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BLOG: A Londoner lost in the Dutch wilderness

27-03-2020|DOORARK Natuurontwikkeling

In the hot summer months of 2019 (temperatures reaching 37°C on a few days!), I spent 5 weeks in the Groene Woud red deer area, armed with my clipboard and measuring stick, to survey the vegetation over a 3km squared area. This was for the thesis project of my Masters programme in Sustainable Development with Utrecht University, in collaboration with Brabants Landschap and ARK Nature. The culmination of two years of work.

In 2017, a herd of 13 deer were released into a specially built enclosure in Het Groene Woud, and in 2019 it was decided that a study was needed to investigate what had happened in the enclosure since the deer, now a herd of 34 individuals, were released. Ultimately, we wanted to know what are the deer eating? If the deer are eating brambles and other shrubs, there is more space and light available for other species, mainly the ground-growing species such as grasses and flowering plants. If there is an increase in grass and flowering species, more habitats are created for other animal species, including birds, insects, small mammals and amphibians, therefore the biodiversity of the area increases.

Red deer in Het Groene Woud. Photo: Mark Kapteijns, Brabants Landschap
Red deer in Het Groene Woud. Photo: Mark Kapteijns, Brabants Landschap

We also wanted to know if the deer are eating the young trees (the saplings), as this can reduce the regeneration of new forest. This could be either a positive or negative effect; they may eat all the saplings, which would completely prevent all forest regeneration, or they may selectively eat the tastiest species, which would give other (less dominant) species room to grow.

Sadly, the deer remained elusive; my fieldwork took place during the calving season, therefore they kept well-hidden with their young ones, and out of sight of people. I only managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of the red deer three times. But the cows and I became good friends, they would often pass by as I was counting the number of saplings, or estimating how much of my sample plot was moss or grass, or some other plant. I would often pass curious people too, wondering what a British girl was doing all on her own in the woods measuring the diameter of a trees. But overall, it was a lovely way to spend the summer months, in the forest and in the Dutch nature. There were some lovely forest paths in the enclosure, but I was more often battling my way through the thick brambles and stinging nettles that formed the forest undergrowth. Anyhow, it was much better than being stuck behind a computer at my desk!

Angus cows in Het Groene Woud
Angus cows in Het Groene Woud

The memory of my summer fieldwork seems far away. I spent the whole winter processing all the data I collected from the field, and in addition to that I also analysed where the deer liked to go within the enclosure, using data from four deer who wore GPS collars for almost two years. By linking my field data and the GPS data, we can create a picture of what is being eaten and how the vegetation has changed over time. We found that the deer are reducing the height of brambles, and that they may also be reducing the height of the flowering plants. We also found that deer love to strip the bark from the trees. The females favoured the deep forest in the west, and the stags stayed far away from the females, staying in the forest and grassland in the east. But these are only preliminary findings; as time goes on we expect to see more dramatic changes in the landscape, and I look forward to seeing what will happen in the future!

Georgina Allen, Master's student Sustainable Development with Utrecht University

Click here for Georgina's thesis and also check out ARK Nature's English website at www.ark.eu/en.