Urban Rewilding: Amsterdam's Oostvaardersplassen Reserve
After disaster struck in 2018, Amsterdam's major urban rewilding project has recovered and is rebuilding natural spaces for the city's animals and wildlife.
The incredibly Dutch named Oostvaardersplassen has become a centrepiece for much of the debate around the merits of rewilding urban spaces in Europe. The project, which dates all the way back to the first drainings of the site in 1968, aimed to provide a centre of rewilding in Northern Europe, a place just 30 minutes drive from Amsterdam, and attached to the small Dutch city of Almere. The project is over 18,000 acres of reclaimed and rewilded land that aims to build habitats for native Dutch birdlife, small mammal-life, and most significantly, the herd of Konik horses allowed to roam free in the place.
Oostvaardersplassen was created when an inland sea was drained for two new cities. An industrial zone turned into a marshy haven as it lay undeveloped during the 1970s. Dutch ecologist Frans Vera devised the innovative use of wild-living cattle and horses to mimic the grazing of extinct herbivores such as aurochs, and Oostvaardersplassen became an internationally renowned rewilding reserve, celebrated in a 2013 Dutch film called The New Wilderness.
The project struck disaster though in the harsh winter of 2017-2018, that saw disease and starvation run rife through the park. The thousands of mammals that died, either through illness or starvation, or as a result of being shot prior to dying of those causes, totally wiped out massive sections of the park’s wildlife. The animals that the visitors had come to the see the park as needing to protect, were dropping like flies, and to the Dutch general public, it seemed that the park was responsible. The spirit of this rewilding park meant that they felt a need to allow nature to take its course, and if that meant a mass starvation and a reduction of numbers, then that would have to be that.
The situation left the Dutch people, as well as the wider European community, grappling with the complex implications of the events that took place at Oostvaardersplassen, and if they represented the failures of rewilding, question whether rewilding at the park had gone wrong. Or if perhaps, the failure had been rewilding itself.
Looking at the facts, it is certain that the events of 2018 were an ecological tragedy: The famed herd of Konik horses, as well as the red deer and cows in the project fell from 5,200 to under 2,000. Even worse, in an attempt to spare the animals from long-term suffering, 90% of those that died were shot prior to fully starving to death.
The merits of the debate on both sides are intriguing to explore. At LettsSafari we have long agreed with the need to allow nature to run its course. We thankfully have never had a disaster of this kind strike us in our network of parks, but nevertheless situations have arisen where unfortunately we had to take the tough decision to avoid intervening such that we could allow the natural path of things to take place.
That said, we have also recognised our responsibility as conservers of rare and endangered wildlife. Our small herd of Soay represented one of just a small total number of Soay in the world, and as we began the process of introducing them to the park, we ensured that we had spaces to nurse them through ill health or take care of them, to ensure we were protecting the rare breed of grazers we had taken responsibility for.
We have spent many years trying to figure out the optimal number of herbivores per acre and running trial after trial to find smaller proxies for the larger grazers so necessary in habitat restoration at the centre of larger-scale rewilding principles. Indeed, 3 trials later we are still in search of the exact right mini grazing pig for smaller-scale rewilding. The same with ponies. Our approach does not allow grazers in spaces smaller than 10 acres (which we classify as garden-scale) and in larger LettsSafari parks we do not recommend more than one small grazer for every 3 or 4 acres. Larger grazers would be more like one for every 10 acres.
No matter our own perspectives, the rewilders at Oostvaardersplassen made the decision to allow the horrible winter of starvation to perform its natural role as a population control. The controversy and outrage has affected the park ever since. Despite this tragedy in its history, today the scars of those years are beginning to fade. The essential wildlife conservation undertaken by the project, to protect the endangered birdlife of the Dutch wetlands. Beginning with a project to protect Greylag Geese they have since adopted eagles and egrets, growing the mammal population to maintain the environment for the endangered birds in the area.
The project was one of the oldest in Europe’s rewilding history, with the story of conservation and ecological restoration also inspiring the rewilding project at Knepp Estates. In 2022, the project has shifted some of its priorities though. For one thing, following the public outrage, governmental rulings have restricted the Oostvaardersplassen rewilders to a total of 1500 grazers, something that was initially resisted, but since has helped to restore the health of the animals there, and in the years since 2018 the park reports having seen no deaths due to starvation.
While the park’s founders may have had issues with the government ruling to cap the animal numbers in the park, but while it may not be a total return to nature, a cap can serve very similarly to the cull that restored numbers to the correct level in 2018.
Here at LettsSafari we perform a version of a natural cull on an annual basis, while with smaller-scale rewilding you do not have the space for larger predators such as wolves or Lynx to restore the natural ecosystem you would see in a wilderness-scale rewilded system, we transport excess new herbivores to other rewilding projects across southwest England, to help build rewilding herds elsewhere. In doing so we work to keep numbers to the right level, and ensure that we never suffer a mass starvation event like at Oostvaardersplassen, and thankfully with these governmental controls, the project will avoid such events again too.
Overall, while Holland’s most controversial rewilding project has suffered from a tragic history, this has helped reform their rewilding approach, and ensure that they will not see such tragic events again. But their story, and their longterm and modern success helps reflect some of the decisions we at LettsSafari have made, at how modern rewilders encounter issues of conservation, natural processes, and public engagement.