How do we deal with crowds in nature?

The weather was glorious for two weeks. This Friday morning it is wet in the forest. With every gust of wind drops fall from the trees. It is not cold, with 22 degrees, rather sweltering, due to the moisture in the air. We all wear short sleeves and decent walking shoes. “Here we go straight ahead.” Forest ranger Corien Koreman of Staatsbosbeheer leads us through a wooden swing gate. “In the winter you can ice skate here”, says researcher human-nature relations Arjen Buijs cheerfully.

It is half past nine in the morning when we stroll over the Leersumse Veld, a nature reserve of about eighty hectares on the Utrechtse Heuvelrug. You will mainly come across heathland, but also forests, shifting sand and yes, puddles, which attract hordes of skaters in winter. The rare moor frog croaks here, the sooty shrike and the nightjar make nests here. Part of the area is closed: breeding season. “We also have grass snakes, pine marten, all woodpecker species, badgers, roe deer, too many to mention”, Koreman sums up. “The wolf? No, not yet. Unfortunately. I’ll try to lure him. There are already signs saying ‘this way’.” She chuckles.

NEMO Kennislink has brought the forester and scientist together to talk about crowds in the Dutch countryside. In the corona year 2020, visitor numbers in nature reserves increased by on average thirty percent up. Foresters and nature managers expressed their concerns about the nuisance and damage caused by holidaymakers. Stray dogs, people leaving the trails, flying drones, litter lying around, mountain bikers, horse riders, hikers and cyclists who get in each other’s way. It was already busy before the corona peak. Both Staatsbosbeheer, Natuurmonumenten and the Landscapes have seen recreation increase in recent years and fear the impact on animals and plants.

Forest ranger Corien Koreman and researcher Arjen Buijs in discussion on the Leersumse Veld.

Mariska van Sprundel

Hunted fawns

How can we unite people and nature in a crowded country like the Netherlands? Today we are looking for an answer to that question. Buijs and Koreman each have their own vision of the role of humans in nature. One looks at it from theory, the other from practice. Buijs studies the relationships between humans and nature at Wageningen University & Research. For example, do we see nature as something far away in Costa Rica? Or like something growing around the corner between the tiles? Corien Koreman is a public forest ranger at Staatsbosbeheer and is responsible for information, education and recreational activities in various areas on the Heuvelrug.

There is no question of crowds at this time, we are the only ones walking on the sandy path. On our left forest, on the right a vast moorland with a few gigantic oaks breaking the view. The heather is brown, only in August will the purple blanket appear, which attracts crowds of visitors every year. What impact does that actually have on nature? “I can only represent what we see here,” Koreman replies.

“For instance.” She stops and points to the moor. “This area that we overlook, is where the nightjar breeds, on the bare ground. People come here with coolers and umbrellas and have a picnic. Then the swallows have to constantly fly off their nest. You lost those nests. And then stray dogs, drama, drama drama. They hunt deerright down to the barbed wire. A dog sniffs something, chases his nose and yawns through those bushes. The owner is on the path shouting ‘Fikkie! Come back!’ That dog comes back panting. “Ah luckily, Fikkie is back.” The owner continues on, not knowing what has happened in the meantime.” She sounds upset.

The Leersumse Veld is a nature reserve on the Utrechtse Heuvelrug with heathland, sand drifts, forest and fens.

Mariska van Sprundel

Buijs is eager to respond. “I absolutely recognize the damage that holidaymakers inflict. At the same time, we must realize that we live in a densely populated country and that public support is needed to preserve biodiversity. We must try to find an optimal balance, in which you look not only at the ecological side, but also at the social side.”

“Based on such a socio-ecological system, I argue in favor of making different choices. The Leersumse Veld is ecologically, also by Dutch standards, a special area, partly because of the nightjars. Most places on the Veluwe are not that special, the deer that roam there are not an endangered species, on the contrary in fact. Of course you have to protect such an area, but it is also a place where recreation can be given a lot of space. You then have to dare to accept that humans are more harmful to nature there.”

Problematic behavior

We leave the open heath behind us and walk into the woods. The gray sky from before has turned a little darker gray. “I think we always make that assessment as you describe it”, Koreman responds. “We have made a zoning map in the province of Utrecht. We build paths that, on the one hand, keep the really vulnerable areas in the shade and, on the other, ensure that holidaymakers do not experience any nuisance from each other. That does not mean that nothing is possible in vulnerable nature, we always look for possibilities. But still… if I see someone walking through the field outside the footpath in the Amerongse Bovenpolder, which is now bursting with meadows, for example, and I find six nests that have been trampled to pieces, it hurts me.”

For foresters and nature organizations it remains a field of tension. On the one hand they want to bind people to nature, at the same time they are afraid that recreation will be at the expense of that nature. Koreman ponders for a second. “I agree with Arjen that you have to accept that sometimes things go wrong…” Buijs laughs. “It won’t be a nice piece Corien that way, if you agree with me!” She smiles faintly. “But as a forest ranger, of course I don’t want a single victim in nature.”

“The starting point at Staatsbosbeheer is always that everyone is more than welcome. But the balance between man and nature, because that’s what we talk about all the time, is a difficult task, because it occasionally tips over. In 2030 we expect the number of visitors to double. Nature can handle that, but stick to the rules,” she emphasizes in a loud voice. “Then nothing is wrong!”

The problem is not the numbers of visitors, but the behavior they take with them, according to Koreman. “Yes, I agree…”, says Buijs. “But one of the problems is of course that Staatsbosbeheer and other nature organizations have been cut enormously since the first Rutte cabinet. This is a conscious political choice. If people have to abide by the rules, appoint three new junior rangers. But yes… due to the cutbacks, there is no budget for that at the moment.” Koreman throws her arms in the air and bends over a few times as if adoring her interlocutor. “We’ve been saying that for years!”

Green around the city

According to Buijs, the reason that it is so busy in nature reserves has everything to do with a second political choice. In recent years there has been little room for nature outside the official nature reserves. Agricultural area is hardly accessible for walkers. There are a few clog paths and that’s about it. “Until about ten years ago, it was an explicit policy to create more greenery around the cities. An example is the Nieuw Wulven area, which was constructed as a sort of overflow area from Amelisweerd in Utrecht to relieve pressure there. Such a policy is now making a comeback, but recreation is no longer a policy topic at the national level. While we have seventeen million Dutch people, half of whom would love to go green.”

Koreman sees it himself too. People no longer only come to the Leersumse Veld for walking, cycling or horseback riding. “A huge group of mountain bikers has joined, but we also have gun dog training, puppy training, dog walking services, sled dog, tracking dog and guide dog training. They all want a place in our nature.” She points to a path ahead. “And we also have separate paths for scooters.”

Buijs nods. “This increase is largely caused by a change in perception. Nature has become an experience, there is a need for organized activities. Look at the supermarket, you will see it there too. ‘Give an experience as a gift’.”

“Exactly,” Koreman says firmly. “Nature is often used as a decor, and whether that is a beech or an oak does not matter. Oh yes and then you also have slacklining, professional tree climbing, bushcrafting. We are positive about it. We will find a suitable tree without a tawny owl or pine marten that you can climb.”

Wilderness and barbecuing

We turn left and walk onto a narrow grassy path. The grass is up to our ankles. Koreman looks at our shoes. “You do get wet feet, is that bad?” She precedes us along the path that runs along a field of long waving grass plumes. It starts to drip. “In research, we see that different groups of people like different types of nature,” says Buijs, who works on this topic doctorate. “People who love wilderness come to the Leersumse Veld, for example, which is not a wilderness at all, but you do experience it that way. People with a non-Western migration background generally prefer orderly nature, cultural landscapes. And people with an Eastern European background often enjoy barbecuing and foraging in nature.”

Thanks to the gnome trails, nature is also an experience for the little ones among us.

Mariska van Sprundel

According to the researcher, we often continue to think about nature from a wilderness perspective. But there must also be room for other forms of nature experience. “Barbecuing is best on a piece of agricultural land.” He interrupts his story and laughs. “It feels like my waterproof shoes are no longer waterproof.” Koreman looks around. “I told you, you’ll get wet feet.” The storm continues, we quickly follow her towards the shelter of the trees. “This is a natural experience, isn’t it?”

Before we know it we are back at the entrance to the area. In the first corona wave, the parking lot was temporarily closed, as with many other nature reserves, to keep visitors away. Buijs thinks this is a missed opportunity in the corona pandemic. “This would have been a great moment to show all Dutch people how important and fun nature is.” It was a decision of the municipality of Utrechtse Heuvelrug, Koreman himself did not think it was a solution. “I think the involvement of people is super important. Experiencing nature does something to you, it is healthy, good for body and mind. I don’t want to deny that to anyone.”

Joint campaign by Staatsbosbeheer, Natuurmonumenten and the Provincial Landscapes to make visitors aware of the breeding season.

State Forestry

The house of the animals

As united as they have been until now, so divided are they now among the new campaign of the nature organizations. At the entrance of the area hangs a large banner: ‘Welcome to Mother Nature’s nursery’. Mother deer and her calf stare at you with their brown eyes. Intended to make visitors aware that they are entering the animals’ home, according to Koreman. “We always approach it positively, everyone is welcome, but you are a guest.”

Buijs looks doubtful. “Nature is our common home,” he responds. “With such a slogan you place nature outside of people, so that we do not see it as our own responsibility. Koreman shakes her head. “A bambi on a poster, it touches people.” They don’t know how to convince each other: “We’re not going to end up here Arjen.”

The two nature lovers could argue for hours. “In practical terms, we come very close to each other”, concludes Buijs. “And I see that you have a heart for your work Corien.” She nods. “Yeah, and I’m definitely going to think about what you said too. These kinds of conversations with a critical note are valuable. We as a nature organization do not have the arrogance that we think we know everything. If you’re ever in the area, come and have a cup of coffee.”


Source: Kennislink by www.nemokennislink.nl.

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