Reinventing Waterland

Dutch Farmers Change the Landscape for Wildlife’s Sake

Across the pristine fields of northern Holland’s Waterland province, volunteer farmers dot the crisp landscape like colorful pins stuck in green felt. Some are hunched over, while others intently study their feet—a peculiar sight to passersby. But the awkward, insect-like movements of local residents serve an important purpose: They’re staking out bird nests and wildlife burrows to protect species from cattle stampedes, earth-ripping tractors, and oblivious humans.

Dutch farmers have struggled fiercely for centuries to create country, and land, where none existed, wrestling it from the claws of the biting North Sea. First using giant windmills to pump water from the terrain, creating reclaimed land known as polders, some Dutch farmers are now turning their attentions elsewhere—to saving wildlife.

Dutch farmers, aided by federal subsidies, now stake out canals for wildlife, using willow branches instead of old cars and washing machines.

While pigs outnumber people in the Netherlands, and agriculture exports are an important part of the economy, farmers and residents are becoming aware of the agricultural threats pervading these verdant fields: pesticide runoff, increased development, fragmented wildlife habitat, and intensive crop growing, which leaves little room or fodder for wild animals.

Ferdinand Ex of Amsterdam’s Environmental Planning Department says, “In Waterland, farmers are in charge of the nature reserves and get paid by the government for protecting the area and wildlife.”

Some environmentalists are critical of the farmers’ involvement, since they’re now being compensated for protecting species on their lands. But paying farmers, and supporting them with legislation, educational materials and volunteers, has spurred habitat protection on many provincial farms, something drastically needed as birds, snakes and other species’ numbers decline.

A country the size of Sicily, with 16 million people, the Netherlands can boast of 350 bird species, for the region serves as an important winter home for waterfowl migrating south. Because of this, farmers have placed a special emphasis on protecting birds and nesting sites across the polders, where farm machinery and monoculture planting often destroys them.

There’s only dairy farming in Waterland—no orchards or fruit growing, which means endless swaths of low-cropped grass used by dairy cattle, and little brush or habitat for wildlife.

“Waterland alone has 600 farmers,” says M. De Gier, a robust, flannel-clad Dutchman who runs a biodynamic farming operation in the province, and an historic farmhouse bed and breakfast in the village of Purmer. “We’ve developed a program called Agriculture Nature Protection of Waterland, where animals, people and nature are the three tenets of protection. There are 450 members of the group, and each gets a task, depending on what they can do. One example is a farmer flooding part of his land to make a pond for birds during migration stopovers. The lapwing has been helped tremendously by this.” Projects are important in the region because fields are devoted to low-cropped grasses for dairy grazing—there are no orchards or bird-friendly crops, say farmers.

Seventy percent of endangered redshank birds breed in the Netherlands. And 80 percent of black-tailed godwits, refined birds with brown slender bodies and long beaks, call the Dutch polder home. Farmers search for such birds breeding in their fields, and then mark the nests with a stick, explains Brigitta Kroon-Fiorita of the Netherlands Board of Tourism. Tractors are also rigged with chains to scare away rabbits and ducks hiding in the fields during plowing time. Farmers also build heavy wire cages over some nests, so cows don’t step on them when grazing. Many farmers also create big strips of natural flowers and grains in between crops, as small habitat and feeding patches.

“Volunteers and farmers work together to gather data on the improvements,” adds De Gier. “They also create small wetlands by staking off parts of the canals to gather water. They used to throw in old cars, stoves, washing machines, or garbage to dam up the canals. Now farmers stake it off with willows instead.”

Wildlife volunteers are proud of their successes. The black stern, a rare bird of the polder, used to breed on floating peat bogs found in the area, so volunteers now create floats for them to nest and breed on, as floating peat is scarce. And the rare, rooster-like capon, which ruffles its feathers to attract mates, prefers the herbal strips created by farmers, and the beetles that thrive nearby.

Strips along the canals are further fenced off from the fields so herbs can grow there for wildlife alone. The seeds are then carried by waterways and land on exposed peat along other farms, doing the volunteers’ work for them. Farmers then hand mow in these areas so the blooming peat is preserved and not muddied over.

But birds aren’t the only recipient of the farmers’ handiwork. Ring snakes nearly disappeared in Waterland, but now breed in specially-made straw stacks. In the winter, they build homes and nests in them, to keep their eggs warm.

Waterland’s vision is now a national one. Schiphol Airport, on Amsterdam’s rural outskirts, wants to expand. But outlying farmers are ready: They’re already trying to connect habitats and create interlinking corridors for wildlife there, to give animals and people access to adjacent green spaces. Small corridors and tunnels at bridges and roads allow animals to cross to other habitats, without being killed.

Ex points out that in the Netherlands, green spaces already established can’t be easily developed, even if they’re private property. “And if someone buys farmland, they have to farm it as well—the purpose of the land has to stay the same,” he explains. This is good news for environmentalists, since developers would remain impotent in certain areas, while farmers maintain control of preservation in their regions.

Farmers are also trying to protect wildlife by changing their methods. Popular Dutch crops include potatoes, flowers and sugar beets—foods which use vast quantities of pesticides. Piet Boogert, general manager of the hotel chain Golden Tulip (which recently launched a line of organic foods for hotel guests) says this is changing. “The amount of organic farms are increasing rapidly in Holland,” he says.

Boogert predicts that only the farmers who specialize in certain types of agriculture, including organic, will continue succeeding, as the country runs out of room to grow crops. But he points out that Dutch farmers are now able to produce more with little land, and doing it more wisely, as biodynamic and mechanized processes become more popular and affordable. “Farmers used to throw leftover pesticides into ditches, which tainted the ground and water,” Boogert says. Now there’s a waiting line to be certified as organic.