Posted by: clemensdriessen | May 26, 2011

Serengeti behind the dikes?

Half an hour’s drive from Amsterdam, in the middle of the densely populated and intensively farmed Netherlands, white tailed eagles breed and herds of wild horses and cows roam in one of Europe’s most intriguing nature reserves.

Welcome to the Oostvaardersplassen, which the German periodical ‘Der Spiegel’ designated as the ‘Serengeti behind the dikes. This piece of land was reclaimed in 1968 and projected to be a site for heavy industry.  It was never developed and, inadvertently, a unique wetland emerged.  It didn’t take long for greylag geese to discover it and adapt their transglobal migration routes. At the beginning of the 1980s, Dutch governmental nature managers decided to introduce herds of large herbivores to maintain the open and dynamic character of this breeding ground by recreating (what some argue to be) the primordial  landscape of northwestern Europe.

Left to their own devices, the backbred Heck cattle and Konik horses play their role as grazing tools in a highly contested wilderness regime, attracting fierce criticism from the public on animal welfare issues, and heated debates among ecologists on the successes and failures of this experimental form of nature management.

Konik horses at OVP (photo: Hans Kampf)

The area is rife with paradoxes and tensions: primordial nature since 1968; an experimental wilderness in what started as a non-place; a wetland bird’s paradise with an artificially maintained water level; the only place in Europe where horses and cows are completely free, but starving in winter in what has become an enclosure. OVP raises a series of fascinating questions:
  • Is this wilderness reserve a model for European and even global nature management and ecological restoration? Or should it be managed more closely to maintain high levels of biodiversity?
  • Is this the ultimate good life for cattle and horses, or as some argue a ‘concentration camp’ in which what are essentially still domesticated animals are denied care and left to starve?
  • Is the area heavily overgrazed? Are we to wait for wolves to come and create an ecology of fear shifting the grazing patterns of the herbivores?
  • Is this what northwestern Europe looked like before the anthropocene, or is it an open ended experimental space where we can learn to appreciate the aesthetics generated if nonhuman agency is let loose?

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