What’s an acceptable level of animal welfare in rewilding projects? Lessons from Oostvaardersplassen.
I was sickened to see the images on Twitter of the starving animals in the Oostvaardersplassen rewilding project in Holland; i’m sure most people would be. We live in a citycentric society where many people’s main association with animals comes through Disney films or cute dogs dressed up in human clothes! This can lead to a dangerous disconnect from the actual harsh reality of nature in action.
But when animals are fenced into an area, it’s not truly ‘wild’, it’s managed. In these cases, I believe we have a responsibility to ensure an acceptable level of health within the populations is maintained.
But what’s an acceptable level?
As I have walked around the overgrazed livestock fields in the Northern uplands last Winter and Spring I have been as equally shocked and saddened by the death and starvation happening all around us as by the horror unfolding in the rewilding project in Oostvaardersplassen.
According to the fallen stock collection services, livestock deaths last winter were up 40% on the previous year. That’s going to add up to a lot more than 3000 animals and I can assure you these animals were not humanely dispatched. (1)
It highlights many important questions that need to be considered about the process and effectiveness of grazing on our environment. We seem to be getting it wrong in the extremes of both farming and conservation.
If a habitat includes grassland, then we need grazing animals for this habitat to be truly healthy. Unlike trees which shed their leaves to allow the light to reach the growth points in Spring, grasses don’t shed their leaves. Why? Because they co-evolved with grazing animals who defoliated them very effectively without having to develop their own strategy.
When a grass is grazed, the breath and saliva of the animal actually stimulates the root to grow so that the plant can regrow it’s ‘solar panels’ quickly. (2)
The added dunging, trampling and urinating associated with grazing fertilises the soil, improves soil structure and adds to the healthy microbiome required for a thriving ecosystem.
In parts of the world where moisture is present throughout the year, habitats can regenerate better than those where the extended periods of hot dry weather limit microbe activity and natural decay. In both environments, herbivores improve mineral cycling and soil health but in the low humidity areas of the world, the grazing and trampling of ungulates are critical to prevent the stalling of the mineral cycle which leads to desertification. (3)
But, there’s a BIG difference between regenerative grazing and overgrazing. The missing piece of this grazing puzzle usually has big teeth and sharp claws. (4)
Predators are completely essential to ensuring the health of grasslands and wood pasture. In the dry-land savanna’s; lions, cheetah, leopards and many other terrifying hunters keep herbivores in fear of their lives and huge groups form for their own protection. This means the long and dead grasses are trampled and cycled effectively allowing a flush of new season grass growth and the continual building of deep rich soils.
In other parts of the world wolves and other predators attack smaller bands of grazing animals in open glades or places where the grazers frequent like watering points. Deer and other herbivores in these environments don’t linger long in the same place and are always alert and moving.
In both these situations, the reasons that a healthy habitat is maintained is the herbivore doesn’t have the freedom to continually select their favourite species over an over again which leads to the overgrazing of these plants and the eventual demise of the species within the sward.
In Europe where we tend towards a more favourable climate for natural regeneration we often see impressive results initially from simply removing herbivores or reducing their numbers. But over time, the less palatable species grow unchecked and the more palatable become heavily preferred. This leads to a gradual shift towards a habitat that has overgrazed areas and increasingly rank areas. Both areas reduce in complexity over time and can lead to poor ecosystem process function.
Perhaps it’s now obvious why we have issues in both passive rewilding projects AND degraded grassland environment in the farmed uplands. No predators.
The other reason predators are key, is that they manage the population of the herbivores. It’s simply easier killing animals if they are slow and sick, these are also naturally the ones that are most susceptible to starvation in a harsh winter. Even removing small numbers can strengthen the genetics of a population and ensure only the healthiest fittest animals breed.
In Oostvaardersplassen and other rewilding projects where there are no predators keeping the population health in check the numbers will rise quickly supported by the flush of summer grass and instead of a horrific but quick end to the less healthy members of the herd, we see starvation and suffering instead.
In the upland environments centuries of set stock grazing without predators has led to a heavily overgrazed sward where the only species now thriving are the ones that the livestock won’t eat like bracken, matt grass and purple moor grass. The more these dominant species thrive, the smaller the grass area becomes and heavier the overgrazing; it’s a vicious cycle.
These overgrazed grasses are themselves sick, their short roots can’t reach the minerals and the lack of complexity in the sward doesn’t offer the range of phytonutrients required to keep the sheep and cattle healthy. The ecosystem processes quickly decline, and we see symptoms such as poor water infiltration which leads to flooding and standing water that favours species like the fluke snail and rush. The situation in the UK uplands has reached a tipping point and the result is huge losses in the livestock industry alongside the more obvious ecological decline.
So, what’s the solution? In the UK we are not likely to see the reintroduction of wolves any time soon. How can we achieve better nature-friendly profitable farming and better results in our rewilding projects?
In Wilderculture we ensure that the grazing patterns mimic those of wild herds without the need for predators. It facilitates the full recovery of all the species in the sward and prevents them being re-grazed before their root systems have fully recovered which prevents overgrazing. This can be achieved through a range of innovative techniques, tricks and the use of holistic planned grazing. We plan the forage availability and assess the herbivore impacts on the whole habitat and plan the recovery periods and winter forage reserves well in advance. The number of animals is carefully crafted to fit what the habitat can sustain whilst still allowing for regeneration and we can plan for enough forage to see the livestock AND the wildlife through even the worst winters or summer droughts. You can follow our Isle of Carna project HERE.
Herbivore populations in wild environment are regulated from both the forage resource up and the predator impact down. In no natural situation would large numbers of animals simply starve to death without being ‘finished off’ by another species. If we erected the fences and put the animals in the pen, then it’s our role to become that influential species.
In Wilderculture we consider our managers to be ‘keystone predators.’ It’s our job to regulate numbers, it’s our job to ensure the grazing is helping the habitat thrive and it’s our job to dispatch an animal quickly when it’s suffering.
I would love to know your thoughts. Where should we draw the line with animal welfare in rewilding projects? Please leave your comments below and feel free to share this article.