Due to nitrogen pollution, dehydration and fragmentation, Dutch nature is in the second worst condition in the EU. Nevertheless, improvement is possible, leading ecologists tell NU.nl. It is crucial that nitrogen is reduced, but also that agriculture and nature go together again. And you do that in more and more places.
The big challenge, say the ecologists, is that we are once again learning to live with nature. Their dream image for Holland is not large enclosed nature reserves, but a landscape where nature, agriculture and human habitation go hand in hand. That landscape has had Holland for many centuries, and did not disappear until the twentieth century.
“Our outlined dream image is often in the past, not in the future,” says professor of plant ecology Hans de Kroon from Radboud University in Nijmegen. “But the nature of the past will not return.”
De Kroon ended up in the international spotlight in 2017 with a shocking study on the decline of insects. More than three-quarters disappeared in just 27 years. Insects, together with wild plants, form the basis of ecology. Are we experiencing a complete collapse of natural life?
Dikes can turn into new flower meadows
It is not necessary, says De Kroon: “The decline can be turned upwards. But it will be in a new, natural landscape.”
He refers to a project for ‘flowering dikes’ together with the water boards. The secret there is mainly a different rock policy. Now beat edges and dikes with a harmful flail mower. He chops up all the plants and leaves the remains. Nitrogen accumulates higher and higher in such ridges, and in the end only grass and stinging nettle are alive.
That is changing rapidly with a policy of ‘cut and remove’ – and not all at once, but ‘phased’ so that flowers can set seeds and larvae can grow into butterflies. Within a few years, the results will be visible: On the dikes along the Rhine, hare bells, the great centaury, wild marjoram and countless other herbs are blooming again. And dozens of wild bee species are counted again.
If this policy were also applied to roadsides, the flowering grasslands that were once characteristic of the Dutch landscape would return – but in a new place.
The great century, a wild flower that belongs in the river landscape.
No recovery as long as the nitrogen blanket gets thicker
Still, the mop with the tap remains open as long as the big underlying problem is not solved: nitrogen. Minister of Nature and Nitrogen Christianne van der Wal presented the government’s nitrogen plan in Friday. These emissions must be sharply reduced, in order to stop the loss of species and habitats and to meet European nature conservation requirements.
We are not that far yet. The Dutch nature will in many places be even more degraded. This is because nitrogen builds up: As long as the emissions remain high, the carpet will become thicker and thicker, and the damage caused by eg grass and acidification will increase in the coming years.
In fact, everyone has to wait for the carpet of nitrogen to thin again, says Joop Schaminée, professor of plant ecology at the universities of Wageningen and Nijmegen. “In the meantime, we must prevent countless species from disappearing forever.”
To this end, Schaminée and colleague Nils van Rooijen have set up the ‘Het Levend Archief’ – an attempt to save all endangered plants in the Netherlands from extinction. These plants often occur only in small populations and fragmented areas.
The seeds are carefully stored in Wageningen and Nijmegen so that the endangered plants have a chance to eventually return to Dutch nature when the nitrogen excess is gone.
Plant pioneer lost his hope until just before his death
On Monday, ecologists met at Radboud University, where the Victor Westhoff lecture was held, named after the biologist who became famous in the last century for his reflections on Dutch nature.
“Westhoff himself was not very optimistic,” Schaminée says. “He has experienced decades of decline in Dutch nature, initiated by land consolidation, urbanization and the ever-increasing intensification of agriculture.”
It hurt him a lot, says Schaminée, who spent a lot of time as a student at Westhoff, who died in 2001. “His most beloved landscape was in Twente. He did not want to return there for years because so much had been lost. In the end, we persuaded him to look at the outcome of the nature restoration at Ootmarsum. “
When he ate a piece of raisin bread in a yard, Westhoff admitted to Schaminée that it exceeded his expectations. “After all, nature restoration may be possible.”
Where hedges return to agricultural land, biodiversity increases again.
Managing a vibrant landscape can cost a bit
The new generation of ecologists has held on to that hope. And they are also firmly rooted in society. For example, Emeritus Professor Louise Vet from the Dutch Institute of Ecology launched the Delta Plan for the Restoration of Biodiversity. In addition to farmers and nature advocates, major social actors such as LTO, ProRail and Rabobank are affiliated. “There’s a fast-growing bottom-up movement of farmers working for change. It’s full of inspiring alternatives,” says Vet.
According to Vet, the key is the development of new revenue models. “Farmers who manage our landscape and restore nature must be paid for it. A healthy living landscape is a benefit.”
An example is the Ooijpolder, where farmers and nature conservationists restore the hedge landscape. Here, too, the diversity of flowering plants, insects and birds is again increasing. And farmers also have a future.