The first view of Oostvaardersplassen, a controversial rewilding project in the Netherlands, is jaw dropping. Ahead of you, across open water, is grassland stretching into the distance. Darks clouds occasionally drift up from the land and then sink down. Only when one or two birds break away from the main group do you realise these clouds are huge flocks of geese. Beyond the geese are animal herds. Nearest are several groups of stocky konik ponies. Occasionally a stallion charges into a group and is met with another rearing up in defence. New born foals, on spindly legs, race about. Beyond them are outlines of huge cattle and, way beyond , what looks initially like shadows on the land, resolves into a unimaginably huge herd of red deer.
The sight resembles nothing more than the great plains of Africa with their migratory herds of antelope and wildebeasts . ‘The landscape itself bears an eerie resemblance to truly wild savannah in Africa’ says Paul Jepson, senior research fellow in the geography department at Oxford university, ‘with its drifting herds and profusion of bird life – spoonbill, black stork, egret, bittern, blue-throat, marsh harrier and even sea eagle mingle with vast flocks of duck and goose.’ Europe’s first rewilding project is certainly like nothing I’ve ever seen in Europe. It has a dream like quality arousing what feels like deep archaic memories as if I’ve always known this landscape but never before seen it. And maybe that is exactly what it is: the visionaries behind this place had in mind ‘a landscape before humans’, achieved by allowing herds of large herbivores – the nearest they could find to the extinct megafauna of the Pleistocine era – to roam free letting nature take its course.
The result, while jaw dropping, is also absurd. What at first appears vast, is not vast at all but 56 square kilometres (22 square miles), a little pocket of land enclosed on two sides by moderately sized towns, with the north sea to the front and a large fence to the landward side. This winter which was unusually harsh exposed the absurdity to full glare. Every year about 40% of the animals die causing local controversy, but this year hundreds of animals, trapped by fencing and with no natural predators, starved to death. Ecologists fell out with animal rights campaigners who threw food to the animals over the fences and the controversy went first national and then international.
Even though the fresh grass was coming through and the animals no longer starving when I visit, feeling are still at fever pitch. I meet a photographer taking pictures for a court case hoping to bring charges of animal against the Dutch State Forest, which is now responsible for this nature reserve. ‘If our pets were in this condition’ he says indignantly ‘we would be prosecuted for neglect. So why not here too?’ His view has a lot of support including a European wide petition. It’s hard to disagree but simultaneously, over his shoulder, I watch wild horses galloping across the dusty plains while a marsh harrier float along the water’s edge, I gasp at the sheer astonishing beauty of it.
Whether Oostvaardersplassen is inspirational or cruelly absurd matters far beyond local disagreements. The concept of rewilding, supported by Rewilding Europe and Rewilding UK, gains ground by the day, embraced now even by some traditional conservation organisations. At Abernethy in Scotland for example the RSPB is recreating the original Caledonian forest and re-introducing lost species. Elsewhere wildlife trusts have beaver re-introduction schemes while landowners , like Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, at Knepp in West Sussex have turned over a 3000 private estate to rewilding. Most proponents of rewilding acknowledge Oostvaardersplassen as their principal inspiration like Isabella Tree who describes her visit there in her book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm as ‘an experience that would revolutionise our decisions.’
Oostvaardersplassen’s influence lies in the fact it provided the first test of the hypothesis that re-introducing large herbivores, like those which roamed Europe before humans hunted them out of existence, could in turn bring back a pre-human ecosystem when nature was abundant. Oostvaarderplassen started life like so many parts of Holland as just another area reclaimed from the sea and destined for industrial development – the working class towns on either side bear witness to what might have been. But this area was too boggy for industry and, left as marshland, it attracted first huge numbers of geese and then the attention of Frans Vera, a biologist. He pushed not only for the area to become a nature reserve but for re-introduction of herbivores. He got his way and what followed was a rapid and astonishing transformation, first -before the herbivores seriously impacted the ecology – a proliferation of trees, plants and birds , and then -as the numbers of herbivores multiplied – a new grassland dynamic. Birds appeared in vast numbers, including unexpected ones like fish eagles, as large numbers of mammals. Now when the visitor arrives there’s an incredible sense of nature’s plenitude.
In Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm Isabella Tree tells of a similar experiment at Knepp. There, konick ponies, deer, wild boar and the same Heck cattle as Oostvaarderplassen – bred to closely resemble in their DNA the now extinct auroch – were turned wild. A varied landscape of forest, grass lands and wetlands has emerged with the same extraordinary explosion of wildlife. Knepp now has a third of all the UK’s nightingales for example. In both experiments, nature was left to reveal itself. And what it revealed was the crucial role grazing animals have in releasing nature’s dynamic. ‘Animals’ says Tree, ‘ are the key to biodiversity dynamism. The impact of free roaming grazing animals in a landscape was to put it into action.’
The discovery of such ecological dynamism is so exciting you would expect it to carry all before it. But the contradictions, and absurdities, of some aspects of rewilding which this winter Oostvaarderplassen exposed to international scrutiny , actually threaten to derail the movement. One of these absurdities is the dizzying preoccupation with restoring ‘authentic’ pre-human ecology including ‘original pre-human megafauna’ which can lead into questionable pursuits. Another massively influential rewilding project led by Russian scientist Sergey Zimov includes the ambition to ‘de-extinct’ the woolly mammoth and the sabre tooth tiger. In the eighties Zimov created an area of Siberia known as Pleistocene Park, where large grazing herbivores have been introduced to restore the Steppe grasslands. Still awaiting the necessary scientific break- through to bring back the mammoth from its DNA tanks are used to imitate the heaviness of the mammoth to flatten the grass and break up the tundra.
Close up, Zimov’s ideas are less absurd than they sound. As well as having successfully recreated the glory of the Steppes landscape, there’s a solid scientific experiment here about the value of grasslands as opposed to arctic tundra in the fight against climate change. And his actual re-introductions – of elk, bison and cattle resembling aurochs – have had the same explosive effect on biodiversity as Oostvaardersplassen. Nevertheless he might be accused of theme park rewilding, using highly artificial means to recreate ‘original’ nature. And bringing back extinct species has an additional danger, namely making people blasé about protecting existing species if they believe anything extinct can eventually be brought back to life.
But rewilding’s more serious problem, is a much more prosaic one : fencing. Or rather what fences symbolise , which is the question of how rewilding projects fit alongside its current , very far from wild, surrounding neighbours. Fencing is rewilding’s Achilles heel as Oostvaardersplassen’s winter problems exposed. It’s the only current solution because, outside the fences, agricultural, urban and development interests have claims on the land and invariably take priority. Currently there is no readiness among these interest groups to accept re-wilding especially re-introduced species or migrating herbivores. Beavers which can change whole landscapes and wolves which might threaten livestock are particular objects of hostility while motorways, towns and other land uses mean large herbivores must be prevented from fanning out in search of food. But fences are controversial, opening up accusations that rewilding is a ‘rich person’s zoo’. At Oostvaarderplassen the herds can’t migrate out nor can predators like wolves , currently spreading across Europe towards the Netherlands, get in.
The only way forward seems to be to find practical solutions . Speaking of Oostvaardersplassen George Monbiot says ‘I know they would like to operate in a larger area but cant. The major problem is evidently the lack of predators. .. without predators, you get overgrazing and long slow deaths of animals from starvation. This seems to me to demand intervention, mimicking the effect of predators by keeping herbivore numbers down.’ Knepp has already quietly adopted the solution of keeping herbivore numbers down by limited culling and selling high quality meat to support the enterprise.
A longer term bolder solution is eco-corridors between rewilded areas. Originally Oostvaarderplassen was conceived as connected to other areas by eco corridors but the original political support for this has weakened due to the expense. It included an eco bridge over a motorway. Paul Jepson says the failing therefore is not with the project but with the politics, ‘The Oostvaarderplassen is a constrained system but early this was recognised and the reserve was included in the Dutch ecological network plans. The decision not to complete the corridor was political so, in my view, the starvation events are as much a political as they are a natural outcome.’
Monbiot’s suggestion that herbivore numbers are controlled to mimic predation and Jepson’s call for long term political solutions suggest its not the ideas of rewilding that are wrong but that practical responses are needed to accommodate such a radical and different vision of nature conservation. None of this is going to be easy but watching the wild horses and the flocks of birds at Oostvaardersplassen I hope they’ll succeed. Rewilding projects says George Monbiot, challenge existing conservation values which are defensive. In contrast the biodynamic energy unleashed by rewilding projects bears witness to a vision of how to do conservation differently, to let nature alone to flourish. Rewilding he says opens ‘ up the ecological imagination’ and shows ‘other landscapes can exist’.
This article appears in Resurgence magazine , November 2018