Wetenschap - 2 december 2010

Oostvaardersplassen: Everyone HAPPY?

An international committee has made recommendations to the Government about the Oostvaardersplassen nature area. It advises intervening earlier to prevent suffering by large herbivores, but there should be no meddling with the natural management of the area. Everyone happy?

Hans Hopster, Lecturer in animal welfare at VHL:
'I am really pleased with this report. What I was afraid of - that there would be a complete about-face based on emotional arguments - has not happened. That would have been a shame. The Oostvaardersplassen have produced a lot of good results but the nature management agency, Staatsbosbeheer, is not good at broadcasting this. There has been a really interesting experiment going on for some time now but unfortunately it has never been reported as such, nor has there been a proper research plan. Staatsbosbeheer should give far more publicity to all the wonderful things going on. Make people aware of the interesting ecological processes. The media and politicians are focusing too much on animals suffering and the impression is that there is nothing to see for it, whereas in fact the animals have fantastic conditions for ten months of the year. Don't get me wrong - I don't want to see animals suffering unnecessarily either. That is why I am in favour of the recommendation  to put the animals out of their misery earlier and to provide more shelter. Support is gradually eroding among the general public for the current form of nature management. People find it difficult to give this bit of nature a place in our society. We have now moved a little further in the direction of not allowing any suffering. The advice is in line with current attitudes among the general public to this subject. It is a good, well-considered document.'
Esther Ouwehand, Member of Parliament for the Party for Animal Rights:
'We have always asked for improvement on three matters in the Oostvaardersplassen. There should be more shelter in the area so that the animals can find protection from the wind and bad weather. We are also asking for the area to be expanded, with a link to the Veluwe. That would ensure more variation and make the area more robust. We also want better monitoring of the animals because the agreement was that weakened animals would be shot in good time. You can prevent unnecessary suffering by shooting them at a slightly earlier stage. The committee is making all these recommendations and we are pleased about that.
We see it as our duty in the debate to put the interests of the animals first: are these measures really benefiting the animals? Wild animals are really best off when there is least interference by humans. It is always the hunters who are asking for supplementary feed to be provided to prevent an agonizing demise but using up your energy reserves and becoming weak is not the same as an agonizing demise. Lots of people think: throw them some hay and that will solve the problem. But that is not in the interests of the animals and it does more harm than good. It is mainly the stronger animals that eat the food while the weaker animals are even worse off than before: they fight for the food too but don't get it. You are only making the problem worse in the long term because you are encouraging more animals.'
Sip van Wieren, Ecologist with the Resource Ecology Group:
'I am pleased with the conclusions of the Gabor Committee - it could have been a lot worse. I can certainly go along with the advice, especially as pretty much the whole of the Netherlands is busy managing the Oostvaardersplassen. A significant proportion of the nature management approach has been kept. Shooting underfed animals at an earlier stage is a gesture to public opinion. But there are disadvantages to this. Shooting animals on the basis of a condition score is arbitrary anyway. We have let animals go that are in a really poor state and we have still seen a miraculous recovery. If we now start shooting the animals at an earlier stage this whole selection system of "which ones will die, which survive?" will be even more random. This will see us moving closer to a classic system of regulation through hunting. The selection process will inevitably be less effective and you will be shooting animals that might have pulled through.'
Pauline de Jong, Secretary of the Fauna Protection Society:
'We are moderately satisfied with the Gabor Committee report. The ban on providing supplementary food is good because that was pointless anyway. All it does is ensure you get more animals. Only we are afraid that putting underfed animals out of their misery earlier is the thin end of the wedge and that the wardens will start shooting the animals too soon. The process of natural selection must be allowed to function. It should be very clear that an animal is not going to be able to make it before you decide to intervene. We think that at the very least the animal should be taken away from the group because you don't want to be shooting them in amongst the rest.'
Esther Ouwehand:
'The role of vets in the debate is interesting. They are taking a position that is entirely in line with what Henk Jan Ormel of the Christian Democrats was always saying: shoot 30 per cent of the animals in the autumn and provide supplementary food during the winter where necessary. That would turn the Oostvaardersplassen into a shooting gallery with increasing numbers of animals being killed. Now it turns out that Ormel is on the Supervisory Board of the professional association of vets. Its members also include passionate huntsmen.'
Sip van Wieren:
'I notice that vets are increasingly taking an interest in nature management. They are forming a new lobby alongside the farmers and hunting lobby. Their involvement has a clear hallmark: the individual animal is important. That is logical given their professional ethical code. But vets make a lot of statements about nature management. When they then throw in the risk of animal diseases on top of that, they have all of the Netherlands, including the politicians, eating out of their hands. That is a dangerous development as they don't know anything about ecology and nature management.'
Pauline de Jong:
'It really is an ideal situation in the Oostvaardersplassen. Animals dying just happens to be a fact of life. Unfortunately, huntsmen have a really powerful lobby aimed at doing away with this natural system. I also think the vets are playing a dubious part in the debate. They say that dying of hunger is a painful process. That is simply not true but it does play on the emotions of ordinary people who don't know the facts.'

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