Nature in the Netherlands, recovery and degradation
In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund released a very detailed and thorough report entitled Nature in the Netherlands. Nature has recovered slightly after 1990 is the global conclusion. But this cautious conclusion is no reason at all for optimism. The progress that has been noted mainly concerns animal species that live in the open North Sea, fresh water and marshes. But in many other habitats the situation is not at all rosy.
1990 as a reference year
In the Netherlands, many observations of all kinds of animal species have been systematically recorded by specialized species organizations. The reference year 1990 has been chosen because sufficient data has been available since then. However, it must be remembered that before 1990 by far most of the biodiversity had already been lost. The report refers, among other things, to the nature books around 1900 in which heath fields full of grouse are described or wet meadows with ruffs and clouds of butterflies. Or the rivers with salmon and sturgeon and the North Sea with extensive oyster beds. After 1900 a lot was lost due to industrialization and especially modernization in agriculture. Many species that were common in 1900 are now rare or even completely disappeared.
The size of populations of predominantly terrestrial species has remained stable on average since 1990, the report said. The species on the Red List, a list of endangered species, also showed that the situation for them deteriorated until 2005, but after that the decline stopped and even showed a slight recovery. The numbers of species that can live everywhere increased moderately on average and appear to be stabilizing. These species that are not bound to a specific habitat compensate the specialists in these habitats, who are declining in numbers there. This can lead to greater uniformity. With the birds we already see that the breeding bird populations all over the Netherlands are increasingly similar. The species composition is also changing due to climate change. Cold-loving species are now declining in number and heat-loving species are increasing. Since 1900, the average temperature has risen by 1.5 ° C throughout the year. Spring and summer in particular became warmer. There are species that respond by shifting their habitat. The trend of the increase in the average temperature is still continuing. There are differences in the habitats of the animals on land that we can distinguish. The most characteristic differences from the report can be described as follows.
Since 1990, the size of the animal populations in nature reserves on land has decreased on average by 30%. In forests, there was stability in open areas such as moors, dunes and non-agricultural grasslands, the size of the animal populations decreased by 50% but seem to stabilize afterwards. It is mainly the desiccation of the nature areas that affects plants and animal species such as butterfly species in forests and dunes.
The open nature areas are affected by acidification, causing these areas to grow over with grasses. Where livestock is used against grassland, this helps, but the original typical animal species of the dunes hardly return, if at all. For example, bird, reptile and butterfly species are in danger of disappearing from these original habitats. Especially in smaller fragmented areas, the populations are small, which threatens inbreeding. For example, these smaller habitats for survival are risky for the Milkweed and the reptiles.
The agricultural landscape, no less than 70% of the land area of the Netherlands, is in the most awful condition. The size of the populations of animal species here decreased by no less than 40% between 1990 and 2013! The situation here was already very bad before 1990, but apparently things could get worse. Small-scale extensive agriculture is disappearing almost everywhere, as well as the corners and edges with more herbaceous crops and with it nectar and host plants, shelters and nesting facilities. There is eutrophication and desiccation, grassland mown early. It has become a monoculture that is treated with pesticides. It is mainly the butterflies and the birds that fall victim to this.
Built-up area, city and village
In the Netherlands, the built-up area covers 15% of the land area. Between 1990 and 2013, the animal populations here decreased by 30%. Buildings are getting closer and closer and nesting places for birds are lost during renovations due to insulation and quick-deck pans. Housekeepers such as the starling and house sparrow are deteriorating as a result. More and more homeowners are replacing their garden with tiles or stones (petrification). The parks are being raked and vacant corners with weeds are disappearing and with it food for birds and host plants for butterflies. Many municipalities maintain their public green space with aggressive pesticides. Despite the fact that more and more attention is being paid to the city as a biotope and also to greenery in the city, the animal populations do not benefit from this.
Animals in fresh water and swamps
In fresh water and swamps, the population size of animal species has increased by 40% since 1990. This turbulent growth has come to an end and populations seem to remain stable. The Red List species in this biotope have also gone much better. While it was precisely in the period after 1900 and 1990 that there was a large decrease, we now see that the developments after 1990 are much better than those on land. Freshwater fish have been stable since 1990 and dragonflies have progressed and have been stable since 2003. The otter, lake bat and water bat made progress. Swamp breeding birds also increased. Amphibians also increased, but since 2008 there has been a decline almost entirely due to the fire salamander, which has virtually disappeared. The reason for the strong decline of the fire salamander is a fungal disease against which these animals have not (yet) developed resistance. The natterjack toad has also deteriorated somewhat in recent years. The other amphibians increased in number or remained stable. The water quality has improved and the fish that are bound to clean water have benefited from this. These species have improved while those that can tolerate pollution have deteriorated somewhat. Both groups seem to be stabilizing.
Animals in the North Sea
In the entire North Sea, animal populations showed an average increase of 25% between 1990 and 2003. After 2003 there is an average stability. The increase noted here has been followed by a sharp decline that started before 1900.
The harbor seal is increasing in numbers thanks to improved water quality and measures against disturbance. Immigration from areas in Germany and Denmark also contributes to this population. The gray seal is also flourishing, partly because animals from the British Isles mix with the population that resides here. Porpoises are also increasingly seen. The assumption is that the population migrates from the northern North Sea to the south due to a lack of food in the northern North Sea.
There has been overfishing in the last century. Around 1970 there was a peak when the fish stocks then reached a low point. But it was not only the commercially important fish species that suffered from overfishing, also the non-commercial fish species suffered from this overfishing, such as sharks and rays. But not all developments in fish populations are a result of fishing. Here, too, a relationship must be established with climate change. The water in the North Sea is getting warmer and as a result, heat-loving fish species such as the anchovies, weever and scabies are also coming this way.
The recovery as noted in this report certainly does not have a strong foundation yet. It is called fledgling and fragile. According to the authors, European legislation is mainly responsible for the recovery. The Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive have certainly contributed to this. However, a 2015 report by the European Commission State of nature in the EU shows that the Netherlands has not really acted on this with vigor and conviction. One of the conclusions is that in Europe as many as one in three bird species is threatened. Here too, intensive agriculture is identified as the main cause of the decline of bird species.
The WWF report also points positively to the National Ecological Network that was formulated as a policy goal in the Netherlands in 1990, which should form a link between the nature areas in the Netherlands. But there is still something to be said about that too. Under the Rutte I cabinet, State Secretary Bleker made cuts by no less than 60% on nature policy and scrapped the connecting zones between the nature areas. The executive service, Staatsbosbeheer, was also faced with cutbacks, which meant that maintenance could hardly be carried out. The sharp sides of this cutback have been largely reversed under the Rutte II cabinet.
No integrated policy framework
The report rightly states that with a strict and clear legal framework as a basis, investments can be made to restore the environmental quality, enlarge and connect nature areas and implement structural management and make adjustments based on monitoring. An integrated approach to policy areas that are adjacent is indispensable. This includes policy areas such as agriculture, water quality and water safety and fisheries. The report rightly concludes that only if these sectors cooperate can a nature policy be effective. The policy must be further laid down in legislation and regulations and actually enforced.
While the species in the agricultural landscape continue to decline and the nature areas are also strongly affected by agricultural activities due to acidification, policy space is still being given to agricultural companies that further intensify and expand. The new nitrogen policy also does not seem to offer any solution to reverse the downward trend in the agricultural landscape and nature areas. As long as intensive large-scale agriculture continues to dominate and even grow, the populations in these areas will continue to decline. As long as intensive large-scale agriculture is not replaced by sustainable agriculture, the species on farmland and nature reserves will only continue to decline and many species will even disappear completely from our landscape.
While there are good policy intentions, they must be made. For example, European directives must also be adhered to and implemented with conviction. And as stated earlier, this cannot continue with the increasingly intensive agriculture. The choice to transfer nature management to the Ministry of Economic Affairs is also an unfortunate one. Nature management together with agriculture and economic affairs within one ministry is almost an impossible task. There was a time when Pieter Winsemius was allowed to lead the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment in the first Lubbers cabinet. This VVD minister not only looked at the interests of the economy, but was also able to establish important environmental legislation such as the environmental impact assessment. As long as the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Agriculture in the Netherlands has to worry about our nature, we must fear that nature will remain a neglected child.