Dutch Rewilding, Baby and Bathwater

 Oostvaadersplassen - grazing animals culled to avoid starvation

Oostvaadersplassen - grazing animals culled to avoid starvation

There has been a massive outcry against rewilding in the wake of news from nature reserve, Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, an area once heralded as a landmark of rewilding, but now being seen as an unmitigated failure. Thousands of grazing animals, wild horses, deer and cattle, have been culled to prevent their starvation following a harsh winter, amid the death also of thousands of trees which suffered the effects of over-grazing. The Guardian has the full story.

The Dutch government has called for a halt to the rewilding experiment, amid a huge backlash of public opinion, and ordered the culling of grazing animals to end scenes of starving animals desperately lining the perimeter fences, as witnessed by the Dutch people. Reactions have been extreme. The Spectator has jumped on this failure as proof positive that all rewilding is idiotic, and apparently Marxist.

Others are reasoning that it should not be seen as a complete failure.  One cannot deny the suffering of grazing animals, whose population increase, followed by a harsh winter, caused mass starvation. But, say some, is this not what would happen in the wild from time to time, when random factors will cause widespread changes, some of them harsh to our eyes, long used to sanitised views of a so-called natural world husbanded by humans?  To see this kind of tragedy is shocking, but not as shocking as the knowledge that humans have destroyed exactly half of the world's wildlife in the last forty years.

 Bialoweiska Forest - a successful rewilded forest in Eastern Europe

Bialoweiska Forest - a successful rewilded forest in Eastern Europe

Much of Oostvaardersplassen is marsh land and home to a vast array of rare birds. Dutch professor of Ecology, Hans Olff says the tragedy of the grazing animals aside, the area is just starting to flourish. The dead trees are slowly being replaced with those better adapted to grazing, such as blackthorn. The dead trees themselves are now buzzing with the kind of small wildlife essential to the food chain. His arguments point to the fact that a hands-off rewilding experiment is something that takes a great deal of patience and wisdom; there will be setbacks due to changes in weather and landscape, the fluctuating availability of grazing, and the natural consequences of those changes. Can we handle it, as humans? The answer appears to be not.

Then there are those willing to cynically divide opinion in order to make political coinage, when the problem of the world's wildlife decline is the only question we need to be urgently addressing, and whether rewilding can help to change that appalling statistic.

Many are now opposed to rewilding because of the cautionary tale of Oostvaardersplassen – which in truth was not a true rewilded reserve, but a fenced area with no apex species to keep grazing animal populations in check. Wolves were not introduced into the project because of a perceived lack of space. But it has certainly given much weight to the argument for returning to human-managed nature reserves when we see photos of dead animals and trees littering a landscape.

It begs the question whether true rewilding can reasonably be achieved in smaller areas.  A huge expanse such as Yellowstone Park is a rewilded landscape which has been a runaway success, and Bialoweiska Forest in Eastern Europe is another huge area that can comfortably house apex species.  Is the half-earth concept really the only way to go? - That is rewilding half of the Earth by use of vast tracts of land which would inevitably become no-go areas for humans. What can we, soberly and reflectively, learn from Oostvaardersplassen? Please comment below.  

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