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The significance of the Oostvaardersplassen as a Natura 2000 reserve

Natura 2000 in a nutshell (Source: European Commission
Stretching over 18 % of the EU’s land area and almost 6 % of its marine territory, it is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. It offers a haven to Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats.

In practice
Natura 2000 is a network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species, and some rare natural habitat types which are protected in their own right. It stretches across all 28 EU countries, both on land and at sea. The aim of the network is to ensure the long-term survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats, listed under both the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive.

Natura 2000 is not a system of strict nature reserves from which all human activities would be excluded. While it includes strictly protected nature reserves, most of the land remains privately owned. The approach to conservation and sustainable use of the Natura 2000 areas is much wider, largely centered on people working with nature rather than against it. However, Member States must ensure that the sites are managed in a sustainable manner, both ecologically and economically.

The Oostvaardersplassen
Since 1989 the Oostvaardersplassen is designated as a Special Protection Area  under the European  Birds Directive
This means that the Oostvaardersplassen "needs to be managed in accordance with the ecological needs of habitats of birds. The Directive makes it clear that conservation objectives should be met while taking account of economic, social, cultural, regional and recreational requirements. It is for Member States to establish the most appropriate methods and instruments for implementing the Directives and for achieving the conservation objectives of Natura 2000 sites." More in this report

Under this Birds Directive the Oostvaardersplassen was designated in 2009 as Natura 2000 area (SITECODE: NL9802054).

In the designation decision it is specified why the area has been selected for this purpose, which species are involved, which conservation goals are to be reached and what the boundaries of the area are. The ecological goals and the management of the area are described in a management plan (the last report was published in 2015)  including the necessary measures for achieving these conservation goals. The starting point is that the management of the area not only focuses on nature, but that the protective function is combined with other functions and recreational use of the area. 

Specifically for the Oostvaardersplassen no fewer than 31 bird species are protected by the Birds directive (Source: Staatsbosbeheer for which the Oostvaardersplassen are of (international) importance and were even given an award in 1999, 2004 and 2009. The last award has been extended for a period of 10 years. It concerns mainly birds that live in the swamp or the lakes. You'll find the list of the 31 species of birds in English under this link.

It is important to know that the management of the Oostvaardersplassen has been decentralized since 2017, so it is the Province of Flevoland who is now responsible for management and for the welfare of the large grazers in the area. However the national government (Ministry of Economic Affairs) remains responsible for the management and achievement of goals of the Natura 2000 areas under the Birds or Habitat Directives.  So if and when protection of birds is compromised it is up to the national government to adjust/intervene if and when necessary and they are liable if things go wrong.

The impact of the Large Herbivores 
Over the years it has been shown that the presence of the large herbivores (and also the large number of geese) seem to have had a negative impact on biodiversity of the Oostvaardersplassen. 

In 2010 a  report of the Association The Red Deer (Vereniging het Edelhert) concludes that 26 of the 31 'general' species have fallen by 50% or more, seven of them even by 100% (they no longer occur). The grebe, teal, shoveler duck, hawk, kestrel, quail, pheasant, porcelain fowl, water and woodcock, barn swallow and robin seem to have disappeared totally. Also, they say that the small herbivores like hare, rabbit and field mice are greatly reduced in numbers because of the presence of the large herbivores.
In 2012, Sovon (the Dutch Bird Research Organisation) made on behalf of Staatsbosbeheer (who manages the reserve), an inventory of birds in the dry part of the Oostvaardersplassen. They presented a report of this inventory in November 2013. The inventory shows that since 1997 the number of breeding species has decreased by a third. The numerical decrease is a factor of 10 or more.

"In 1997 there were more than 90 species of breeding birds in the nature reserve, in 2013 that number was less than 60. Among others the nightingale, meadow pipit, tree pipit and tree falcon are no longer found in the Oostvaardersplassen. According to Sovon, there is a connection between the disappearance of the species and the high grazing pressure of red deer, konik horses and heck cattle. As a result, much vegetation has disappeared from the nature reserve since 1997." according to this Article of Omroep Flevoland of 2014

Even the monitoring report of 2015 of Oostvaardersplassen as a Natura 2000 reserve is not optimistic about the situation and says: "With continuation of the current management, the conservation goals for 19 to 23 bird species will not be met in the long run. The ecological requirements for a good conservation status of the Natura 2000 species are not sufficiently being fulfilled because a number of key factors / processes in the Oostvaardersplassen are not in order." It is odd however that in this official rapport no mention has been made of the direct impact of the large herbivores on loss of biodiversity. We wonder why?
It is important to know that the management of the large grazers in the Oostvaardersplassen is not covered by the Natura 2000 management plan but that it falls under the Management plan Oostvaardersplassen 2011-2015 from Staatsbosbeheer, which was drawn up on the basis of the advice of the International Commission on Management of the Oostvaardersplassen (ICMO). * below is a list of the members of this Commission

In their second report  of 2010 the ICMO advise "that close attention should be paid to the effects of the water regime and herbivore numbers on biodiversity in the OVP and, especially, to the extent to which management is fulfilling its commitment to Natura 2000 guidelines since several bird populations are declining."  Based on the ICMO advice the 
Management plan Oostvaardersplassengebied 2011 -2015  (you'll find a link to the PDF file below ) identifies  the following basic assumptions :

"There is no systematic research on the public opinion about the Oostvaardersplassen. However the high profile of the issues and the number of public statements and discussions suggest that a proper moral evaluation of the introduction and current management of large herbivores in the Oostvaardersplassen is of high relevance. It seems however, that the societal acceptance of potential welfare-improvement measures, which would include the use of given areas outside the borders of the existing Oostvaardersplassen area, i.e. the Hollandse Hout, is quite limited. This means that short term measures have to be taken and realised within the existing area, including the adjacent woodland areas." 
"As the emphasis is on the delivery of NATURA 2000 objectives spontaneous developments should be facilitated within NATURA 2000 goals and NATURA 2000 management measures, as to be laid down in NATURA 2000 management plan." 
and thirdly 
"Next to animal welfare and Natura 2000 objectives, societal acceptance of management measures is to be prioritised. The latter demands special attention for biodiversity improvement penned woodland areas and thus, potential damage of the vegetation due to population development of the grazers should be closely monitored, based on appropriate protocols."

Again we wonder why this last point " potential damage of the vegetation due to population development of the grazers "  has not or hardly been taken into account in the official monitoring report of the Oostvaardersplassen as a Natura 2000/Birddirective reserve in 2015.  

Is intervention allowed? 
Although the Oostvaardersplassen has the status of a "nature reserve"  which is often used as an excuse not to want to intervene in any way with nature and the large herbivores (feeding in times of scarcity of food), human intervention has already taken place from the very start also for the preservation of other species and birds.
  • the area has initially been artificially created and reclaimed from the see
  • reed have been sown to recreate the old landscape and encourage wildlife 
  • the water levels  in the wetlands are artificially managed 
  • the herbivores Konik horses, Red Deer and Heck Cattle  (non-native in this region) have been introduced to create a  so-called ideal environment for geese (pasture land). Please note that the roe deer native in these areas has totally disappeared, and that the huge populations of geese have been actually the reason why there is not enough food/grazing area  available for the grazers in wintertime (see Management Report Oostvaardersplassen 2016 below) .  
  • a wild boar introduced itself but was shot, because supposedly it was not welcome in this area, even though they would be of great use for biodiversity/nature
  • for the preservation of rabbits it is proposed to create sand hills along the edges of the forests as rabbits are very often victim of birds of pray. etc. etc. 
Question to the European Commission
On the 7th of March Annie Schreijer-Pierik (PPE) sent a written question to the European Commission. I will quote it in its totality :

"In December 2017 and January and February 2018, at least 1 755 large grazing animals died a cruel death from starvation in the Oostvaardersplassen.

The animals concerned were both red deer and introduced cattle and Konik horses. Due to inadequate wildlife management and an excessively large population, not only was untold animal suffering due to persistent starvation caused in the fenced-in Natura 2000 area but the agreed conservation objectives under the management plan were jeopardised because red deer entered bogs and because habitats were destroyed by large hungry grazing animals. This has seriously damaged the conservation status of vulnerable marshland birds, other target species and protected habitats in the area, according to observers.

1. What information does the Commission have about the adverse impact of the current policy concerning large grazing animals on the conservation goals for the Oostvaardersplassen Natura 2000 area?

2. Will the Commission intervene as a matter of urgency with a view to preventing significant adverse impacts on the conservation status of target species and habitats caused by large grazing animals that are starving?

3. Does the Commission consider large-scale starvation of large grazing animals in this Natura 2000 area to be in accordance with the EU’s animal welfare and nature management principles, or does the Commission agree that it is necessary to reduce the populations by means of management, removal or relocation and that, until that has been done, additional feed should be distributed?"

It will be interesting to know what the answer of the European Commission will be.*

So in conclusion the Habitat 2000 status does not mean that intervention in the number of grazers is not possible/allowed. 
On the contrary, considering the loss of biodiversity and the fact that the objectives of the EU  Birds Directive/Natura 2000 status of the Oostvaardersplassen are not met, something needs to be done. The answer will not be simple. There are some solutions proposed, but it is not within the objective of this article to go into detail about those. 

It is up to the the national authorities to come up with a new plan on how to manage the Oostvaardersplassen in the future. The Committee Van Geel is working on this plan at the moment. It is not clear when their plan will be presented. It has been delayed several times. 

However it is important that they also include the position and opinions of the public, the people living near the Oostvaardersplassen, the vets, the other biologists and ecologists involved, the associations for the protection of birds, animal welfare, the environment etc. ! 

Last but not least, in the letter to the government from the Association Red Deer of September 2016, they pose the question of whether "a manager of a Natura 2000 area can be held responsible for a management form that allows the unbridled growth of hoof animal populations while this is at the expense of achieving the Natura 2000 objectives of the same area?" 

As a consultant in European Public Affairs I can say : Yes, the government can be held responsible. The response from Mr. Jurian Bos, lawyer in administrative law at NautaDutilh Rotterdam confirms this. 
Quote: "The manager of a Natura 2000 area can become responsible through the duty of care for its actions or omissions, if this is at the expense of the Natura 2000 objectives of that area. Whether an appeal to the duty of care in a specific case would be effective will depend in part on the content of the management plan for the Natura 2000 involved area." 

Interesting links: 

Parliamentary questions
6 April 2018
Answer given by Mr Vella on behalf of the Commission

The Commission has no information about an alleged adverse impact of current Dutch policies concerning large grazing animals on the conservation objectives of the Natura 2000 site Oostvaardersplassen.

It is up to the competent national authorities to decide on the most appropriate site conservation and management measures to be applied for the management of their Natura 2000 sites. This includes, in relation to stocking levels of large herbivores, to ensure appropriate levels of grazing, in line with the site level conservation objectives and in accordance with the applicable EU environmental and animal welfare legislation.

The Commission notes however that EU animal welfare legislation does not apply to large grazing animals other than domestic livestock. The animal welfare issue raised by the Honourable Member is therefore a matter of exclusive national competence on which the Commission cannot intervene.

ICMO2 report 2010

Management Plan Oostvaardersplassen 2011 - 2015
Management Report Oostvaardersplassen 2016
Opinion of the Royal Organisation of veterinary care in the Netherlands

Juridische Kader OVP/Legal aspects of the OVP (european and national) 
Juridisch kader OVP.pdf Juridisch kader OVP.pdf
Size : 330.582 Kb
Type : pdf
The Oostvaardersplassen Natura 2000 on network viewer
*Members of the ICMO2

Drs. J.D. Gabor, chairman, former State Secretary of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature management and Fisheries (1990-1994) • Prof. dr. J.J.M. van Alphen, professor of Ecology at Leiden University • Prof. dr. T.H. Clutton-Brock, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Cambridge, UK • Drs. J. Kaandorp, chief veterinary surgeon Safaripark Beekse Bergen • Prof. dr. F. Ohl, professor of Animal Welfare and Laboratory Animal Science at Utrecht University • Prof. dr. H. Olff, professor of Community and Conservation Ecology at the University of Groningen • Prof. dr. R.J. Putman, emeritus professor Wildlife Biology, Manchester Metropolitan University,UK • Prof. dr. D. Reynolds, former Chief Veterinary Officer, UK