The OVP Controversy

Although it is certainly the case that OVP’s management approach of rewilding with large ungulates has proved immensely exciting to conservation biology throughout Europe, it also provoked fierce protests from park visitors, farmers, veterinarians, and animal protectionists. The main issue of contention was the guiding policy principle that ‘nature should be allowed to take its course’ and, consequently, that human intervention on behalf of starving and diseased animals was considered acceptable only when mass mortality would be imminent.

According to opponents, this restrictive policy concerning supplementary feeding and veterinary assistance was a clear violation of the Animal Health and Welfare Act (1992), passed by the Dutch parliament, which endorses the intrinsic value of animals and stipulates the duty to provide them with proper care. This law applies only to domestic animals, kept as production or companion animals, but the opponents challenge the claim that the large ungulates in the OVP should be considered as animals living in the wild. They point out that the situation in the OVP is far from natural: animals are fenced in and hindered in their migration, and there are no natural predators to ‘take care of sick animals. Furthermore, the newly introduced Heck cattle and konik horses were originally drawn from farms, zoos, or small parks—in short, from quite domesticated backgrounds; they were accustomed to human assistance in bearing young and in care of their udders and hooves, and the sudden absence of this human care could easily lead to chronic stress, increasing the chances of disease, injury, or violent behavior.

The discussion erupted during the harsh winter of 1995/1996 when people insisted on supplementary feeding for the introduced horses and cattle in the OVP. The Dutch dairy farmers’ union even planned the dropping of hay bales by helicopter. In addition, farmers, but also veterinarians, opposed the policy of not removing decaying carcasses but leaving them as feed for scavengers such as crows, buzzards, and foxes, because this policy would be in violation of the Destruction Act (1994) which stipulates that carcasses of farm animals should be incinerated in order to prevent the spread of disease. The Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals also made its voice heard. In a letter to the Minister of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries, the society called the management of the OVP “extremely dubious, inconsistent and unjustifiable.” Ultimately, the issue led to questions in Parliament and to discussions in the opinion pages of most Dutch newspapers.

Philosophical Research into the Moral Problems of Large Grazers

In response to this public and political commotion, the Philosophy Group of Wageningen University was invited by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research to carry out research into the ethical questions raised by the use of large grazers in nature areas such as the OVP—an investigation that was requested by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries. I carried out this research in 1997 and 1998 together with my colleagues Henk van den Belt, Bart Gremmen, Irene Klaver, and Michiel Korthals. It continued in the period 2000-2006 in collaboration with Sjaak Swart and Henny van der Windt of the Science and Society Group at the University of Groningen, in two projects that were also funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

In order to gain an overview of the ethical problems associated with the policy regarding large grazers in nature areas, we initially studied the management practices through a number of interviews with park rangers from three different sites, including the OVP. From conversations with the rangers, who worked with large grazers on a daily basis, we distilled a number of moral dilemmas. These were then discussed in a broadly-based workshop. The invitees included members of parliament; site managers of the OVP; members of the board of directors of the State Forest Service, who had been responsible for the management of the OVP since 1996; civil servants from the Province of Flevoland, where the OVP is located; representatives of the Council on Animal Affairs and the Council for the Rural Area, two important government advisory boards; and various nature conservation and animal welfare organizations, as well as farmers’ and hunters’ associations.

The discussions in this workshop clearly revealed that the debate was dominated by two diametrically-opposed positions. The majority of farmers, veterinarians, and animal protectionists viewed the released horses and cattle as domesticated animals, for which the duty of individual care should be fully upheld. They also stressed that the conditions in Dutch nature reserves are in fact far from natural, and therefore concluded that the animals in question are permanently dependent on human care. Most park rangers, herd managers, and nature conservationists, on the other hand, preferred to treat the released horses and cattle—ethologically and ethically—as wild animals, for which a hands-off duty is appropriate. They also believed that nature in the Netherlands still has sufficient resilience locally to stand on its own feet. In short, people considered the animals either as kept and domesticated or as wild. We concluded that because of this black-and-white thinking, people exhaust themselves in unproductive boundary disputes in which both sides were claiming an exclusive ‘moral jurisdiction’ over large herbivores.

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