Holland goes Wild – a message for developed landscapes

Konik horses running free in Oostvaardersplassen – Photo Hans KampfKonik horses running free in Oostvaardersplassen – Photo Hans Kampf

In the heart of Europe’s most heavily developed country, scarcely 30 kms from the centre of Amsterdam, lies a miracle of wildness.

Literally meaning “wetlands to the East” the 5,000 hectare Oostvaardersplassen was reclaimed at great expense from the sea back in 1968. Because of its central location the site was originally designated for industry. But its importance for wildlife, and particularly waterfowl migration, rapidly became evident. It was saved from development and has now been declared a Special Protected Area (SPA) for birds and a Ramsar Site1.

A Vision for the Wild

The potential to create a radical new experiment in wild area management was realised by a small group of committed ecologists led by Frans Vera from the Dutch Forestry Service and Fred Baerselman of the Agricultural Ministry together with Hans Kampf. Comprising 3500 hectares of wetland and 2000 of higher dry polder in a mosaic of reed beds, grassland and small woodlands, the area is now roamed by large numbers of free-ranging herbivores. It is overseen by Staatsbosbeheer, the Dutch Forest Agency – whose role has been remodeled from timber producer to guardian of natural reserves.

There is a magnificent herd of some 3000 red deer, complemented by large groupings of the stocky Konik horse – a primitive descendent of Europe’s original equine species – alongside long horned Heck cattle, relative of the extinct Auroch or forest ox, and named after the controversial German brothers who conducted a series of eugenic breeding trials in the 1930s.

The wild savannah ... of HollandThe wild savannah … of Holland

The landscape itself bears an eerie resemblance to truly wild savannah in Africa with its drifting herds and profusion of bird life – spoonbill, black stork, egret, bittern, bluethroat, marsh harrier and even sea eagle mingle with vast flocks of duck and goose.

This is precisely the effect its promoters are aiming at: seeing how natural processes unmodified by human intervention will impact on habitat types. In particular, Frans Vera has sought to test his theory that pre-historic, that is pre-hominid, Europe was originally covered not with close canopy forest but a park-like landscape of woodland pasture – similar to its geographic counterpart South of the Sahara where vast herds of ruminants have kept the interaction of forest and open plains in constant flux.

A challenge to peri-urban and developed landscapes everywhere

Beyond the theories underlying its changing patterns, Oostvaardersplassen is a stunning example of how government can be persuaded to lay aside short-term economic interests in a bold initiative that has put Holland, a country of 16 million crammed into only 4.2 million hectares, at the forefront of large-scale wild area creation. In so doing it has created a national treasure of great international significance.

Expansion corridorExpansion corridor

In Britain, France or other Western nations, sheer cost, competition from other land uses, animal welfare and legal considerations could create obstacles to similar initiatives.

It is also questionable whether unregulated increase in herbivore numbers in the absence of key predators or intervention management can produce a sustainable ecosystem in Oostvaardersplassen. And there are many who prefer native browsing and grazing species such as bison and deer to Heck or Konik livestock, creating a more varied and less open landscape.

However, there is no denying that the area has shown what rewilding vision can achieve in proximity to great cities – given the will and ability to match the needs of contemporary urban society.

This was most graphically demonstrated in 2005 when a harsh winter led to massive die off of herbivores and concern about animal welfare in the Dutch Parliament.

The solution? Typically Dutch, typically creative and proactive: a proposed expansion to the South East of Oostvaardersplassen’s area, doubling the wild area. This involved a partnership with the Province of Flevoland with its growing population that planned to complement the demands of urban life on its citizens with a mix of wild area experience and recreational activities. This initiative has faced challenges, and the 200 million euro programme to purchase high-grade agricultural land is currently on hold. But again there is no denying the boldness and vision of the approach.

Kampinos: another island of wildness on the doorstop of a major metropolisKampinos: another island of wildness on the doorstop of a major metropolis

A similar approach has been adopted 500 miles further East, with the creation the Kampinos National Park in Poland. Just 8 kms from the centre of Warsaw in Poland this 40,000 hectare area harbours moose, beaver, lynx and crane.

Is London or Paris ready for a modified version of Oostvaardersplassen or Kampinos on their doorsteps?

Network of Ecological Corridors

Oostvaardersplassen is merely the crown jewel in a yet bigger concept – that of a network of ecological corridors linking natural habitat areas throughout Holland and into neighbouring Germany and Belgium.

Akin to the human blood circulation, the system replicates a series of “green” arteries, veins and capillaries.

The network of ecological corridors in the Netherlands (from Hootsmans & Kampf)The network of ecological corridors in the Netherlands (from Hootsmans & Kampf)

These range in scale from large corridors of restored grassland and trees bulldozed through relocated industrial and housing estates and the building of “eco-bridges” over major transport routes – to the planting of riparian vegetation alongside small drainage ditches.

Originally aiming for completion by 2018, the vision has been based on a partnership of local community, business and conservation interests. It is of epic proportions.

Wherever feasible, a range of compatible land uses will be practiced alongside conservation, including flood management, carbon absorption, healthcare and recreation. Such pragmatism recognises that rewilding – restoration of ecosystems run by natural process rather than human intervention – can address a spectrum of societal needs if large areas are to be successfully secured for nature.

Eco corridor spanning a motorway in the NetherlandsEco corridor spanning a motorway in the Netherlands

Currently also stalled by recession, budget cuts and changes in government, the Network may yet eventually accomplish its target of encompassing 730,000 hectares – a startling 17% of Holland’s total land area – through a combination of direct purchase and subsidised arrangements with private owners. Many of its key components are already in place2.

Wider lessons for re-wilding

Whatever challenges re-wilding and green connectivity in the Netherlands currently face, the opportunities highlighted by this pioneering vision are clear.

A series of large natural wild and even wilderness areas linked by a network of habitat corridors is now an entirely practical opportunity for many other countries, including the UK, France and Italy.

Despite rising commodity prices, particularly for timber and lamb, substantial areas of marginal farmland of far lesser value than Oostvaardersplassen will continue to be uneconomic for agricultural production as subsidy cuts take their toll from CAP reform over the next 15 years. Equally there is growing realization that the economic, social and environmental benefits from large natural habitat areas can now offer an increasingly significant alternative livelihood for landholders and local communities – whether rural or urban3.

Meanwhile, climate change creates its own imperative for species adaptation and migration which traditional small-scale nature reserves may become increasingly unable to deliver. Rising sea levels are managed by economically cost-effective coastal retreat, with creation of new salt marshes in large litoral restoration initiatives.

Britain for example is nearly six times the size of Holland, with a substantially greater proportion of low productivity land. France has even greater spatial opportunity.

Can nature NGOs in partnership with government and a broad array of community social and business interests rise to the occasion – and usher in an era of landscape-scale re-wilding?


1. Special Protected Area explanationRamsar site explanation
2. Hootsmans & Kampf: “Ecological Networks in the Netherlands”. Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Holland
3. Aykroyd TNB “Wild Britain Initiative”

Updated in 2015