The Oostvaardersplassen is the only space in Europe where cattle lives without yellow ear tags; the OVP Heck cattle are the only unregulated bovines in the EU, they are officially designated not to be beef. But this freedom from bureaucratic meddling has a flipside for these grazing tools. Not only does their exemption mean they have to live without (almost all) veterinary care, their unique freedom in winter implies they are left free to starve. Fierce debates seasonally erupt in Dutch parliament and public media, between those who want to stop this herbivore ‘holocaust’ by winterfeeding and selective culling, and those that want to protect the emerging wild processes from human interference.

To a large extent this struggle is fought through imagery; Is this human induced hunger and suffering that should be prevented and regulated, should this ‘animal experiment’ be stopped? Or should we appreciate the aesthetic of wildness, and welcome the role of dead bodies as feed for carrion eaters and nutrients seeping back into the soil? Over the past decades these biopolitical struggles over the status of ruminant life at OVP have resulted in carefully designed practices in which the process of dedomestication of the herbivores are understood as ‘moving’ on a scale from domestic to wild (Klaver et al 2002).

To what extent is the geopolitics of the site relevant for this biopolitical debate: with connecting the OVP to a transeuropean network of nature reserves the animals will no longer be enclosed by barbed wire; And the wildness of the large herbivores at OVP -e.g. their hardiness in winter, their behaviour and relations to humans- can be found to be the outcome of their particular ‘backbreeding’ genealogy.

Black crows on the remains of a deer at OVP (photo: Martijn de Jonge)

Frictions between modes of nonhuman biopolitics

The wild experiments taking place with large herbivores at OVP are suggestive of a different model of nonhuman biopolitics than those that characterise common modes of living with such animals. In a paper that we are currently working on we explore the intersections between the bovine biopolitics of rewilding with Heck cattle and the most prevalent ways of living with cows – namely agriculture, conservation, welfare and biosecurity. Developing an understanding of biopolitics as a process of living with nonhuman difference, we map out the characteristics of these five modes of living with cows (see table).

  Agriculture Conservation Welfare Biosecurity Rewilding
Aim Fast, cheap, extensive  production of tasty protein Protect diversity of existing cattle breeds, landscapes and political-ecological relations Improve the conditions of domestic animals Prevent zoonotic and animal disease Restore / enhance ecological process
Target Cuts, milk, genes Genes, anatomy, behaviour Individual mood, genetic health Infectious microbes Grazing ecology
Logic Improvement / profit Preservation Companion-ship Hygiene Biodiversity
Temporality Future Past/future Present/ future Present Past/Future
Expertise Animal science, Biotechnology Animal breeding Ethology Microbiology Ecology
Death Quick, cheap and invisible Selective Avoided, painless Anticipated, clean, controlled By natural selection
Ideal Efficient accumulator Hardy, rooted breed type Happy cow Stable, predictable systems Flourishing ecology

Four prevalent modes of bovine biopolitics and the biopolitics of rewilding

We then examine the frictions between wilding and welfare, conservation and biosecurity which have engendered the most controversy and comprise. Sifting through these frictions we aim to establish the promise of rewilding through an engagement with the biophilosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Donna Haraway’s recent work on companion species. Here we cautiously affirm the potential of a biopolitics of rewilding for the flourishing of nonhuman difference.

For a Deleuzian there could be something very hopeful about Vera’s rewilding biopolitics. Is this a success story of post-war European integration, where an animal back-bred as part of a nationalist and racist ideology is turned into a cosmopolitan and adaptive tool for future differentiation? Reincarnated for naturalistic grazing, Heck cattle are given space and time to flourish. Ecologically, they act as a disorganising force to allow the novel evolution of the impoverished landscapes they now inhabit and enrich. Ethologically, the cattle and ponies are allowed to breed, feed and fight more freely than their livestock kin and develop their own unique individual and group ethologies through multiple generations. Breeding under Vera’s regime is future-orientated, less tied to preserving a fixed archetype. In the future it might not matter if these cattle ceased to resemble imagined aurochsen. Genealogically, rewilding imagines a divergence from a ‘genes-as-code’ model of inheritance. If Vera had his way, Heck cattle would be more open to microbial infection and symbiogenesis, recognising the rhizomatic exchange of genetic materials between organisms.

Could places like OVP be conceived of as ‘smooth spaces’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987) full of experimentation, lively becomings and monstrous, surprising novelties? In practice this vitalist, cosmopolitan interpretation is perhaps too wishful, too hyperbolic and too naive. The fluid biopolitics of rewilding encounters fixities and frictions when it runs into other ontologies of life, three of which are most significant here:

Wilding v. welfare

Dutch animal welfare campaigners oppose the practice of allowing formerly domestic animals to live and die under ‘wild’ modes of husbandry. Welfarists have pointed out that OVP is a fenced enclosure, from which hungry animals cannot escape. They argue that Heck cattle and Konik ponies are individual companion species, emergent from a long history of anthropogenic breeding, interaction and domestication. They draw attention to the responsibilities this history provokes and argue that leaving such animals to their own devices would be monstrous. Instead, they should be subject to veterinary care and fed when necessary.

For Vera, this goes against the entire rationale of the experiment. While he would not advocate cruelty, the welfare of an individual animal is secondary to their role as an ecological and evolutionary force. The wild dictates of natural selection and limits posed by the carrying capacity of any ecosystem render death by illness and starvation unavoidable. As a hardy breed, Heck cattle were selected and de-domesticated precisely because they would be best equipped to return to such wild dynamics. It was hoped that their wild aurochsen aesthetics and fighting ancestry would make their deaths more palatable to watching publics. Ideally their deaths would be performed swiftly and naturalistically in a fair fight with predators (and to tantalise visiting ecotourists – as in African safaris).

Deer behind a fence at OVP (photo:

However wild, cattle and horses are charismatic animals on a very public and unpredated nature reserve; starving cattle (and most significantly horses) became a public relations disaster and generated heated debates in Dutch parliament. Expert panels have been convened to explore the issue in 2005 and 2010 (ICMO, 2005, 2010) and despite fighting (and winning) a lengthy legal dispute to continue without intervention, the managers of the reserve agreed to compromise. Heck cattle and konik ponies that are judged not to be able to make it through the winter or on the verge of death are shot. Here a scientist in a jeep and armed with a rifle is tasked with culling animals under a regime for euthanasia articulated as culling with the ‘eye of the wolf’. However, the never previously domesticated, but similarly introduced and confined red deer are not shown the same clemency and die and decay. Individual deer disappear into a herd; too wild to merit much popular protest.

Clearly, the limited size of OVP, the impermeability of its borders and the absence of key ecological functions (like predation) pose important, perhaps fatal, constraints to the experiment. They also highlight some of the fundamental challenges facing more ambitious conservationists imagining a fluid biogeography of wildlife replete with predatory animals. A longer term solution to (or at least deferment of) these welfare and biosecurity problems is offered by the ambitious expansion plans for OVP and the wider connections to be made with other wildlife territories. More ambitious still are quietly spoken hopes that predators might start to return of their own accord. While important Western European publics are antagonistic to the deliberate reintroduction of wolves and other carnivores, some optimists hope that a self-propelled recolonisation of their former range might increase public willingness to contemplate their presence and predatory effects. The answers to these questions remain to be seen, though they would find some positive signs emerging from research in Western Europe (Buller, 2008; Nilsen et al., 2007; Skogen et al., 2008).

Wilding v. conservation

Much historic and contemporary wildlife conservation entails a biopolitics for the preservation (or recreation) of biological diversity, understood as a collection of rare forms; species, habitats and in some cases, domestic breeds. This biopolitics is based on an often well founded fear of ecological change and the potential of capitalist agriculture to transform animal bodies and landscapes. For conservationists fixity and equilibrium are powerful imaginations for resisting such depredations. However, such temporalities risk rendering the present eternal (Hinchliffe, 2008); shouldering the impossible task of freezing the status quo in a dynamic, warming anthropocene.

The rewilding experiments at OVP present an ontology of life and associated biopolitics for rewilding that differs markedly from such conservative imperatives. Herds of large herbivores are valued for the missing ethological and ecological processes they could initiate. There is no prescriptive vision and associated strategy for what OVP should become. There is no recognisable action plan, no associated targets and very little monitoring. After all, this is a space that has been reclaimed from the sea that would be underwater without its extensive network of dykes and continuous pumping; it is an experimental space for biodiversity. Submarine white-tailed eagles and suburban black vultures, that would be monstrous to Natura 2000, are celebrated. Figured less as biogeographical and ethological anomalies; unpredictable and out of place they are heralded as evidence of the resilient potential of inhabited ecosystems.

However, frictions between a biopolitics of conservation and one of wilding have necessitated compromises.  For example, the diverse potential breeding options and possible becomings of the OVP cattle are limited to their original Heck cousins; the population is confined and rendered incestuous by the lack of subsequent bovine introductions. Similarly the ecological dynamics of OVP are territorialised by its limited spatial extent and the fences which impair the mobility of certain de-domesticated animals. Ideal future scenarios – which also aim to address other frictions identified below – would see an expansion of the territory and the introduction of new stock. Second, Dutch conservationists have expressed concerns that the high stocking densities associated with naturalistic grazing regimes at OVP risk eliminating important contemporary ecological niches and associated habitats and species – especially birds (Vulink et al., 2009). These critics point to political commitments and legal obligations codified under Natura 2000. As a compromise certain rare and endangered species are now targeted under action plans and are subject to the usual conservation biopolitics of surveillance and management. However, like the cattle and horses these are generally selected as ‘keystone species’ that have wider ecological roles and the potential to trigger novel emergences.

OVP manager attended by media attaching a ring to monitor a newborn white tailed eagle (photo:

Wilding v. biosecurity

Concerns have been expressed by Dutch farmers and public health officials about the biosecurity risks posed by wild cattle and the varied nonhumans that might live off and help decompose their living and dead bodies (van Essen and van Leeuwen, 2000). This is grounded in well-founded fears of the economic risks posed by lively forms of microbial and porcine wildness to the fragile ecologies of intensive agriculture. A different biosecurity risk is posed by wild cattle who attack visitors to nature reserves and their dogs, or when in especially cold winters (like 2009-10) they threaten to make use of frozen waterways to range outside of the reserve.

In contrast, Vera would like to see the evolution of microbial as well as mammalian biodiversity in infectious and unpredictable ecologies. Reconciling these differences requires compromise and a certain amount of subterfuge. To secure the spaces of the agricultural and the horticultural bio, the biogeographies of cattle and other large herbivores are strictly territorialised. The boundaries of the farm, the garden and the nature reserve are policed and network vectors are foreclosed by fencing. Publics are educated in suitable ways of interacting with wildness – including classes in wildlife friendly dog-walking.

Securing the microbial identity of Dutch agricultural animals is more difficult. Regimes for tagging and inoculation have been judged to be too difficult and intrusive to enforce. Initially, site managers at OVP were also granted an exemption from the 1996 Dry Rendering Act, which required the removal of cadavers. However, this exemption was rescinded on appeal in 1997 after objections were lodged from farmers (van Leeuwen and van Essen, 2002). The visible bodies of dead cattle and horses are now removed and destroyed. However, the bodies of cattle and ponies that die unplanned and out of sight are left to decay. Hidden in thickets, away from the gaze and nostrils of passing ecotourists, this abject carrion offers limited but fecund opportunities for carnivorous differentiation and biodegradation.


For a more elaborate reflection on ‘bovine biopolitics’ at OVP see: Lorimer, J. & Driessen, C. (2013) Bovine biopolitics and the promise of monsters in the rewilding of Heck cattle. Geoforum 48 249–259


  1. [...] of letting feral animals fend for themselves so close to a large human population – where biopolitics and other political motives threaten to interfere in the ecological processes. Thanks to [...]

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