Rewilding Europe: Dutch “New Wilderness” (Part I)

Konik horses on new documentary film.

Konik horses at Oostvaardersplassen featured in a new documentary that premieres Sept 2013 (Courtesy EMS). Check out the Green News Update photo gallery.

Check out the Photo Gallery  posted on Green News Update. Multimedia and other resources are at the end of this story. 

It’s been called “the Serengeti behind the dikes.” The Dutch have their own name for it– the “new wilderness” (de nieuwe wildernis).

My Dutch friend Aik has traveled through some of the newest land in Europe — the province of Flevoland– on a train line that skirts the perimeter of the new wilderness. It is a 15,000-acre nature preserve, with below-sea-level grasslands and marshy areas. Less than an hour from Amsterdam,  you think, he says, you’re seeing African savanna, with half-stripped trees, scrubby grassy lands and free-living herds of herbivores, foxes and birds.

Oostvaardersplassen (“lakes of the ones who sail East”) is a manmade, created ecosystem – years in the making — that resulted from one of Holland’s more ambitious flood-management efforts: closure of the Zuiderzee, a North Sea inlet, in the 1930’s.  (It became Lake IJselmeer). Decades later, the area was drained, and the former seabed was dried out and became Flevoland in the late 1960’s: two well-populated cities were established (pop. 394,000) and rich farmland, along with a boggy area whose future wasn’t certain.

Oostvaardersplassen (OVP) might have become an industrial park, but for a poor economy at the time and the inspiration of young biologist Frans Vera who stepped in in the late 1970s. Vera suggested making it a nature preserve—and turned it into an ongoing experiment that is both widely praised and sometimes criticized for its practices.

Vera is testing the notion that large swaths of Europe in the prehistoric era – usually thought by ecologists to have been made up of dense forest – were actually more open, with grasslands and meadows kept in check by grazing animals now mostly extinct, such as the aurochs (huge wild cattle) or wild tarpan horses.  Sometimes, he says, trees sprang up among thorny shrubs, creating park-like groves; for the most part, Vera postulates, thick, dense forests (closed canopy) came later, after humans entered the picture and killed off the grazers and their predators.

Frans Vera, who has dedicated more than 30 years to the development of OVP and his theories of forest management, takes a break for some documentary photography. Photo credit Ruben Smit

Frans Vera, who has dedicated more than 30 years to the development of OVP and his theories of forest management, takes a break for some documentary photography. Photo credit Ruben Smit

OVP first attracted thousands of greylag geese that kept the grassy areas trimmed tight as a putting green. The   “proxy” grazers for ancient or extinct herbivores were introduced in stages: Heck cattle in 1983 (back-bred to be aurochs-like in appearance, but smaller), feral Konik horses from Poland (1984) similar to the wild tarpans now extinct; and red deer which are akin to elk (1992).  Other species found their own way here:  foxes, rare white tailed eagles (the first pair to breed in the Netherlands since the middle ages), cormorants, spoonbills and varieties of water-loving and migratory birds. Other animals – European bison, even top-level predators like wolves – have yet to arrive or be introduced.

The reserve is a powerful example of new ideas about nature and so-called prehistoric wild lands – and has led to creation of Rewilding Europe, a nonprofit group that plans to create larger versions of Oostvaarderplassen in other countries. (Part 2 of our series looks at this group and their projects.)


LNV manages the OVP

Fascination with OVP has been challenged by some scientists as well as public concerns about animal welfare. Ecologists and biologists would like to see more evidence-based scientific studies at OVP to underpin Vera’s hypothesis — is it an approximation of of a past ecosystem with proxy grazers, or a model for understanding how prehistoric lands were shaped by animals before humans intervened?

The Dutch public became vocal about animal welfare:  OVP was designed to be hands-off  – no veterinary services, no scheduled feedings, no ear tags. Harsh winters sometimes left several thousand large mammals without sufficient food or shelter. They are treated as “wild” and some have died of disease or starvation (about 10-20% of the herds per year).  The public took up the case with the government after seeing videos of weak and dying animals. The Ministry for LNV intervened with a commission and two rounds of policy guidance (see ICMO2 below):  a policy of “mercy killings” to cull sick and abandoned animals, extra hay in winter and plans for additional better sheltering space.

OVP has no planned endpoint: It is a permanent reserve, not a tourist destination. It is an experiment that may take decades to answer questions which in the US would be taken up by university-based, long-term ecological research stations (LTERs).  It has earned status as a Natura 2000 site under the European Union Directive that protects habitats and birds.

Life goes on – even small changes can be observed — in the OVP, monitored by foresters, web cams and environmentalists with cameras.

In January it was national news when a young male river otter arrived at OVP on its own, captured on a webcam. The otter’s appearance is no small beans: the water-loving mammal is virtually extinct in the Netherlands. A group of otters was released 10 years ago into the Weerribben nature reserve, about 55 km from OVP. He may be a scion from that group and decided to steer a new course. Meantime, everyone is hoping he’ll find a mate and stay on.

Resources: Dig Deeper

Web and Multimedia

Photo Gallery (Green News Update)

Staatsbosbeheer (Ministry for LNV)  extensive information from Dutch government agency that oversees OVP

De nieuwe Wildernis documentary: EMS and partners (coming Sept 2013) trailer.  About the filmmakers

OVP webcame and video footage from Staatsbosbeheer includes foxes and kits, Konik horses, Heck cattle, geese

Otter video


Discover Magazine: Elephants Roaming America ? A Big Idea for Rebooting Nature, Andrew Curry (Mar 2010). Excellent detailed overview of OVP  as a nature preserve and bold experiment of how large mammals are shaping their environment. Read online

Nature/Conservation biology: Reflecting the Past, Emma Marris (Nov 4  2009). Reconstructing past ecosystems with rewilding. Marris time travels with the rewilders. Read online (See slide show)

ICMO2 2010Commission report  on animal welfare, shelter, research, monitoring management and natural practices at OVP. Includes agreements about winter shelter, herd culling, and longer-range plans. (Staatsbosbeheer/NL)

Grazing Ecology and Forest History, Frans Vera. Doctoral dissertation by Frans Vera published as a book