Science - March 15, 2018

'Remove the large grazers from the Oostvaardersplassen'

Text:
Stijn van Gils

For many years, ecologist Frank Berendse kept out of the discussion about the large grazers in the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve. Now that the debate has flared up again about whether or not to feed the animals to help them through the winter, the emeritus professor of Nature Management and Plant Ecology has said what he thinks: the wild herds of Heck cattle, konik horses and red deer should be removed from the area.

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Why are you coming out with this now?
‘Up to now I always thought: the deterioration of nature in the agricultural areas is a much bigger problem; let me focus on that. But the dying animals in the Oostvaardersplassen are undermining the support for nature conservation among the general public. And the biodiversity in the dry part of the Oostvaardersplassen is going downhill fast. Once it was a gorgeous nature area with nightingales and whinchats. Now it’s a desolate plain with barnacle geese, greater white-fronted geese and greylag geese.’

Isn’t it a pity to end an experiment like this? Two of your PhD candidates did their research on this.
‘In 1983, the idea was that the presence of the large grazers would lead to a park-like landscape with thorny shrubs and thickets of trees. I thought that was an interesting idea and Frans Vera did his PhD on it with me. Later my PhD student Perry Cornelissen did a lot of research on the development of the area. Now we can see that those forecast developments aren’t taking place. Nor is there much chance of their doing so anymore. The soil is so nutrient-rich that the seedlings of the blackthorn and the hawthorn either get grazed on or – in places with less grazing – get overshadowed by herbs and grasses.’

So no more grazers at all?
‘What is there now really isn’t very natural. So yes, it would be better to get rid of them altogether. Instead, we could flood the dry area, expanding the swampy area. We could put down wooden walkways through it. People would be able to experience that gorgeous nature much better that way.’

How are your colleagues responding?
‘I’ve had one furious email, but I’m getting much more support, even from the rangers of the state forest service Staatsbosbeheer.’