Lovers of a walk in the countryside will start noticing the negative consequences of the nature policy of State Secretary Henk Bleker of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation within a few years. In particular, his cuts to organizations that manage nature, such as the Society for the Preservation of Nature in the Netherlands (Natuurmonumenten), the Dutch Countryside Association (Landschapsbeheer Nederland) and the National Forest Service (Staatsbosbeheer), will immediately lead to woods, heaths and other nature reserves running wild. This is what Prof. Theo Spek, professor of History of Landscape at the University of Groningen says. He is in favour of a ‘soft landing’ for these organizations.
The fact that many Dutch people can walk on well-maintained woodland paths at the weekends, wander through very varied landscapes and occasionally even spot a rare bird is something to be cherished, but it does cost the government a lot of money. All that maintenance and care for the landscape is mainly done by what are known as TBOs, Terreinbeherende Natuurorganisaties, terrain-managing nature organizations. It is thanks to their work over the past decades that much of the landscape looks as it does today.
‘The TBOs have spent all those millions very well indeed, but they have never looked at a site as a source of income. That’s in complete contrast to landowners, who have sometimes had to manage their estates largely at their own expense for centuries’, says Spek. ‘It would be very healthy if the TBOs would do more of that instead of simply relying on grants.’
The TBOs must be given the time to make the change, warns Spek. ‘The current cuts go far too far. Thirty to seventy percent of the budget is going, and there’s even talk of abolishing Staatsbosbeheer. This is all money that, in the shape of 700 forest wardens, is invested daily in maintaining nature. If it stops, grasslands will become covered in swamp forest and entire regions will be neglected’, according to Spek.
‘The Dutch are going to notice that big time. It is definitely in the public interest that people from the cities can take a walk in the countryside now and again.’ Spek fears that it will take years and cost millions to counteract that neglect in the future.
Although it is primarily in the interests of the landscape that the cabinet’s measures be relaxed, the ecological quality will also suffer from the cuts. Spek: ‘Of course you can create a landscape that looks good, without there being much biodiversity. Joe Public is certainly not going to notice that no scarlet pimpernels are growing any more but I think that would be a great shame. And let there be no misunderstanding – the quality of nature does not improve if you leave it to its own devices. Nature here has been managed by humans since prehistoric times. That is what has created the variation in our landscape and the diversity of plant species. That is a heritage that we must not neglect.’
Spek thinks that private landscape managers have done well so far, but neither they nor the farmers will be able to take over the duties of organizations like Natuurmonumenten or Staatsbosbeheer. ‘Bleker wants farmers to play a greater role, but first of all there is not much land that they would be interested in, and secondly farmers are not really nature managers.’
Stopping the creation of the National Ecological Network (EHS – Ecologische Hoofdstructuur) is in Spek’s opinion less drastic, so long as it is completed in the long run. ‘The EHS is clearly good for nature, even essential, but it’s not a great disaster if the realization is delayed by a few years. In that case only a few preparatory actions will have gone to waste. However, it would be very serious if the EHS were to be completely stopped. It only makes sense if there is a complete network, otherwise species will not be able to spread further.’
Theo Spek (1963) studied at and gained his PhD from Wageningen University. He has been a researcher linked to the DLO-Staring Centre, Alterra, and from 2002-2010 at the National Service for Cultural Heritage. He has been involved in major interdisciplinary landscape projects in Drenthe and the Veluwe and was one of the initiators of the Drentsche Aa landscape biography. He became professor by special appointment in History of Landscape at the University of Groningen in 2006 and full professor in 2010. Spek is head of the Landscape Knowledge Centre at the University of Groningen.
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