Science - September 29, 2011

‘Show how beautiful it all is, and how nearby'

Text:
Gastredacteur

Besides what he has called ‘Bleker's dead countryside', there is a great deal of beautiful nature to be enjoyed in the Netherlands, says Frank Berendse in his latest book. The book reveals this prophet of doom to be a keen nature-lover at heart. ‘But I will never take the line of the blind optimists.´

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Frank Berendse doesn't really have time for an interview at all. He has to go out into the countryside, on foot. To check the routes he described for a website to go with his new book Nature in Nederland.
The tight deadline he's working to is rather typical of the work that has gone into this project, he says. In 2009 the professor of Nature Conservation and Plant Ecology devoted a four-month sabbatical to starting work on the book, but finishing it took another two years. ‘It is just as well that you can´t make a realistic estimate of some things, otherwise I would probably never have started.'
Frank Berendse's richly illustrated book is an expression of a lifelong fascination with landscape and nature, as well as the wish to share it. No other flora guide tells you how you can identify plant species by smelling them, he says, whereas the easiest way to recognise many species is with your nose. So his approach is that little bit different, witness his sensory description of the wild rowan tree: ‘It smells like a posh lady. Too much perfume and a faint whiff of incontinence.'
Urban nature
Berendse had already visited many parts of the country as a member of the Dutch youth organization for nature study. The urban nature he describes is typical of the scenery of Amersfoort, where he grew up. All the different landscapes have their own charm, even in areas where the city is swallowing up the rural landscape. ‘I find it utterly fascinating to see what is going on - for example, how gulls and terns are starting to breed on rooftops.'
Nature books often concentrate on extraordinary and rare species. That is nature for ecologists, says Berendse. ‘In this book I want to give nature back to ordinary people, by showing how incredibly beautiful it is, and how nearby, and how nice it can be to go and see that. That is why some of the photos in the book show urban nature and people: kids with spades on a river dune, a family canoeing in the Biesbosch.'
Berendse takes each of the ten different Dutch landscapes in the book, and shows how they bear the signs of geomorphological processes from the distant past and of all kinds of human interventions. So the story of the Ijsselmeer polders becomes an epic encompassing the Zuiderzee, the land reclamation process and developments in the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve. The book combines description with explanation, showing how plant and animal species vary per region because the forces of nature and human intervention have turned the soils into a mosaic of peat, clay and sand.

Prophet of doom
Berendse's book exudes passionate enthusiasm and contains passages that are lyrical and romantic. Quite remarkable to people who only know him from his appearances in the media. ‘In the dead countryside of Braks and Bleker', ran the headline in national daily Trouw a couple of weeks ago. This was one of Frank Berendse's well-aimed metaphors. He is generally known for his warnings in the media about the decline of Dutch nature and the naivety of the government's ideas about how to conserve it.
But Berendse puts his image as a prophet of doom down to the way the media operate. Whenever agricultural nature conservation comes up, they phone him. That way they get a critical but scientifically grounded point of view. And, he somewhat reluctantly admits, he has learned from experience that a cutting metaphor has more impact than a complex publication.
‘Perhaps those sorts of headlines will make people assume my book is an impeachment of Bleker - but it isn't. The main aim is to revive the support base for nature conservation in the Netherlands. By showing people what an incredible amount of beautiful nature we still have, and that we must look after it.'
That support base had declined severely, notes Berendse. Witness the rapidly dwindling membership of nature conservation organizations, or the low level of support for nature conservation in the Dutch parliament. ‘That is really worrying. When you see that someone like Bleker can apparently just go full steam ahead with a parliamentary majority behind him, I think there is real cause for concern.'
Berendse's target is the cabinet's radical approach to nature policy. Secretary of State Bleker wants to slash 60 percent of the budget for nature conservation by cutting back on funding for organizations such as the forestry commission and natural heritage organization Natuurmonumenten. The role of conservation is to be taken over by ´agricultural nature conservation´: in other words, farmers who protect and promote nature on their land through conservation agreements and subsidies.
To Berendse, this U-turn is ‘totally incomprehensible'. On farmland nature has been in rapid decline right across the board, including in areas where agricultural nature conservation is in place. Fertilizer, ammonia emissions, pesticides and the lowering of the water table all have a devastating impact. Field birds such as the black-tailed godwit and the lark, and characteristic plant species, have been decimated. ‘The story of the farmland is predominantly negative, with a couple of exceptions. Farmers can do good things, but they have to fit with the demands of an economically profitable company. For most field birds you need to raise the water table and reduce the use of fertilizer. But those just happen to be the key variables for the farmer, for keeping up the productivity.'

Blind optimists
When Berendse published findings on the ineffectiveness of agricultural nature conservation back in 2001, there was a storm of criticism. ‘The research was no good, I was no good. Then you get those politically coloured discussions. We repeated the research twice with other data. The results from the first study were confirmed 100 percent.' Not long after that, he was invited to talk with the then agricultural minister Veerman. ‘He said, "You were right after all, we have got to tackle it differently". Then came a new cabinet, and with one fell swoop they swept aside everything which is now accepted wisdom both within and beyond the scientific community.'
Berendse sees a clear divide in the Dutch landscape. ‘Of course there have been successes in nature areas, with the restoration of moorland and the return of the crane and the fish eagle. But on the other hand there has been a massive deterioration in the farming areas.'
But that is not what his book is about, even though he does strike a critical note now and then. His aim, first and foremost, is to awaken people's enthusiasm for nature. And he does that with a story about what is still there, rather than what is lost. ‘But I will never take the line of the blind optimists, who only want to talk about the successes. I hope that this book will be read. On the assumption that if you understand something better, you will also value it more highly.´
Arno van 't Hoog

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