Imagine, if you are among those of us who are unlucky enough to commute into a major city, gazing from the window of your train at herds of emaciated deer, cattle and horses. Picture them packed desperately against the fence-line while foxes and corvids pick over the bones of those that have already died. Ridiculous? Well, not if you live a short hop across the North Sea in Holland, where commuters face these sights each winter from their train into Amsterdam.

An extraordinary experiment on 15,000 acres of reclaimed land just 25 miles east of Amsterdam has managed the unique feat of uniting the animal rights movement and hunting community in abhorrence at the treatment of thousands of wild animals. The national debate over this ?nature reserve? at Oostvaardersplassen tells us much, not just about the very strange attitude the Dutch have towards animal welfare, but, more importantly, about the conflict between environmentalists espousing ?rewilding? and what most UK landmanagers would view as proper concern for the welfare of wild animals.

Creating the reserve

Oostvaardersplassen was created when a polder, or inland lake, was drained in the 1960s. It was originally destined for industrial use but lay almost empty in the recession hit ?70s, occupied only by an increasing variety of bird species. This encouraged a successful campaign to have the area turned into a nature reserve.

In the ?80s and ?90s, one of the campaigners, ecologist Frans Vera, championed the introduction of red deer as well as ancient breeds of cattle and horse into the reserve. Like the birds, these small groups of grazing animals thrived, but, unlike the birds, they were enclosed within the reserve?s fences. Management was left to ?natural processes? so there was no culling and the inevitable happened as their populations reached the holding capacity of the reserve. They started to die in large numbers each winter, mostly through disease and starvation, although some were shot where they collapsed. Hard winters saw herds of animals lined against the fence of their barren ?reserve?, while the weakest collapsed and died. Up to a third of the ruminants in the reserve perish in harsh winters and film of its starving deer calves caused uproar when it was shown on prime-time television, leading to a national debate led by Holland?s ?Party for the Animals? (Partij voor de Dieren), which holds seats in the Dutch national parliament.

Reactive culling

In 2006, a government inquiry recommended a policy of ?reactive culling?, which meant daily inspection during the winter and the culling of those animals whose welfare was seriously compromised. The aim was to kill 90 per cent of animals to be culled ?while they were still capable of standing?, a policy which maintains a level of suffering that no UK deer manager would find acceptable. Despite the adoption of the inquiry?s recommendations, the controversy continues, fuelled by last winter?s harsh conditions, which saw an extraordinary 1,684 deer, cattle and horses die; 88 per cent of them were shot reactively by the Dutch Forestry Commission (Staatsbosbeheer), which manages the reserve.

Thankfully no-one has yet attempted such an experiment on the same scale in the UK, although the League Against Cruel Sports? (LACS) alleged mismanagement of its Baronsdown sanctuary shows it is possible to cause extreme suffering even without fences. LACS provided concentrated food on its 225-acre holding until the density of deer made disease inevitable. Its stalker, Gordon Pearce, finally had enough and blew the whistle in 2002, having found 107 dead or dying red deer on Baronsdown in the previous 12 months.

Strangely, however, most conservation groups in the UK that are trying to ?rewild?, or at least return large-scale habitats back to previous configurations, have a different approach and a different ?animal rights? conundrum. In order to create, or recreate, wooded landscapes in highland Scotland, organisations such as the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), at Mar Lodge, and the RSPB, at Abernethy, have proposed very heavy deer culls to reduce the population to a level that allows trees to grow without fencing.

In Assynt just such a battle is currently raging, as neighbours of the John Muir Trust?s Quinag estate, including the unlikely bedfellows of the Vestey family and the Assynt Crofters Trust, are up in arms at plans to cull deer out of season and remove up to a third of the stags on the 9,000-acre estate. Much of the concern is based on the importance of red deer to the highland economy and the simple fact that, unlike Oostvaardersplassen, highland estates are not fenced and deer management cannot be considered solely on an estate-by-estate basis. If the RSPB, the NTS or the John Muir Trust set out to reduce deer densities on their estates they would create a vacuum that would inevitably be filled by deer from the surrounding area. The more they kill, the more will come.

Frans Vera?s purpose in introducing deer and ancient breeds of horse and cattle into Oostvaardersplassen was to create a savannah-style landscape, which he believes existed across Europe before man began to have a significant impact on the ruminant population by reducing the density of grazing animals and fundamentally changed the landscape. Ironically, UK conservation organisations are trying to re-afforest upland areas, replicating the same process as those first humans by removing ruminants and reducing grazing pressure.

Highland example

So, in Holland, and in the minds of ?rewilders?, deer and other ruminants are left to die slow and painful deaths as human intervention is rejected, while UK conservationists set their sights on thousands of deer in a cull which is almost equally distasteful to many, both in the rural community and the animal rights movement.

But what of the rest of the UK and the Scottish Highlands in particular? Is there mass slaughter or mass starvation? Well, as we know, there is neither because for generations most of the British deer population has been actively managed at a level which balances a healthy herd with the holding capacity of the landscape.

Of course, there are harsh winters in which even the best-managed herds will suffer some mortality. I remember one Caithness stalker telling me, with tears in his voice if not his eyes, that he shot the deer that were still trying to find food beneath the snow in the long, harsh winter of 2010, on the basis that if they were that desperate they must be on the verge of starvation. There is also a small number of examples of landowners who have not fulfilled their responsibilities properly, and in extreme cases the Deer Commission for Scotland has the power to enter land and carry out a managed cull where the landowner has not.

Across the vast majority of the Highlands, however, deer are managed sustainably while providing an income which helps maintain the estate infrastructure and the local community. Culling is pro-active, not reactive. Deer are not culled because they are suffering, but before they suffer. The old, the infirm and the weak are removed, leaving the fit and healthy to face the rigours of the Highland environment. The landscape is protected, in fact conserved, in the state that both locals and visitors love. There are no mass winter die-offs as deer starve, nor are the glens emptied in massive culls. The real conservationists are the landowners and stalkers who continue to manage the deer, and everyone interested in wild animals, their welfare and the countryside should be very grateful to them.