Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dutch brilliance

So it's no secret I'm a big fan of the Dutch. Being of Dutch heritage myself, I take every opportunity I have to enjoy all things Dutch. Gouda, pickled herring, ridiculously bright orange soccer jerseys, olliebollen, and the little wooden shoe I wear around my neck given to me by a charming old Dutchman who wears real wooden shoes, every day of the year, even in the dead of a Canadian winter. It was with little surprise then when I read in Discover magazine of Oostvaardersplassen, a most incredible idea dreamed up by none other than the Dutch.

A little background: in traditional ecology-think, there is a theory known as succession. That is, that if you leave any given northern habitat alone, it will eventually become a closed canopy forest, like the great Boreal forest covering large swaths of North America. But a Dutch scientist saw a hole in this theory and questioned how, if this were in fact true, why did prehuman Europe have so many large grazing animals? Grazers cannot survive in a closed canopy forest. Nor can oak trees, which require ample light and for which there is substantial evidence of existence throughout Europe in prehistoric times. In order to test his theory, he needed a massive tract of undisturbed land. Coming by that in the most densely populated nation in Europe could not be easy. But as luck would have it, a large land area that had been reclaimed from the sea by the Dutch to build factories on had been abandoned when the economy tanked in the 80s. And so you have Oostvaardersplassen.

This Dutch scientist set about implementing something called rewilding. Essentially what he has done is turned the theory of succession on its head. Instead of saying that the forest is the default ecosystem and animal behavior follows this trajectory, his thought is that if humans would just keep their hands off, animals themselves shape the land and it will become what the animals make of it. He has introduced species into Oostvaardersplassen that closely mimic large grazers that would have existed in prehistoric times: red deer, wild horses, and wild cattle. The genius is that he just lets them be. If they have a tough winter, they die. Unfortunately (in my eyes), special interest animal protection groups got involved and he had to compromise by having wildlife officers watch out for animals that were clearly to weak to continue living and kill them, which is apparently the compassionate thing to do. The amazing thing is that these processes have allowed a vibrant grassland/wetland ecosystem to take hold and no signs of a forest taking over have emerged. The other amazing thing is that it has brought strength back to an eagle species that hasn't been seen in significant numbers in Europe for a century. The most amazing thing? This is happening only 20 minutes outside of Amsterdam.

It's an incredible story and again exposes for me the folly of human thinking that we always know best. One thing that was interesting in the story was that in North America, there is very little evidence of forest fires before woolly mammoths went extinct. The thinking is that they foraged all the combustible detritus. When they died off, BOOM, forest fires. Yet now we selectively cull certain animal populations that are "getting out of hand", do controlled forest fires, relocate wolves, and on and on. Of course, the problem is that if we just let nature do its thing, we think we wouldn't be able to continue doing our thing: building houses wherever we feel like and filling them with lots of stuff we don't need that were produced from the very ecosystems we are trying to save in some lame attempt at repentance for our sin of living grossly beyond our means.

Check out the pics at

For this and many other fascinating stories, pick up a copy of Discover magazine some time. I've been a subscriber for 10+ years and have never been disappointed!