At the end of every cold winter there is a debate in the Netherlands on whether the forestry service should feed the oxes, horses and deers grazing the Dutch nature resorts. The official policy of the Dutch forestry service is to let the ecosystem manage itself, which causes the weaker animals – 24% of the population – to parish because of lack of food: a sight too natural for most ‘nature’ lovers.

In response to the protests, the initiators of the Dutch ‘hands-off’ landscape management argue that the protests of hikers, bikers and other tourists merely exemplify how alienated people have become from nature. However, are the premises of these policy makers really valid? Is it defendable to leave the animals in the hands of the elements or is this game getting out of hand?

Recreating a prehistoric landscape

Since the last few decades the policy for nature resorts in the Netherlands has been geared at regenerating the original landscape, as it existed in prehistoric times. In practice this means that land is gained from the ocean or bought from farmers and transformed into the landscape we think existed 8.000 years ago, long before man placed its footprint on it.

Recreation at the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands

Although this policy has been rather successful and resulted in some beautiful, largely self-sustaining resorts, there are also drawbacks. One difficulty is that we don’t know exactly what the landscape looked like in prehistoric times and have to make lots of educated guesses in this regard. Another issue that immediately emerged along with the desire to regenerate an ancient ecosystem is the fact that some elements simply don’t exist anymore.

One difficulty is that we don’t know exactly what the landscape looked like in prehistoric times

For instance the ancestor of domestic cattle, the aurochs (Bos primigenius), a type of huge wild cattle that inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa in prehistoric times, became extinct in 1627. The aurochs was far larger than most modern domestic cattle with a shoulder height of 2 meter and weighing 1,000 kilograms. Domestication occurred in several parts of the world at roughly the same time, about 8.000 years ago. The aurochs already appeared in Paleolithic European cave paintings – such as those found at Lascaux and Livernon in France – and was regarded as a challenging quarry animal.

The main causes of extinction of the original aurochs population were hunting, a narrowing of habitat due to the development of farming, climatic changes and diseases transmitted by domestic cattle, which are so different in size and build that they are regarded as separate species. The last recorded live aurochs died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland from natural causes.

Rebreeding the extinct aurochs

In 1920, some 300 years after the aurochs became extinct, the Heck brothers, two German biologists and Zoo directors, attempted to recreate aurochs they knew from the countless existing drawings and paintings. Their idea was that the genetic material of the aurochs was still present scattered over various domesticated animals and that it would be possible to rebreed the original extinct aurochs.

Aurochs depicted in ancient cave paintings in Lascaux.

The resulting animals, called Heck cattle or reconstructed aurochs, resemble the original aurochs in its ability to live autonomously, although without such impressive size. They number in the thousands in Europe today, however, due to their intolerance of people in their surroundings, regenerated aurochs are less suitable for nature resorts that are open to the public. At these locations the less aggressive Highland Cow functions as stand-in for the extinct aurochs.

Nowadays, at countless locations in the Dutch landscape, the Highland Cows appear to be just as strong and independent as the original aurochs – almost like accomplished actors –, yet the facts remain that contrary to the prehistoric aurochs, the Highland Cow is a domesticated animal, dependent on people. While in its original setting in Scotland the Highlands Cows were brought into the valleys in the wintertime where they could find some shelter in barns of farmers, in the regenerated prehistoric landscape there is no place for such un-prehistoric shelters.

Today over 16 million people live in The Netherlands, which significantly reduces the freedom of the animals to move around and find a suitable habitat.

Another difference with the prehistoric aurochs and their contemporary enactors is the huge difference in their living environment. In prehistoric times, perhaps a few hundred people lived in an area the size of the Netherlands, today this number is over 16 million, which significantly reduces the freedom of the animals to move around and find a suitable habitat. Arguably, the original aurochs would never have chosen the gated habit their stand-ins are currently wind up in. The absence of predators, like wolfs, only adds to the tragedy.

Regenerated nature of recreational simulation?

The key question of the debate should revolve around whether we should perceive these so–called nature reserves and the living animals they inhabit, as a truly natural environment, or that we could better consider them as recreational simulations of a prehistoric landscape, made for the pleasure and education of people. Considering the difficulty (read: impossibility) to fully recreate the prehistoric ecology and its inhabitants in such a relatively tiny area already crowded by people, one is inclined to answer the latter.

Like the landscape paintings people pin up above their couches for pleasure, these regenerated natural resorts are merely copies of an old nature that is long gone and can never truly be recreated: change happens, evolution goes on. The best we can do is a re-enactment – a simulation of the landscape we believe existed in prehistoric times – and although the realism of this simulation is certainly more profound than in any given landscape painting, in the end it will always remain a derivative.

These regenerated natural resorts are merely copies of an old nature that is long gone and can never truly be recreated

Now don’t get it wrong: The Dutch attempts of recreating prehistoric landscapes aren’t necessarily bad policy. They are a form of cultural heritage that not only educates people on the history of the region, but also fulfills the need for green zones in an overly urbanized area – which is not only for the benefit of people, but also for wild birds that thankfully spend the winter in the green zones.

All things considered, the regenerated prehistoric landscapes of the Netherlands are best understood as theatre: an attempt to recreate the long gone historic landscape and its actors within a contemporary stage. Like in a theatre play or a movie, we are willing to dispend our disbelief and linger in the imaginary story portrayed before us.

Nonetheless a theatre director must also be considerate in what the actors are put through for the sake of a good play. In this regard the horrifying and painful deaths of the starving Highland Cows and Heck aurochs are a form of ‘method acting’ that has perhaps been taken just a bit too far.

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  • @Jane: Thank you. Indeed an impressive human-animal kinship, I am Looking forward to viewing the whole documentary.

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  • Hi Koert. Been following your blog and enjoying it. Have you seen this clip? "The story of 30-year companionship between a 40-year-old ox and an 80 years old man. Neither time nor civilization can go against their companionship. (Korean with English subtitled Film)"

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  • Without large predators, I don't think you can even come close to regenerated (maybe the better term is rewilded - since we can't go back to the way things were) nature. On that topic, allow me to recommend - excellent examination of the keystone role played by apex predators.

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  • This is a very important article - and includes the concept of "restoration" that exists all over. All of our restoration is partial, incomplete and culturally-driven. There was a time that nature impelled culture; now we have the opposite and our culture is rootless. This appears to be a search for that lost understanding and connection. We are lost creatures.

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  • chapeau voor koert

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