Rewilding is a fast growing movement and globally boasts many successes. It creates wilder, more biodiverse habitats by enabling natural processes to shape land and sea. It repair’s damaged ecosystems and restores degraded landscapes.
But what about when it goes wrong?
The unique nature reserve Oostvaardersplassen, which I will refer to as the OVP here on, became known as the dutch serengeti. It was a flagship example for rewilding in nature conservation. In fact it was celebrated in a 2013 Dutch film called The New Wilderness. Large herbivores such as Konik ponies, red deer and Heck cattle have been introduced there since the early 1980s and roam free on the low-lying marsh reclaimed from the sea. The overpopulation of herbivores was inevitable, demanding an intensively managed interventionist strategy. The small size of the area was mitigated by the possibility of connectivity through the promise of potential corridors. The corridors were never introduced so the animals were ‘locked in. Tragically in the winter of 2017 over half of the 5230 large herbivores died, most of them as a result of starvation.
The OVP is located in the newest province of the Netherlands, Flevoland. The land was reclaimed from the water in 1968 and Greylag geese colonised the area, they drove the succession of the marsh vegetation. This like many rewilding cases had a cascading impact- The geese fed on grass, their droppings were nutrients for fish, invertebrates and amphibians. And then after a few years the area became an oasis for many bird species.
There were also fears that dense woodland might develop, reducing the value of water bird habitat. A Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, proposed bringing large herbivores to the area to vary geese grazing and maintain the land open.
So in 1983, 32 Heck cattle, 18 Konik ponies and 40 red deer were introduced into the 5,000-hectare fenced area. To avoid unnecessary suffering, the State Forestry Service, which oversees the area, opted to meddle as little as possible and only exterminate sick animals.
All was well and in September 2017 around 5230 large herbivores were living in the area. Tragedy struck when the long cold winter caused 3226 of these individuals to die. Around 90% of the dead animals were shot by the Dutch state forestry organisation, which manages the reserve, before they could die of starvation. Mortality statistics varied when it came to how many animals were shot between greater periods of time since their introduction.
Animal welfare activists were outraged and demanded a change in the management of the reserve. Activists state that the neglect extended beyond starvation, the horses had open wounds, their hooves were broken, their teeth were broken, they have white mites on their backs.The protesters took action and were throwing hay over the fence doing what they could to feed the animals. Protesters also put coffins and crosses in the reserve. Some Animal biologists have deemed the project as a failure, one of these biologists, Patrivk Veen started the petition stop animal cruelty at Oostvaardersplassen and was signed by 125,000 people.
To avoid unregulated animal populations, intervention is required. Since the catastrophic winter of 2017, the number of grazing animals allowed on the reserve has been capped to prevent overpopulation, and management has transitioned the reserve into a meat-producing recreational area in place of rewilding.
Researchers and ecologists suggest that the herbivores have suffered enough through attempts at “management” and should be allocated a larger territory. They believe that a noninterventionist approach would be more successful if the area was left to smaller animals and birds.
Scientists conclude that the herbivore overpopulation was caused by poor ecological planning and management, of which animal cruelty was the outcome. The promise of connectivity in the form of corridors never materialised, perhaps because of expense and other challenges. They state that the area was never an appropriate site for rewilding and led to a situation that was ecologically and ethically untenable.
Animals need large territory so they can migrate in times of food scarcity, they also need predators to regulate populations, so in the absence of these the animals were left to starve. The animals were fenced in much like a zoo, but were uncared for.
It’s so important rewilding is managed carefully and reintroductions are meticulously planned out and researched thoroughly. When it comes to environmental protection, problem solving, and management, OVP highlights the necessity of understanding ecological complexity, animal behaviour, and sentience.
Nederlands: Avond in de Oostvaardersplassen – Deutsch: Oostvaardersplassen am Abend Date 1 August 2008 – Author Eva-Maria Kintzel
Nederlands: Konikpaard in het natuurgebied Oostvaardersplassen – Date 28 October 2014 – Author Gouwenaar
Heck cattle at Oostvaardersplassen, red deer in the background – Date 2 September 2011 – Source https://www.flickr.com/photos/p_x_g/6158985649/ – Author Peter Galvin
Oostvaardersplassen, a nature reserve in Netherlands – Date 26 mrt 2004 06:35 (CET) – Source  nl:wikipedia – Author PERSONAL PHOTO GerardM
Português: Arquivo IPÊ/Laury Cullen Jr – Date 1 December 2011 – Author Ipe-institutodepesquisasecologicas
Nederlands: Koniks en Watervogels – Deutsch: Koniks und Wasservögel – Date 25 July 2008 – Author EM Kintzel, I Van Stokkum
“20170825 015 Lelystad Oostvaardersplassen Konikpaarden” by Jac. Janssen is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“20170821 059 Lelystad Oostvaardersplassen Lepelaar” by Jac. Janssen is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Nederlands: Frans Vera, Nederlands bioloog en natuurbeschermer. September 2016, Nijmegen – Date 17 September 2016, 17:44:44 – Author WeeJeeVee
A Heck cattle group, in Oostvaardersplassen, a nature reserve in the province of Flevoland in the Netherlands. – Date 16 September 2004 – Author GerardM
Nederlands: Topografische kaart van de Oostvaardersplassen (natuurgebied). Resolutie: 400 pixels/km. Samengesteld door Jan-Willem van Aalst op basis van de GML open geodata van de BRT/Top10NL (basisregistratie Topografie, Kadaster), vrijgegeven door Kadaster onder de Creative Commons BY licentie. Additionele gegevens uit BAG uit de Open Street Map en uit de Risicokaart. Zie ook de Legenda. – Date 31 December 2015 – Author Janwillemvanaalst
English: A dead deer shot in the Oostvaardersplassen because it was too weak to survive. In order to prevent trophee hunters to enter the nature reserve, the deer are decapitated – Date 28 February 2007 – Author GerardM
“oostvaardersplassen-35” by risastla is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0