Return to nature: Dutch environment slowly stabilising

Return to nature: Dutch environment slowly stabilising

Since the 1950s, many plant and animal species in the Netherlands have been deteriorating, with numbers in decline. But new data from the CBS, analysing nearly 1.800 species, indicates a stabilisation, or even a slight reversal, in this trend.

This is the first time since 1995 that a (slight) improvement over a wide range of species groups in the Netherlands has been observed, giving tentative cause for hope.

Nature under pressure

Nature in the Netherlands has long been under pressure due to rapid expansion of agriculture and urban growth in the second half of the 20th century. Such developments led to the destruction of habitat, desiccation, or extreme dryness, and the effect of large amounts of man-made substances entering the water system (including phosphates from detergents, fertilisers and sewerage).

However, over the past 20 years, many countermeasures have been taken, including the reduction of air pollution, and the conversion of old farmland into nature reserves.

One example of such measures is the return to nature of one of the Wadden Islands, which had its last building removed at the start of the year. Also within Dutch cities, such as Amsterdam, water authorities are working to improve canal water quality by connecting all houseboats to the main sewerage system.

Rode lijst: the endangered species list

Currently more than one third of all flora and fauna species in the Netherlands is listed as endangered on the rode lijst. The first widespread analysis of plant and animal populations was conducted in 1995, followed by another in 2005, which showed a slight increase in endangered species to almost 39 percent.

However, in the most recent analysis from 2013, the percentage of endangered species is marginally lower, at just over 38 percent, compared with the 2005 study. This slight decrease may be the first indicator of a stabilisation, or reversal of trends, in the decline of plant and animal populations.

The improvement is strongest with dragonflies and mammals, whose populations were already on the rise in 1995. Since 2005 a slight improvement in vascular plants, reptiles and breeding bird populations has also been recorded. For butterflies and amphibians, however, little or no recovery has been observed.

Data collection

The analysis data is collected via thousands of volunteer field observers and is extrapolated to calculate population size and distribution. Standardised data is used from the national monitoring networks of the Ecological Monitoring Network (Netwerk Ecologische Monitoring), as well as non-standardised data from the National Database of Flora and Fauna (NDFF).

In total 1.771 species are analysed, including mammals, breeding birds, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, dragonflies, and vascular plants.

Impact of farming

Farming in the Netherlands is a major contributor to the Netherlands’ flagging biodiversity (one of the lowest levels in Europe).

In past decades Dutch farms have had a bad environmental record: land reclaimed from the sea was converted into monoculture polders for grazing cattle, and, especially in the 1970s, farms became larger and more productive with little environmental regulation, leading to degradation of the land.

Widespread application of manure, pesticides and fertilisers also contaminates fields and water.

Farming innovation

Albert-Jan Maat, the chair of the Dutch Farms Association, insists that these days many farmers are increasingly focussing on sustainable intensive agriculture. They are driven by consumer demand for better environmental practices on farms, as well as pressure from the government.

Return of the otter

One such species that disappeared in the 1980s was the European otter (Latin: Lutra lutra). Otters were reintroduced to the Netherlands in 2002 and within 10 years the population had grown from 15 to 85.

According to the Friends of the Otter Foundation, the Dutch otter population is showing positive growth signs, but is still very vulnerable as they tend to roam and cross highways.

Slow improvements

So is this cause for celebration? Kees de Ruiter, from the Dutch Institute for Nature and Sustainability (IVN) was restrained in his enthusiasm about the report, stating "Of course it is good news, but it’s sad that we find it good news if there are fewer species extinct than expected".

"What you see here, is the result of years of effort" said Margreet van Beem, a spokeswoman for the Society for Preservation of Nature Nonuments in the Netherlands (Vereniging Natuurmonumenten) "to really turn the tide much more work needs to be done".

Sources: Natuurbericht, Volkskrant, The Economist

Beatrice Clarke


Beatrice Clarke

Beatrice is a native Melbournian who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. With a background in independent publishing and fashion, Beatrice honed her understanding of Dutch language and culture working...

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