Philosophical Boundary Work for Wildlife Conservation: The Case of the Oostvaardersplassen


In Europe, rewilding has gone Dutch, to paraphrase a chapter title in Andrew Bahnford’s book Wild Hope (2012) that refers to the Oostvaardersplassen (OVP). The OVP is a site that became a nature reserve of international importance, where the Dutch State Forest Sendee initiated a management approach of rewilding with large ungulates. This approach was rapidly adopted by agencies across Europe, but it also provoked fierce protests stretching from local people to national parliament.

From the late 1990s to the present day, the Philosophy Group at Wagenin-gen University has played a key role in the heated debates that erupted time and again over the moral problems associated with the introduction of large grazers in nature reserves. This is the story of how the Philosophy Group came to be involved, and our evaluation of beneficial practices for the contribution of philosophers to complex, politically relevant issues.

The animals concerned are basically domesticated species that are derived from ungulates that were once wild, such as cattle, horses, and deer. They are subjected to a process of‘de-domestication’ and have to learn to fend for themselves. The management policies of de-domestication, which entail minimizing supplementary feeding and veterinary assistance, have been most controversial.

The Philosophy Group developed an ethical framework and field approach to cope with these moral conflicts concerning the introduction of large herbivores in the OVP and elsewhere. This framework involves ‘boundary work’, that is, the constructive effort to facilitate communication, conflict management, and consensus building across the fences that separate communities with often divergent ethical convictions and moral vocabularies.

The Philosophy Group’s research on the ethics concerning large grazers conducted in 1997/1998 was declared one of the two most influential and socially relevant projects within the ‘Ethics and Public Policy’ program of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. The ethical framework was used to draw up the ‘Large Grazers Guidelines’ that were adopted by the Dutch Parliament in 2000. This framework and the Group’s subsequent work also played a significant role in ethical considerations of the opinions that were delivered in 2006 and in 2010 by the International Commission on Management of the OVP.

Since early 2017, the continued existence of the OVP as we know it has been at risk. As a result of the decentralization of Dutch nature policy, the Province of Flevoland was charged with responsibility for the management of the OVP and for the welfare of the animals. By a large majority, the members of the Provincial Council opted for a radical reorientation: they aimed at a substantial reduction in the number of animals, and they wanted to make the OVP attractive to tourists and recreational users.

Historical Background of the Oostvaardersplassen Nature Reserve

In Europe, rewilding has indeed gone Dutch. However, the term ‘rewilding’ did not become an established concept in the Netherlands until the start of Rewilding Europe in 2010. The Dutch term was ‘nature development’; the adoption of rewilding marked a switch from a defensive to an offensive strategy. Rather than clinging to the protection and conservation of existing nature reserves, the overriding purpose was to create and develop ‘new nature.’

The strategy of nature development that had been elaborated since the early 1980s is at the core of the ambitious Nature Policy Plan that was adopted in 1990 by the Dutch Parliament. In order to give nature development a chance, this plan claimed a considerable amount of space in the form of the National Ecological Network, a coherent network of internationally important nature areas.

With these innovative ideas, the Netherlands emerged as a pioneer of European nature policy. The Habitats Directive, including the plan of the European Union (EU) Natura 2000 ecological network of protected sites, was adopted in 1992, while the EU was under Dutch Presidency, and has been perceived as a ‘Dutch Directive’ by many officials in the Netherlands and abroad.

The Dutch flagship rewilding project par excellence is the OVP, a nature reserve with a remarkable history.1 When the last of the polders that had been created in the former Zuiderzee was drained in 1968, a marshy landscape began to emerge in the lowest area. Initially earmarked for industry, this marshy area of 6,600 hectares soon evolved into a perfect habitat for bird species that had become very rare in the Netherlands or had completely disappeared from the country. By 1989 the OVP had become a nature reserve of international importance as a Birds Directive Area and as a protected wetland under the Ramsar

Convention. In 1999 the OVP received the European Diploma for Protected Areas, a prestigious international award granted since 1965 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Whereas North American rewilders have emphasized the role of predation by large carnivores, Dutch and, subsequently, European rewilders have focused on naturalistic grazing by large herbivores. The first large-scale experiment with naturalistic grazing was carried out in the OVP. Here, Frans Vera and colleagues used Heck cattle that originated in the 1920s and 1930s in an attempt by the brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck to breed back domestic cattle to the aurochs that went extinct in 1627. They also made use of the konik horse, the closest relative to its wild predecessor, the tarpan, the Eurasian wild horse, the last of which died in Moscow Zoo in 1887.

In 1983 and 1984, 34 Heck cattle and 20 konik horses were introduced to the OVP. In 2012, a helicopter count revealed about 350 Heck cattle and 1,150 konik horses alongside 3,400 red deer, which were introduced in 1992. Because of these large numbers of free-roaming ungulates the German magazine Der Spiegel has called the OVP “the Serengeti behind the dikes.”

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