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Recurring Public and Political Commotion

The most contentious issues were the ban on supplementary feeding in case of food shortages, in combination with the ban on proactive culling, aimed at reducing population densities to very low levels in order to guarantee a stable food supply. Only reactive culling to prevent unnecessary and prolonged suffering of moribund animals was allowed. In practice, the condition of the animals is monitored on a regular basis and when the condition has reached level 1 (on a scale from 1 to 5) the animal is shot and taken out of the system—a course of action that can be seen as a (political and social) compromise between the ‘wild’ and the ‘domestic’ status of the animals.

This policy caused a great deal of public and political commotion in the winter of 2004/2005. In that period, 14 percent of the konik horses died, as did 22 percent of the red deer and 34 percent of the Heck cattle. In an emergency debate, a majority in the Dutch Parliament demanded immediate supplementary feeding with hay or straw. It is no coincidence that it was Henk Jan Ormel who requested this debate. Ormel was a member of the Christian Democratic Party, the most popular party among famers; he was also a veterinarian, and a member of the supervisory board of the Royal Dutch Veterinary Association. And, as we have seen, the veterinarians are among those groups that fiercely oppose the OVP policy/’

The Minister for Agriculture, Nature and Fisheries told Parliament that, according to the Large Grazers Guidelines, supplementary feeding was not an option because there was no imminent risk of excessive mortality. However, the minister honored the parliamentary request to ask a panel of international experts for advice. In June 2006, the International Committee on the Management of Large Herbivores in the Oostvaardersplassen (ICMO) published its report, “Reconciling Nature and Human Interest” (ICMO 2006). The committee advised the minister to accept periodical reductions in animal welfare as a consequence of ecological management. This kind of management should be optimized by improving the reactive culling policy and expanding the area available for the animals.

The Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals did not want to await ICMO’s report, and went to court at the end of the winter, when the animals are most exposed to hunger and cold, in order to enforce supplementary feeding. The court rejected the claim, a ruling that was upheld on appeal.4 Since this trial, the Society has firmly changed its position on OVP’s policy regarding large grazers and is now fully supportive of the management of the State Forest Service.

History repeated itself in 2010, after a prolonged cold winter in which the condition of the animals was severely reduced and substantial numbers had to be culled. Once again, it was Ormel of the Christian Democratic Party who managed to obtain a parliamentary majority behind his request for immediate supplementary feeding of the animals. This time the minister gave in and ordered the State Forest Service to take action. The animals, however, left the hay largely untouched; they preferred the new grass that had started to sprout everywhere in the meantime. “There is no real run on it”, the minister had to admit.

Under pressure from Parliament, the minister put in place a second international commission (ICMO2) to evaluate the management of large herbivores in the О VP and the implementation of the recommendations given in ICMO1 in 2006. In November 2010, the commission published its report, “Natural Processes, Animal Welfare, Moral Aspects and Management of the Oostvaarder-splassen.” In accordance with the Philosophy Group’s ethical framework, ICMO2 considered the status of the large herbivores in the OVP to be ‘in between’ fully wild and domesticated. The following quote from a lecture I gave at Utrecht University in 2010 was included in their report:

The notion of a clear-cut borderline between wildness and domesticity should be replaced by the idea of wildness and domesticity as endpoints of a broad continuum, a transitional zone in which it is not a question of “either-or” but of “less or more”. Our obligations of care should vary according to the direction of the transition along this domesticitywildness continuum, from specific care aimed at individual animals to non-specific care aimed at their habitat.

(ICMO 2010, 48)

To improve animal welfare, the commission recommended further improving the policy of reactive culling; it called for the adoption of a new strategy of “early reactive culling,” taking not only the bodily conditions of the animals into consideration to determine the time and stage of culling but also their habitat conditions, in particular the availability of shelter and the exposure to harsh weather events such as snow or ice.

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