One of the nicest things about being me is meeting people that I would never have met in my previous life in academia. On the whole, I prefer to chat with people who love wildlife rather than people who want to create new medicines. They are simply more interesting IMHO.

I have just spent a few days with a couple of filmmakers who came to Scotland to see how we are doing conservation here, Highland Titles fashion. In return they introduced me to a quite extraordinary project underway in Holland – Oostvaardersplassen.

The Oostvaardersplassen is almost 15,000 acres of publicly owned land just north of Amsterdam, Holland. The land was reclaimed from the sea 50 years ago for industrial development. However the development never took place and the site was left to become a natural wetland area.

Frans Vera

This was promptly colonised by greylag geese, whose grazing behavior kept the developing grassland open  for other bird species. By 1983 the Oostvaardersplassen had been designated as a nature reserve. The site management team, including the ecologist Frans Vera, introduced herds of horses, cattle and red deer to diversify the ‘naturalistic grazing’ performed by the geese. These animals gradually ‘dedomesticated’, developing behaviours and creating ecologies that are claimed to be analogous with Europe at the end of the Pleistocene.

Vera  suggests that during the early post-glacial, large herbivores such as wild horses, deer, bison an cattle (aurochs) had played a vital role in maintaining a mosaic of open grassland, regenerating scrub and forested groves; the so-called ‘wood-pasture’. These large herbivores determined and controlled primeval forest structure and composition, which is in contrast to the high-forest hypothesis, which assumes that forest structure influenced herbivore abundance.

The Aurochs is extinct, but there still exist breeds with a lot of the characteristics of the former Aurochs.
The Aurochs is extinct, but there still exist breeds with a lot of the characteristics of the former Aurochs.

Vera and his colleagues used Oostvaardersplassen  to test this hypothesis. The land had no history as it was all literally made from the sea bed with dikes, pumps and diggers. As the site is contained by a fence, access can be controlled. The tarpan and aurochs are extinct, but Konik ponies and Heck cattle are able to act as functional equivalents, occupying a similar ecological niche. The only native large herbivores now missing from Oostvaardersplassen are the elk, the wild boar and the bison (wisent). They have managed to create a “Serengeti-like” landscape: a type of habitat unknown to Europe since humans abandoned their hunter gatherer lifestyle and started farming.

The Konik's grazing can be used to help restore health and balance to marshy woodland ecosystems, providing improved habitat for a range of bird species
The Konik’s grazing can be used to help restore health and balance to marshy woodland ecosystems, providing improved habitat for a range of bird species

The cattle, deer and horses breed freely in the Oostvaardersplassen and, as in Scotland, in the absence of natural predators the rangers have to cull the animals that are unlikely to survive. About half the population dies in this way giving the vegetation some chance to recover. As with the position in Scotland, these is great reluctance to reintroduce the missing predators, but I am optimistic that they will return one day.

5 Replies to “Oostvaardersplassen”

  1. They are very similar to Spanish “Sayaguesa” and “Alistano-Sanabresa” cattle, in this moment at high risk of extinction because it is not economically profitable.

  2. Als je met de trein of fiets langs de Oostvaardersplassen rijdt dan is je misschien de grote hoeveelheid gele bloemen opgevallen. Maar hoe komt het dat tijdens deze tijd van het jaar de hele Oostvaardersplassen geel kleurt?

    Jacobskruiskruid is zeer giftig en daarom eten de grote grazers in de Oostvaardersplassen er niet van. Het plantje kan dus ongemoeid doorgroeien en tiert welig in het gebied. Boeren passen erg goed op voor de plant want als hij in het hooi terecht komt dan is dat gevaarlijk voor het vee. De dieren ‘herkennen’ de giftige plant dan niet tijdens het eten en worden ziek of gaan zelfs dood. Vooral paarden en runderen zijn gevoelig voor het gif.

  3. Hello my name is Lora Wood and I just wanted to drop you a quick note about disabled access bird hides. The Dutch organization Natuurmonumenten has created a bird hide which is accessible for wheelchair users, in cooperation with the Friese Poort College in Drachten.

    The hide is located by the Zuidwest (southwest) lakes in the Fochteloërveen natural area. The construction is large enough to be sure that wheelchair users can move around the hide easily. The lookout points are on different levels so wheelchair users can use them as well as bird enthusiasts who arrive on foot.

    Your access for disabled visitors is superb – the Gator was brilliant – but I could not use the bird hides. Just a suggestion for how your fantastic nature reserve could be even more awesome.

  4. Een rondje Oostvaardersplassen op de fiets is zeker de moeite waard. Een prachtig uitzicht vanaf de eerste etage en kraaiennest in het bezoekerscentrum aan de Almere kant. Veel herten en paarden gezien. Zelfs hebben we aan de Lelystadzijde de visarend gezien.

    I recommend

  5. I think this is among the most vital info for me. And i am glad reading your article.
    Oostvaardersplassen is a very special place to me also.
    Good job, cheers

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