Can we put a fence around Wilderness?

The European definition describes Wilderness as an area where nature is free to develop the way she likes. This means that people do not interfere with nature. Preferably, the nature is unmodified or only slightly modified in the past, and has no human-made structures. But if we only speak of Wilderness when people should not hunt animals, cut trees, collect mushrooms and berries, or remove invasive species, how should we protect it? Is a fence around Wilderness a solution?

Please also read: European Wilderness Definition

Wilderness is self-willed land

Europe currently counts about 40 Wilderness, which are Partners of the European Wilderness Network. The main principle of Wilderness in the core zone, is called self-willed land. Local Protected Area management does not extract or intervene with the natural processes that occur in the core zone. Around the core zone there are restoration, transition zones in which human activities continue on a low level. These zones provide potential for future enlargement of the core zone, if human activities stop.

Stopping people and animals

Whenever people want to keep out certain people from a certain area, we install fences. Whether it is a garden, a military base, or a no-go area. But fences do not only keep out people, they also stop animals. This causes a challenge when we talk about Wilderness, because animals are also part of it. Early this year, European Wilderness Society visited National Park Sumava in the Czech Republic. Sumava lies at the Czech-German border, right next to the Bavarian Forest. Both sides aim to protect nature and allow natural processes to happen on a local scale. Recently, Sumava management confirmed that the park also counts on the wolf to control wildlife populations, instead of only hunters. We found in Sumava a strictly protected forest, where nature was said to develop in a self-willed manner. However, there is a big wooden fence around this forest. Looking over the fence, you will see big old pine trees and quite some dead wood, but almost no animals.

So is there no Wilderness potential in National Park Sumava? Yes, there is. As the principles for natural development are already in place, it is only a matter of changing the implementation what would allow Wilderness to develop further. This case already shows the complexity of Wilderness implementation in Czech Republic, let us take a look at another example.

Tragedy of the Dutch ‘Wilderness Zoo’

It is the topic of the year for Dutch conservationists, ecologists, politicians and civilians: the Oostvaardersplassen. The Oostvaarderplassen is one of the biggest nature conservation projects in the Netherlands. It had the aim to allow natural developments in a densely populated country. Since the 1980’s, when people created the wetlands, the area became home to a variety of birds and mammals. Reintroduction of deer, wild horses and cattle occurred. The idea was that these herbivores would prevent trees from overgrowing the wetlands. For many years, it seemed to work, as the Oostvaardersplassen remained an open landscape.

In the last years, also due to climate overheating, winters were mild in the Netherlands. As a result, many animals survived the winters and continued to reproduce. Animal populations continued to increase in the Oostvaarderplassen, which could no longer sustain the numbers. The Oostvaardersplassen are fenced in, so that animals do not wander off and create dangerous situations or cause collisions with traffic. With over 5 000 animals on a barren landscape and the cold winter of 2017-2018, it was only a matter of time for nature to regulate the life in the Oostvaardersplassen again.

Wilderness is not a zoo

Inevitably, many animals did not find enough food to survive the winter. Animals could not leave the area in search for food and the weakest animals started to die of starvation. This caused a lot of critique from the citizens. The people responsible for the area were accused of animal cruelty. People started protesting, throwing hay over the fences. Meanwhile, authorities decided to help suffering animals, aiming to shoot 90% of the animals that were not likely to survive the winter. The shootings caused even more protests, to an extent where the police had to intervene.

The winter of 2017-2018 costed the lives of more than 3 000 animals. The remaining animals were fed with extra hay by the authorities to calm the public. The Dutch Wilderness became a Dutch Zoo. For the coming years, authorities aim to keep the number of animals around 1 500 in the Oostvaardersplassen. With culling, additional feeding, and a fence, the step to become Wilderness became even bigger than it already was.

An incomplete ecosystem

Every ecosystem has complex interactions, so there is never a single answer to solve a challenge. But one thing is clear, the ecosystem of the Oostvaardersplassen was out of balance. The herbivore populations were able to grow beyond proportions because they could not leave and there was no natural regulator, no predator. People do not remember the last bear or lynx in the Netherlands anymore. But the wolf is a different story. Just like in many other European countries, the wolf is also returning to the Netherlands. It seems that more and more wolves wander across the country in search for a suitable place to settle. The first female wolf might have found a place already, so it is only a matter of time before the first Dutch wolf pack establishes. Can wolves solve the challenges of the overpopulated Oostvaarderplassen? Probably not by itself, but it would be a step in the direction of natural developments. And if the aim is to have a Dutch Wilderness in the future, the challenges with the fence are the next to tackle.

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