#OVP an «intensive, forced and artificial» Natura 2000 eco-system and open air lab  ...

                                        ... where one animal species is worth more and is better treated than the other.

As is the case almost every year, the Netherlands is once again under the spell of the huge suffering of the grazers in the OVP, news of which has now reached other countries. Pamela Anderson, a member of PETA has also spoken about the problem and has kindly asked Staatsbosbeheer (SBB) to find a solution for the grazers in the Oostvaardersplassen.

We have also now heard about it. It wasn't so well known. We have been living in France for a while (16 years). The drama in the Oostvaardersplassen has until now escaped our attention. As animal and nature conservationists, originally engineers (TU Delft and University of Bath), we have been carrying out a similar smaller scale project for 16 years called "Forests From Farms" http://forestsfromfarms.org / where we allow a piece of land to return to nature for the benefit of nature and biodiversity and also to combat climate change. Moreover, we are the authors of the site https://anti-speciesism.com/ (no longer discriminating on the basis of animal species). From these three perspectives we give our comments below on what is happening in the Oostvaardersplassen.

The OVP were originally a neglected area. After the area had been won from the sea, except for a few changes, the area was left alone for a while. What happened? It attracted many animals and especially birds. In a sense, the OVP can be compared to our terrain. The only difference between our land and the OVP is that the ecological processes can naturally take place here because there is no fence around it. Wildlife can come in from all sides with the result that we have here amongst others deer, boar, martens, badgers, genets, foxes, hares, coypu and many birds. (http://forestsfromfarms.org/Blog.php) This is different from in the Oostvaardersplassen. In the OVP they have wanted to speed up those natural processes or want to "intensify" them.

They started to intervene. To begin with to get a "particular landscape" of what it would have looked like in the paleolithic era. Europe consisted of a mosaic of hills/mountains, forests, meadows, marshes/rivers. The wild animals that lived there were deer, Aurochs (wild cows that are now extinct), wild horses (Equus ferus ferus that no longer exists), bison, boars, foxes, wolves and so on. And of course the birds, the insects, mice, rabbits, etc. Every animal had its own role in this ecosystem, an ecosystem that was in balance with the minimal impact of the human beings that lived there.

On the basis of that last thought, I say it here very simplistically ( there were obviously many studies done  before) the grazers came into the area. Birds were already in abundance. The soil was rich and nutritious, the combination of forest, grassland and marsh is ideal for birds, but the grassland and afforestation will eventually grow too close and dense. We see that happening here on our land too, if you do not intervene or mow and prune (tell me about it :-) ). In order to be able to keep the grass short, they first thought of cattle, for example cows. But then the idea came to place in the OVP instead of ordinary cows, animals that appear like (but are not) the original grazers that would have ever lived there. We assume that this choice was also made for aesthetic reasons. The Konik horses (specially bred for their appearance and resistance) and the Heck cattle (ditto) eat grass/herbs. The deer were added later, because they eat not only grass but also other types of vegetation, bushes and bark of the trees. In this way you prevent one type of vegetation from becoming dominant. It is therefore the task of the grazers to shape the landscape and keep it open for the geese that come in the moulting period (because then they lose their feathers and they can not fly or not fly well, and stay on the ground and graze until the moulting is over and they have their feathers again). Together with the geese, the grazers also ensure that the reeds of the marsh area are pruned for breeding (water) birds. More about this at *** For other mammals, such as wild boar, there seemed to be no real task in the OVP. Wild boar are extremely suitable animals for marshes , but have a great fondness for eggs and young birds. And certain protected birds like the spoonbills do not breed in trees but on the ground or in the reeds. This explains why the wild boar that came to the OVP unexpectedly 7 years ago had to be shot. 

So in a sense, the grazers and deer are simply nothing more than mowing and pruning machines. Especially considering the way they are treated. And also nice and free, because they cost nothing. And they are beautiful too. But they also have other functions. They are also manure machines, because their droppings are not only useful for the fertility of the soil, the manure also attracts insects and worms and they serve as feed for the birds (priority n ° 1 in this area, it seems). And their third and final, most macabre function is of course dying. Most of the bodies are taken away, but those carcasses that remain provide food for the foxes, the birds of prey such as sea eagles, the maggots etc.

These are all very natural processes. You would say nothing wrong with that. But there are a few problems: 

  1. The animals did not come back here in this area of their own accord. You still have deer in the NL. So they would have entered the area of ​​their own accord if it had been open. But then again, maybe not. We do not know. You'll only know if they want to stay, if you open the fences. The Konik horses (not real wild horses, but ordinary domesticated horses that by selective breeding have become what they are now, horses that can take a beating) and the Heck cattle (the same applies to them, they are the result of the Heck brothers who have bred these cows so that they almost look like the extinct Aurochs) have been brought in/introduced by humans.
  2. Now I come to the fence. The animals can not leave. The whole area is fenced and some parts of the area are also closed to protect new plantings, trees, breeding birds among others. This means even less space. They don't have room to move, whether they want to or not. Deer are normally very skittish animals who live in small groups in the woods. The life of a wild animal is often heavily romanticized. Fighting for food, fighting to be able to mate. Fighting for survival. And then finally every year at the end of winter not enough to eat, with all its consequences. Far too many deaths, far too many carcasses that have to be taken away (is this natural? No. See * what this leads to), the plain is bare, the trees are destroyed, and according to some reports this does not benefit the bird population either, but it is preferable to not talk about this publicly.
  3. Then I come to the animal suffering. The scientists and even some of the animal protectors in the Netherlands see wasting and death as a natural process with which you can not intervene because they are "wild" animals. This in view of point 1 is questionable. In the judgment of April 2017, the Court ruled that "the expansion of large grazers, as has been the case here in the past, must be regarded as human intervention, as a result of which the large grazers can not be completely equated with wild animals. The 'hands-off principle', which generally applies to animals in nature, is therefore not desirable in relation to the large grazers in the opinion of the Court." So intervention must be done. Unfortunately, that is only done at the very last moment in their lives: if an animal suffers (or starts to suffer) it will be put out of its misery and shot dead. (a later supplement to this see ****) For every animal, its own life is its most valuable possession. We live here close to nature. Regularly we have given wild animals in need a helping hand to be able to get back to nature and then to continue their life with a few months, maybe a year (you hope).  We think that is the least that we can do to compensate for the damage that we cause. (See Zoopolis, pages 182 to 187) But there is another (hidden) reason behind this shooting policy. Namely to prevent the number of animals, given the lack of space, from rising too high because then the next winter there will be even more suffering. This raises the questions: are only the weak animals shot and how do you determine that? And is the government permitted to allow animals to be born, in order to later shoot them?
  4. Thus as said, the "welfare policy" of the grazers in the OVP only consists of the obligation that at least 90% of those that are suffering must be shot in order to shorten the intense "suffering" as much as possible. In the winter season that amounts to about 19 animals (and probably more shots) per day. What effect does that have on the animals? Fear, stress, certainly not helpful for their resistance that is already so low. And 90% seems to be a lot, but what about the remaining 10% that die a slow death/drown/become entangled in a fence etc. What would you think if you applied this 10% condition e.g. to the bio-industry or our pets. Can you say as a rule/law that eg 90% of the cats, dogs or farm animals should not suffer but the other 10% do? Obviously not.
  5. Now something about inbreeding: no new animals will come through the fence. For deer we found in the monitoring reports of SBB that in 2010/2011 around 3% of the deer died of ataxia (balance problems). This percentage has doubled to 6.5% in 2016/2017. Does inbreeding play a role here? And what in the long run is the expected influence of inbreeding on the condition of these animals, if there is never new blood? Or does the ataxia have a different cause, such as poor feed or large infection pressure? Is that being studied?
  6. Short lives: the animals on the Oostvaardersplassen do not live longer than a few years. A horse, a cow, a deer can reach 25-30, 18-22 and 6-14 years old respectively, with proper care. This is often shorter for animals that live in the wild. That's a fact. But does "the gift of life" really have that much value as it is so short and not even so good given the circumstances in the OVP? You can compare it to a chick, a piglet, a calf in the bio-industry, which go to slaughter as babies, preschoolers after a damned unpleasant and short life (sorry farmers, but that's the way it is now). For us it is just as unacceptable as what is happening now with the horses, deer and cows in the OVP. 
  7. Can I make some ethical comments about the OVP: are you allowed to use/exploit a living animal under the name/guise of "wild", which they are not really, for a certain purpose, namely to guarantee the conservation of a certain bird population in the Netherlands? Or for rewilding purposes?   Or to improve biodiversity? A biodiversity that we ourselves have killed in many areas of the Netherlands? And why has that bio-diversity now become so important to us? Is it about our own guilt? Or do we really think of those last animals in a certain animal group that we want to help in order to survive? Or is it about aesthetics? Being able to enjoy wildlife, birds, nature? Why do we now need to reconstruct this old original landscape if necessary, with all the consequences? And are you allowed to "use" entire groups of animals (including the already dead animals) without really taking into account their being, their well-being? Is that not just selfish? 
  8. Suppose you agree that you can use the grazers as mowing and manure machines and eventually as a cadaver, is it right that at least 30% die unnecessarily every year? ** The 30% mortality rule is unfortunately now used as a standard, considered normal, because the Serengetie or the Ngorongoro crater give the same mortality figures. (More about this, see **) The dying of animals when there are too many is a natural process, but this does not happen in true nature systematically every year, as is now the case in the OVP. And are you allowed to compare an open plain in Africa, a very different nature area with a very different climate with a closed area like the OVP? According to the researchers, yes. Research is cited in which, for example, 25% of the Wildebeest that die, die as prey of the lion, among others, and 75% die due to malnutrition. If you apply the 75% mortality from malnutrition to the OVP, that amounts to 22.5% annual mortality due to malnutrition (75% of 30%).  Moreover, the mortality figures seem to have gotten out of hand this year. Latest statistiques of SBB show that almost 60% didn't survive this year. Is this acceptable? Should it not be the case that as few animals as possible become the victims of this project in order to increase biodiversity? Not all animals die through the ecological cycle. A large proportion is destroyed, at the expense of the environment and society (costs)? And again, can you sacrifice one species for the other? If I asked the horse or the deer, it would certainly disagree.
  9. And then: can you use one horse for sport,  as a hobby and meat, and create welfare rules which should be stuck to in principle but let the other "the so-called wild" horse, essentially the same animal, starve, suffer, die in the case of that 10%? As "anti-speciesists" we say no! Each animal has an intrinsic value, and every animal is equal and deserves the same rules and guarantees as long as it does not harm the ecosystem. Like the animals in the bio-industry, the grazers are just utility animals. 
  10. Why is it possible in other areas without this suffering and these high mortality rates? There are in the Netherlands  "nature reserves", also surrounded by fences, where also "wild" animals are released and those animals are managed by another institution (a foundation) under the slogan "Rewilding should never be confused with neglecting." Why doesn't the government follow this good example? After all, what must people (and children) think of a government that allows all this? Is this the signal that the government wants to give of how people and children should act towards/with animals (all animals, including wild ones)?
  11. Last but not least. The Oostvaardersplassen project is one of the first projects in the field of "Rewilding" and the principle is promoted under "Rewilding Europe" and also implemented in other countries. (More about rewilding on this page ) Is it not wise to learn from these bad experiences in the Netherlands and to inform the other countries of this to prevent even more animal suffering? And who is going to do that?

Our Conclusion 

The OVP is comparable to an "intensive ecological company" (comparable to an intensive livestock farm), where everything revolves around the conservation of certain bird species (Natura 2000), biodiversity, and for which certain other species of animals , the grazers, are used that are currently neglected with this management under the lable "wild". In a way, they are just utility animals. So if you use these animals for this purpose, better preconditions/clearer rules must be put in place to avoid unnecessary suffering and to prevent animals being born unnecessarily. Animals which after a reasonably difficult life will eventually not survive/have to be shot and eventually burned. So very quickly measures must be taken in the area of ​​birth control (see more 6*) to prevent further misery in the future. The animals that are already there must be offered the best possible well being on the basis of the 5 rules for animal welfare: 

  • Freedom from hunger or thirst by easy access to fresh water and a regime to maintain full health and vitality
  • Freedom from inconveniences by offering a suitable environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  • Freedom from pain, injury or illness by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment (if necessary euthanasia / shooting) 
  • Freedom to express (the most) normal behavior, through sufficient space, good facilities and companionship of the same kind of animal
  • Freedom from fear and stress and to offer conditions to avoid as much as possible mental suffering.

If these conditions are not met now and in the coming year, animals must be removed without killing them. They have let it come to pass that they are alive, so they now also have the responsibility to give their lives a good ending. Given the international cooperation in the field of "Rewilding", many (at least the horses and the cattle) could likely be transferred to other places.9* The weakest/ ill/elderly must be given shelter where they can be cared for until their death and if necessary (only in consultation with a veterinary surgeon) euthanized. The area must then be opened up to other nature reserves and then nature should be allowed to go its way.

NB This text is about the grazers. I do not know what other animal suffering occurs in the OVP. I have not (yet) researched it. One thing that has struck me is that a swamp is being drained. This, of course, can not be at the expense of fish lives, it seems to us. Fish, and this has been proven, suffer just as much as mammals/birds. Every animal life must be handled carefully. 

1 April 2018

Later additions 

* The OVP forms a closed natural system because of the fence, so-called 'without human intervention'. But every year large numbers of cadavers of grazers are removed from this closed system. These bodies together form a non-negligible biomass. By removing this from the natural cycle and not replacing it, in the long run this has the inevitable consequence that the landscape is getting poorer in nutrients/increasingly less fertile. If the cadavers were left inside, this probably would lead to even more resistance and protests, given the accessibility/public interest of the area to hikers and people who want to enjoy this nature. 

** The fate of the animals in the Serengeti is often compared with the large number of deaths of the grazers in the OVP per year. It would be interesting to compare how old the animals generally become in these two different situations. Especially because the animals in the OVP, as said, do not grow to be much older than a year or 2 to 3. After a short investigation on the internet we found out that some animals like gazelles in the Serengeti can live to be 10 years old.

 *** In the report "Assessment of the return opportunities of breeding birds and non-breeding birds after a succession-restoring management intervention in the marsh part of the Oostvaardersplassen" by SOVON, the role of the grazers is very clearly described. I only quote their conclusion here: "The influence of grazing on plant growth and the formation of vegetation mosaics or grassy plains is strongly dependent on the grazing pressure.

In intensive grazing and overgrazing uniform plains of short vegetation can arise, but intermediate grazing pressure ensures varied mosaics (grazing optimization hypothesis, McNaughton 1979, van der Graaf et al.
al. 2005). The pursuit of mosaic patterns of closed reed plains, less closed reed and open water as habitat objectives can only be achieved if the grazing pressure is limited by the large herbivores. The effect of the large grazers in the marsh part, especially in periods of food scarcity in other habitats, is crucial for the development of the intended vegetation mosaics and thus also for the return opportunities of birds in the area. "

Their recommendations state the following about the grazers: "At the moment the effects of deer grazing on the reed plains of the Oostvaardersplassen are not scientifically predictable because the animals now mainly use the grassy part of the Oostvaardersplassen. If the grazing pressure of deer on the reed plains remains limited in the winter, winter grazing for reed birds can have a positive effect because reed beds with mosaic patterns are created.
Overgrazing of the reed plains in the winter by large grazers has serious consequences for achieving the conservation objectives (Beemster et al. 2012). To this end, further investigation is recommended prior to the management intervention. Consideration can be given to a model-based assessment of different scenarios about the influence of large herbivores on the marsh vegetation. This also includes the elaboration of various options for preventing undesirable developments and a definition of how to intervene when a clearly undesirable development is observed. "

**** We would like to make the following comments about the following points in the "guide for large grazers":

Paragraph 2.1 "In fenced areas, large grazers are limited in their possibilities for migration, and the administrator will have to take this into account by timely intervening in the size of the population and in the event of imminent calamities, for example when a food shortage threatens." This does not seem to have happened this year.

Large grazers can look after themselves well in the large areas of nature reserve, barring calamities, without human intervention. Intense treatments are not possible without great stress on the grazers and other animals in the terrain and in many cases it is practically impossible to get hands on the animals for treatment or to give them intensive care at birth, injury and conditions such as scabies or worm infections. " In our opinion, the observation, particularly in the case of horses and cattle, that these are "wild" animals that show "a great deal of stress" in human intervention is generally a bit exaggerated. Once again: the origin of these animals is that they are bred from domestic horse breeds. Second reason: in the case of the feeding activities it seems that the animals show little or no stress due to the presence of (even very large groups) people.

It is also impossible in these nature reserves to keep all animals under daily surveillance. The power of disposal that the manager has over the animals in this way is much smaller in large nature reserves than in other nature reserves." This must never ever be a reason to let animals suffer or be neglected. Particularly in view of the law GWWD (Article 36) 1st paragraph: "It is prohibited without reasonable cause or by exceeding of what is permissible to achieve such a goal, to cause pain or injury to an animal, or to harm the health or well-being of the animal."and 3rd paragraph:" Everyone is obliged to provide animals in need of help with the necessary care."

In view of the above, large grazers in the large nature reserve areas are regarded as non-domesticated animals, and in the other natural areas large grazers are regarded as domesticated animals." The argumentation here is not clear and contradictory with what was said before, and also with the real nature of the grazers, in particular the horses and the cattle.

"Where the short term is concerned, the manager can properly assess whether the food supply is sufficient for the number of animals, so that in both the short and the long term management can be carried out to prevent mass mortality due to food shortage." This is not the case this year because of the high percentages of animals that have died (see *****).

In view of ... "As a result of the implementation of the EU Regulation 820/97 under regulation I&R runderen 1998 of the PVV, article 5 it is prohibited to transport cattle that have not been earmarked and whose birth and removal have not been reported to the I & R registration syste. Transporting unidentified and registered animals to other nature reserves is therefore not permitted. Large areas of nature where the grazers can not be earmarked are not considered (livestock) farms. As a result, these animals can not be identified and registered on removal as their origins are not formally known." 

In addition"In view of the European veterinary regulations in this area, the introduction of unidentified/registered animals from the large nature reserve into the comsumption channels can not be pursued.  In order to make possible the introduction of new blood and the development of a balanced or new herd it will be investigated whether it can be made possible to transport unidentified/registered animals under controlled conditions between large nature areas. This in accordance with the EU legal framework." and finally

 "It will be examined whether it is possible to make it possible to transport unidentified / registered animals between large nature area units under controlled conditions."...is the removal and relocating horses and cattle the only humane and most effective long-term solution in the OVP? 

***** The latest statistics have now been published and more than half of the grazers did not survive this winter. scandalous and not comparable with what happens in other nature areas! See NOS article and Press release SBB

6* An article by Prof. B. Colenbrander emeritus professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Utrecht University, about birth control of the grazers which is a possibility to not let the number of grazers escalate again.

7* The Oostvaardersplassen will be supported with European money under the European program LIFE, in the project to connect the Markermeer with the OVP. The European taxpayers will not want to support this project if they know that thousands of animals die every year in this "experiment" with animals. International publicity of what is happening in the Netherlands is therefore very important. We do this under this link 

8 * see more about this in an article by Ir. H.J. Drost published in the early years of the development of the Oostvaardersplassen from which I would like to quote this section: "These marsh birds (among others the Greylag Geese, Spoonbills,
White-fronted Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Teal, Common Grebe, Black-tailed Godwit, Bearded Stag) are virtually the only organisms for which the Oostvaardersplassen (such) can play such a large role. And then to set the cat amongst the pigeons: this is not the case for any of the native mammal species, with the exception of perhaps the Nordic vole. This is not intended to imply that our mammal species are undesirable or could not be introduced. However, from the point of view of nature conservation, they are of less importance than the birds, although many mammal species will fit very well in the nature reserve to which the Oostvaardersplassen will ultimately develop. ... The biotope requirements of the most important marsh birds are the first guideline for the development of the Oostvaardersplassen, the wish to 'embed' them in a natural functioning ecosystem is a second guideline.

But problems arise around 'naturalness'. It is, for example, a natural fact that calamities occur from time to time in swamps. Extreme long-term floods and periods of extreme drought are a part of swamps. They help to maintain great productivity and wealth in the long term. In the short term, however, they are disasters, for which part of the (avi) fauna has to divert to other swamps in the area. And there is a problem: for some species the environment of the Oostvaardersplassen seems to offer little help. For example, there is no alternative moulting area for the Greylag Goose in the region should the Oostvaardersplassen ever lose their suitability. The number of areas in the Netherlands where spoonbills can go to breed or fish, were they not allowed to go to the Oostvaardersplassen, is extremely limited.

It is often not possible to transfer problems within the Oostvaardersplassen to the surrounding areas. This applies in case of calamities, but under 'normal' conditions also for animal species who naturally have large habitats. For example, the Heck cattle can not retreat from the lowland environment of the Oostvaardersplassen in winter to high-altitude winter grass areas with wavy hair grass and Heather, for example in the Veluwe. In situations like this with a lack of alternatives, it is possible to deal with 'naturalness' and some extra intervention by people can greatly increase the value of the nature reserve. The dichotomy of the marsh and the cyclical water level management mentioned by Van der Mark are an example of this. Feeding the Heck cattle with hay, which has been needed in most winters of the past, is a second example. And further

On the faunistic side, the large cattle and equine grazers have been brought to the area. In approximately 800 hectares of the 1900 hectares of open area, this concerns Heck cattle and Konik horses. For the remaining 1100 ha the development plan envisages that it will be cattle and horses from livestock farming, only present in the summer half-year. These introductions are not (only) motivated by the nature conservation value of the species concerned, but mainly through their function in achieving the management objectives.

9* Transport of the Konik horses was possible in 2002, so it should be possible now.... watch this video where Konik horses have been transported to Kent (UK). 

This text  is also on our Facebook page (in Dutch)