I visited the Oostvaardersplassen as part of a week-long wood pasture study tour in 2016. Wood pasture is a little-known ecosystem which, as the name suggests, is neither woodland or pasture and yet, at the same time, both. I had previously visited Geltsdale in northeast Cumbria, where wildflower meadows that hum with insects are woven amongst gnarled old birch trees, rowans, oak and alder. Old breed cattle graze this magical landscape that is more reminiscent of a fairytale than a farm.
Frans Vera is a Dutch ecologist who has questioned the received wisdom that in the absence of humans, northwest Europe would have been dominated by dense, closed canopy forest. Instead, he poses the idea that a suite of grazing animals would have engineered a much more dynamic patchwork of woodland and pasture. The Oostvaardersplassen was Vera’s chance to test his theory.
In the 1960s this land was reclaimed from the sea for industrial development, but the oil crisis of 1973 meant that the planned ranks of factories never materialised. Along with colleagues, Vera moved to get the area protected. He watched how greylag geese re-engineered the emerging reed-beds into shallow ponds, which other birds quickly occupied. The idea of using grazers to create diversity was born.