A Walk on the Wild Side: Just outside Amsterdam is a landscape that shimmers like the Serengeti, with wildlife to match
Twenty miles or so east of Amsterdam, set between the new towns of Almere and Lelystad, and lying five metres below sea-level, is the youngest wilderness I have ever seen. The Oostvaardersplassen is now a vast region of grassland, reed-bed, shallow lake and ragged forest, over 6,000 hectares in extent. Sea eagles and marsh harriers hunt its wide skies, spoonbills and avocets stalk its marshes, and vast herds of red deer, wild ponies and Heck cattle graze its savannah.
But 40 years ago, the Oostvaardersplassen was underwater. Its name, which unfolds into English as “the place through which ships sail on the way from Amsterdam to the East Indies”, alludes to its former status as sea. The existence of the Oostvaardersplassen, like much of the coastal Netherlands, is due to the Dutch genius for hydro-engineering. In the 1930s the government began an audacious project to dyke off and dry out four massive areas of land to the east of Amsterdam, at the southerly end of the Zuiderzee. By 1968 three such “polders” had been created, with all of the reclaimed land earmarked in advance for industry, agriculture and conurbation.
Then came the oil crisis of 1973. The Dutch economy lapsed into recession. Development of the polders faltered. The area between Almere and Lelystad—which had never been fully drained—became home to egrets instead of factories. Sensing opportunity, a small but determined group of conservationists set out to strategise, proselytise and wheedle the Oostvaardersplassen into being as a nature reserve unlike any other: a slab of wild land in the heart of one of the world’s most densely settled nations.
Among European naturalists, the Oostvaardersplassen is a fabled place: radical in its permissive vision of how nature might be managed, and inspirational in its scale. I first heard tell of it a decade ago; this year, at last, I visited it. I caught a slow train out of Amsterdam, clacking past miles of suburb, and then miles of farmland: field and furrow, maize-stand and tulip row, straight-edged and ultra-ordered.