone very little selective breeding and might therefore have many of the characteristics of their wild ancestors.
Although praised and popular, Oostvaardersplassen has come under great scrutiny, for its capacity, or lack thereof, to maintain its large herbivore population. As the protected area has no connection to other land where the animals could migrate and does not include predators, the number of Konik and Heck cattle grazing during the growing season is determined by the number of animals that have survived the preceding winter. This has necessitated ‘control’ or ‘management’. This management included animals being shot to prevent a slow death of starvation.
Not everybody in the Netherlands is happy with this ‘management’. Protest platforms against the ‘rewilding’ method in Oostvaardersplassen have emerged. The biggest objection is animal suffering. The large herbivores, like animals in a large zoo cage, are left there by humans but without human care. While not presently acknowledged as a failure, this type of rewilding effort demonstrates the shortcomings of applying biodiversity conservation principles without realizing the need for connecting much larger areas of land and inter-species interdependence.
There are no ‘cores, carnivores, and corridors’ that is supposed to be at the heart of rewilding in Oostvaardersplassen as grazers are not native to this locality, there are no natural predators and they cannot migrate. It would be good if animal rights/welfare activists and wildlife conservation researchers and practitioners as well as members of general public could put their joint effort with the aim of creating and connecting tracks of land in areas that are historically ‘dewilded’ by industrial and agricultural development.
While the Dutch newspapers report on how proponents of feeding animals do not understand “natural processes” and the need to make choices between “humane shooting” and starvation, they rarely discussed the biggest issue of all. This issue is that creation of larger land for real conservation requires reducing the area currently used for agriculture and industrial development. This costs money. And this is perhaps the largest compromise that the Dutch Ministries and Staatsbosbeheer are not willing to make. It might be more honest to change the status of “nature reserve” to “wild” biological farm for the only apex predators left – humans.
Perhaps it would be better if Oostvaardersplassen were left to smaller animals and birds, granting them refuge from the human-dominated landscapes. Perhaps the grazers have suffered through enough and should be allocated a larger territory in their native Poland with the same European and Dutch funding. Ideally, the Dutch authorities need to seriously consider the ethical imperative to share space with other living beings, beyond the large managed cages, and lead the enlightened discussion as to how populations other than human may also exist without control.
This article is based on materials used for the book Culture and Conservation: Beyond Anthropocentrism by Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet and Helen Kopnina and Helen’s article Debating ecological justice: implications for critical environmental education. Helen is currently employed at The Hague University of Applied Science, coordinating Sustainable Business program and conducting research within three main areas: sustainability, environmental education and biological conservation.
In 2012 The New Yorker published an article about the Oosvaardersplassen.
Konik foal at the Oostvaardersplassen.