Rewilding: The Oostvaardersplassen experiment

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.IMG_9911

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

The Fashion for Foraged Food

Food for Free

I’m fortunate to have a background where local food was valued. My father, who was not at all wealthy, was nevertheless a great believer in shopping locally. As convenience shops and supermarkets began to take over, he loyally supported the local fishmongers and butchers, seeking out high-quality local produce. I inherited his tastes – and habits – so have never felt alienated from local foods. Even so, my strong commitment to local foods turns out to have been very limited after all. Foraging for local wild food was way off my compass.

It never occurred to me that plants familiar on country walks were anything other than charming weeds. My awareness was only awakened by books like Richard Mabey’s Food for Free. In particular it took articles about thrillingly interesting chefs like René Redzepi from Noma and Simon Rogan from L’Enclume to awaken a real appetite for such food.

So last summer on regular walks in Kent, I began to gather and cook nettles, seakale, wild garlic and Alexanders.

This article is in the current edition of Resurgence magazine. To read further:

Cheap Milk & the ‘Lidlisation’ of shopping

Decent food isn’t cheap, and if the ‘Lidlisation’ price wars continue it could mean the end of grass-fed cows in our fields

Lidl, Asda, Aldi and Iceland have now cut the cost of milk to 89p for four pints, making milk cheaper than most mineral water. This is astonishing, given that milk is a food that is the end product of a slow, costly, and, hopefully, careful process of rearing animals and their fodder. No wonder the British dairy industry is now looking at ruin.

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It’s a nail in London’s coffin when gardens are covered over

The sterile fashion for hard surfaces instead of greenery is contributing to flooding and the disappearance of fauna

For the last six months the house opposite mine has been in the process of “renovation”. This means that, apart from its Victorian facade, every aspect has been “modernised” into a state of gleaming sterility. The finishing touches are being done now. The back garden is being concreted and the front garden covered with what looks like black bathroom tiles. Not an inch of ground has been left visible, let alone a hedge – indeed that was the first thing to go when the builders moved in. The developer is strolling about looking satisfied and the estate agent is in tow composing the brochure. But what he will doubtless describe as “finished to exacting standards”, I prefer to describe as another nail in the coffin of London’s environment.

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America’s other debt crisis

Amid the war of words taking place in Congress, nothing is said of the environmental cost of overconsumption

One word is missing in the American debate over the debt crisis: austerity. It’s a revealing absence. In spite of the vast deficit, and despite the US being the home of individualism, no way is being offered for individuals to make a difference by changing their lifestyles.

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Start talking rubbish

We should be asking why we are creating so much waste and how we can reuse it, rather than sweeping it under the carpet

News that the recycling chain has all but collapsed because of failed demand in China has produced the usual wringing of hands and a startling lack of alternative voices.

In terms of straight news reporting – last night’s BBC news for example, and today’s broadsheet coverage – the mountains of rubbish are presented as a “crisis” symptomatic of problems with the global economy. For the Daily Mail, this crisis is symptomatic of something else as well, not just a global crisis but proof that recycling is yet another pointless nanny-state demand on the already overburdened lives of the taxpayer. The paper hasn’t yet run the headline “Waste of time” but it can’t be far off.

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Royal Rebel

Royal rebel Prince Charles’s outburst against GM foods was mocked as an unscientific rant. But do his views deserve to be derided as green-ink ravings, or is he a green hero for our times?

For environmental campaigners who are also republicans, the Prince of Wales is a bit of a thorn in the flesh. He’s involved in just about all the principal issues – championing organic agriculture, supporting local produce, rainforest campaigning, and sounding off about GM foods. Whereas in the past it might have been possible to ignore him as an eccentric fellow traveller, these days his views often sound so like those of the leading environmental NGOs, that increasingly they are having to ask themselves: does he know what he’s talking about? Is he an asset or a liability?

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A tree is not just for Christmas

Our annual celebration of Nordic non-drops is a cause for hope

Shopping at this time of year is enough to bring out the bah-humbug in anyone. Those mountains of useless expensive stuff encapsulate what’s gone awry in our attitude to the planet’s resources. Yet amid this disregard for nature is one puzzling note. Carted home in gas-guzzling SUVs, swathed in energy-profligate lights, and presiding over heaps of gift-wrapped plastic, the presence of the Christmas tree raises a doubt. Is there, after all, a little place in our hearts that still cherishes the nature we so readily destroy elsewhere?

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New mission for chimps’ champion

She has devoted her career to saving primates. Now scientist and campaigner Jane Goodall is 70 and embroiled in the toughest fight of her life

There are not many women who in their seventieth year take on more commitments and get deeper into public controversy, but Jane Goodall, the world’s leading primatologist, is not like other women.

While some her age draw pensions and play golf, she says she is ‘on the road 300 days a year’. She criss-crosses the world giving lectures, meeting conservationists, pouring energy into her chimp sanctuaries and the environment youth movement she recently founded. She returns whenever she can to the Tanzanian forest home of the chimps who made her famous.

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Nests in jeopardy, lairs to lose

As the EU expands, the battle between developers and conservationists intensifies – and its victims look set to be the unspoilt wildernesses and ancient species of the 10 new member states. Ros Coward reports

In her 87 years living in the village of Pely in the heart of the Hungarian countryside, Widow Rab Laszlone has seen many changes, including the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, two world wars and the rise and fall of communism. But one thing has remained constant: storks, which return every year to nest next to her house. For the past decade, they have adopted the electricity pole by the gate, rather than her roof, but they still cohabit like close neighbours. “Why do you keep dropping those frogs on to my path?” she chides the two storks, reorganising their nest overhead. But Widow Rab isn’t angry. “It’s fine,” she says. “I like them. We’ve always had storks here, since I was a child. Let them stay.”

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