Many rewilding projects around the world are gaining support. However, controversies in the Dutch Oostvaardesplassen project cast doubts about just how hands-off these projects should be.

It is hoped that the recent release of the new BBC wildlife series Wild Isles will inspire the British public to engage with and appreciate the nature that’s on our doorstep. We might think that in order to witness the theatre of the natural world that we’re used to seeing on our screens, our only choice is to visit the plains of Africa or the jungles of South America. This new landmark programme, narrated by David Attenborough, aims to show the British public that there is a staggering variety and diversity of wildlife on our shores, if we know where to look.

With this in mind, I am travelling to the Knepp Estate in April to visit the UK’s flagship rewilding project, where I hope to be greeted by the cuckoos and turtle doves making the long migration from Africa. Prior to this though, I visited the Oostvaardersplassen, which is part of the inspiration behind Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell’s vision for Knepp. The Oostvaardersplassen rewilding project is an ongoing initiative to create and maintain a self-regulating ecosystem. The project began in the 1980s with the release of large herbivores, such as Konik horses and Heck cattle, which are modern-day breeds meant to replicate the hardy, rugged nature of their wild, but extinct, counterparts such as aurochs. The idea behind the project was to allow natural processes to shape the landscape and create a more diverse and resilient ecosystem.

“For millennia humans have succeeded in domesticating the natural world and the consequences of doing so have only become more evident.”

The project is seen as a pioneering example of a “hands-off” approach to conservation, where natural processes are allowed to shape the landscape and create a more diverse and resilient ecosystem. The project has inspired similar rewilding initiatives across Europe and beyond. For example, rewilding projects have been launched in areas such as Scotland, Spain, and Romania, with the aim of restoring natural habitats and reintroducing native species. The project has played a key role in shaping the debate around conservation and management strategies.

However, there has been controversy surrounding the project due to the ethics of allowing animals to die of starvation in the name of natural regulation. In 2018, the Dutch government ruled that the reserve could not allow animals to die of starvation, due to animal welfare considerations, and so 90% of the 5,230 red deer, Konik horses and Heck cattle were shot before they starved. Protestors threw hay bales over the fence of the reserve, ecologists and rangers received death threats and the project was compared to Auschwitz.

The Oostvaardersplassen example perfectly frames the question of where we strike the balance between active management and hands-off approaches. It also highlights just how out of touch people, specifically in the West, are with nature. The rise of human-dominated landscapes has been a very recent phenomenon, in ecological terms, but has severed our connection with the natural world in no time.

The horse lovers in the Netherlands who defame the Oostvaardesplassen and declare what they’re doing as animal cruelty are the same people who isolate horses from their families, break them in so they can be used for their pleasure or sport and artificially inseminate them so that their offspring can be turned into profit. It’s ironic really that these people believe what is being done to the horses is cruel given that what is being done to them is exactly nothing – this is the whole point. The horses are able to live in their own communities, with their peers and family, graze as they please and find their own mates, instead of being subjugated into servitude by overly confident Homo sapiens.

Wild horses on the Oostvaardersplassen (Image via UNSPLASH)

For millennia humans have succeeded in domesticating the natural world and the consequences of doing so have only become more evident. Rewilding is an attempt to see what happens when we concede that we might have been wrong; that maybe nature should have remained in the driving seat and that we have become too big for our boots on a monumental scale. There is very promising evidence that rewilding and vast natural restoration has immense benefits to everyone – and by everyone, I do not mean all humans, but all living beings.

Unfortunately, despite the projected benefits, it is very hard to determine the outcomes of rewilding because it is very hard to achieve full rewilding. Most attempts to rewild a landscape are at a disadvantage before they have even begun because of legislation that has flatly decided that Homo sapiens are the only species worthy of our consideration.

Today, on World Rewilding Day, the theme is Rewilding Hope. Various projects throughout the world are beginning to demonstrate that human’s need not be so naïve to think that we alone will solve the climate crisis. Rewilding is bringing individuals and communities hope. By reconnecting with nature at a deep level, people are beginning to understand that we are not outside of nature, but we are very much a part of it. It is unsurprising then that doctors are now prescribing time in nature for mental health problems. Only by fostering our relationship with nature will we ever find a way out of the climate and biodiversity crises we find ourselves in.