After two days at home to recharge my batteries following my trip to Lithuania, I set off for my mission to Oostvaardersplassen, an area of land reclaimed from the sea in 1968, that lies 50km to the north of Amsterdam.
Originally intended for industrial development, the lowest part of the polder remained untouched following the recession of 1973 to form what is now an internationally important wetland, home to breeding spoonbill, great white egret, marsh harrier and Holland’s only pair of white-tailed eagle. Yet it is the thousands of ungulates that graze Oostvaardersplassen’s 2,000 hectares of open grass plains that has brought me here.
It’s Monday morning so time to start work! I have a 6am meeting with Hans Breeveld, head ranger of Staatsbosbeheer, the National Forest Service who manage the reserve. A guided tour around the accessible part of the reserve brings me face to face with a huge Konik horse herd for the first time. These are beautiful horses and our nearest ancestor to the original wild horse that once roamed Europe’s grasslands. It reminds me of my time spent on the plains of Tanzania but instead of 2 million wildebeest and other herbivores, there are more than 2,000 red deer, 1,000 Konik horses and 500 Heck cattle. This is Europe’s Serengeti plains but alas no apex predators capable of killing such large prey. These ungulates were each introduced to perform specific ecological roles on the reserve and maintain a low sward of vegetation. This in turn provides thousands of greylag geese from Eastern Europe an undisturbed place to moult, and concentrates them away from neighbouring farmers fields. It is a fascinating story that is being unfolded as we make our way around the reserve.
After our brief tour I’m handed the keys to an old Suzuki jeep - now the challenge begins. I head off for the herd of Konik’s - an inspiring sight. Many of the mares have young foals, others are heavily pregnant and all around the air is filled with a testosterone-fuelled tension. This is also the mating season and randy stallions are ready to do battle and win the right to pass on their genes. There is a lot of action and endless photo opportunities but as always it all must come together to make a great picture. I leave with plenty of images after a promising day – a good start but no cigar!
Another morning and evening session spent with the Konik horses. I’m beginning to get a feel for what shots are possible and enjoying watching the sparring rituals between the stallions. The shot is there, I just need some luck. So far other animals have obscured the action or it’s been too far away. Give it time, give it time. I position the vehicle next to a small pool in an attractive setting and wait for things to unfold. Mostly grazing and farting. Then two stallions appear right in front of me. This is the moment. Nose to nose they weigh each other up – this usually establishes dominance but these two are evenly matched. They rear up, front feet lashing out violently. The motordrive rattles off 10 frames – it’s all over. I quickly review the shots. Yes, got it - you beauty!
At dawn I try for some scenics from the main dyke overlooking the west of the reserve but the sky is insipid and the weak sun fails to produce the warm glow of sunrise I had hoped for. Back in the reserve, I need to get some coverage of the red deer in particular. This is providing difficult as they are very nervous, especially the does and they quickly retreat to the scrubby trees where they feel safe. The morning yields little but I get lucky on the way back, as a fox cub appears by the side of the road. It seems lost, and wanders alongside the track for a while before doubling back and walking right past the vehicle. The soft light is perfect and I’m grateful for a rare opportunity (for me anyway) to photograph one of my favourite mammals.
With a plane booked for 6pm, I’m hoping this sunny weather will hold for some aerial views of the reserve. But by mid-afternoon the sky is becoming increasingly hazy. It’s not looking good. It’s only a short flight around the reserve so I feel it’s worth a try. From this aerial perspective I can fully appreciate the different habitats – grassland, reedbeds and open water – yet my pictures are disappointing, the haze and overcast conditions ruining the chance of dramatic side lighting I was craving. Still I have time to try for some evening shots back on the plains. I head back onto the ‘Serengeti’ to find what looks the entire herd of red deer spanning the main track. A huge group of several hundred stags in velvet gather together as I approach but stand their ground. They are nervous but thankfully don’t flee. It’s an amazing sight and the only place in the whole of Europe where red deer can be seen as part of such a large herd. With intermittent hazy sunshine backlighting their rapidly developing antlers I manage to capture some of the shots I had hoped for, including some slow pans. Things are beginning to come together.
Whilst the Konik’s, and to a lesser degree the stags provide great potential, the Heck cattle just don’t have the same charisma and I’m struggling to find an angle that I’m happy with, but the calves are cute so I try for a few close-ups. It’s taken me a while to approach the herd as the cows are very protective of their young and wary of the vehicle. This is one of 4 main herds of cattle that range across the reserve and as I get into a good position I’m confronted with a row of serious looking cattle with even more serious looking horns! This might work as a panoramic stitch, something I do regularly with scenics but not often with wildlife. The jury’s still out on this one. I’ll have to wait to see how it looks back home on the computer.
Late evening and early mornings are taking their toll – I’m not good on 4 hours sleep – time for a nap. By evening time the light has gone but I have an idea for a shot in the descending gloom. – wild eyes of red deer staring back at the camera using flash to produce ‘eye shine’. As dusk approaches, a slither of clear sky under the grey clouds provides a window for the setting sun to cast a beautiful pink light. If only I can find a decent group of obliging deer to silhouette and make the shot I have in mind. Finally with the colour in the sky fading fast I locate a small group of stags. I need to be quick but the camera is struggling to autofocus on the deer. Manual focus, expose for the sky and fire the flash. The 3 second wait for the flash to recharge seems like forever. I fire off another few shots, the deer’s eyes lighting up like cat’s eyes in the road with each flash burst. I think I might have got something. It could be great but then again…
My last morning. A great white egret patrols its usual spot close to the road. It always takes off as I approach but this time I get lucky as it flies past parallel with the vehicle and rewarding me with my best flight shots by far. In the distance the Konik’s are on the march heading in my direction. It’s an impressive sight to see these handsome animals in full flight, their numbers testament to the good grazing they can enjoy here during the summer months. From just 20 animals introduced to Oostvaardersplassen in 1984 they have increased and stabalised at around 2,000. Many will succumb during the more testing time of winter and along with around 25% mortality of the red deer herd they provide rich pickings for the substantial red fox population and resident sea eagles. This is nature in the raw and whilst there may be no predators to control the herbivores naturally, the weak and the sick fall victim to the conditions and food availability and in this way their numbers have become self-regulatory. It would be great to stay longer as the seasons develop first into autumn with the ritualistic battles of the red deer stags and then into winter to see how these thousands of ungulates cope with the harsh conditions. That’ll have to wait for another mission sometime in the future….
Mark Hamblin / Wild Wonders of Europe
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.