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June 2007 - Without farmers no nature in cultural landscapes



French from the Audomarois visit the Langstraat area in Brabant

One thing became clear during the visit of a group French farmers and nature managers to the Brabant region the Langstraat. 75 percent of the nature lies on cultural landscapes, but if farmers cannot earn a decent income with nature management soon there will be no one left to manage those landscapes.


’It is just like France’, joked the French from the Audomarois region with a knowing wink to the sunny and warm weather. They came to Brabant via the European project Lifescape in which people seek new ways to revive the rural landscape economically, ecologically and socially. The Audomarois is part of the Parc Naturel Régional (PNR) des Cap et Marais d’Opale, which in France is no real nature park but an area with nature, agriculture and settlements that is managed in an integrated manner. The PNR is one of the partners of Lifescape.


On the 8th of July a group French farmers and nature managers visited the Langstraat, a green area west of Waalwijk with slim and long parcels of meadow bordered with rows of alders, to see how the Dutch try to combine of economically viable agriculture with nature management. Albert Zijlmans is a farmer that has to find such a combination. He is a not all too large goat farmer on the border of the village of Waspik. Enlarging his farm where it is now is impossible. It lies adjacent to a cultural historical valuable landscape which is part of the ecological high structure (Ecologische Hoofd Structuur, a national network of protected nature) and will be part of the European nature network Natura 2000 so it will reside under the protection of the European Bird and Habitat Directive. And the rules for nature are very strict.



The Langstraat is also called the ’seem of Brabant’ because in the area two types of soil converge, the peat that originated from the river the Oude Maas in the north and the higher situated sandy soil in the south. On the border of these two types of soil a special kind of seepage comes up and that is the origin of very special nature. In the area there grows for instance the very rare yellow sedge, and in the water of the Afwateringskanaal and the ditches lives the protected fish the weather loach.


To keep the special seepage water in the area a project is started under guidance of the water board Brabantse Delta to develop the nature in the area. ’The area is now dried out’, told Maartje Thijssen of the water board. The Afwateringskanaal draws the water out of the area and that is why that canal has to be made waterproof so the seepage stays in the area.


The big question is not if it is possible to develop nature but rather how this nature will be managed in the future, said Maartje de Deugd, who guides the project for the Province of Noord-Brabant. ’Now there is enough money to execute the project, but will there be enough money in ten years time to manage the nature?’


Combining nature with the now generally accepted agriculture seems difficult. ’A part of my farmland will become a nature area’, told Zijlmans. ’It will get the nature function of swamp. That of course does not fit in with herding goat. But we do want to go on living here and farming here.’ With the strict European rules protecting the marshy nature that will be developed within five hundred meters from Zijlmans farm that will be very difficult.


There are more farmers like Zijlmans in the Langstraat, told Frans de Bont, chairman of the Agricultural Nature Association Slagenland. ’Now we still earn our money with generally accepted agriculture but the nature goals will become so strict that that will become impossible. We also can manage that new nature only if it is feasible and affordable. That is why we asked Alterra to study if there is a basis in the area to combine nature with agriculture.’


For the farmers in the Langstraat combining farming with nature management is quite a switch, because in the past decades they have just been working on intensifying the farming. De Bont: ’We now still pay for the land consolidation from the seventies and the eighties of the last century developing larger farms that were economically more viable. When in 1990 it became clear that large parts of the Langstraat would become part of the ecological high structure we turned to nature management.’



Lots of farmers in the Langstraat now lease parcels from the nature organisation Staatsbosbeheer as meadowland, where they manage nature on payment of nature subsidies while they harvest the high quality hay the Langstraat was famous for in the old days. According to Alterra researcher Herbert Diemont the situation now is a stalemate. ’It is an area where different interests coincide. Staatsbosbeheer cannot operate without the farmers, but the ecological demands of Natura 2000 are very strict, and the farmers cannot survive here without realizing a long-term income.’


The French visitors recognized the issue. Luc Barbier of the PNR des Caps et Marais d’Opale: ’Lots of farmers in the Netherlands and in France still earn a lot of money with production oriented and subsidised agriculture, but that are often not the farmers that manage the landscape. Those that do are often small scale farmers, but those are quickly declining in numbers. If we do not take care soon there will be no farmers left to maintain the landscape.’


In the Audomarois the situation is evenly pinching as in the Langstraat. The Dutch were surprised about the size of the region and about the complexity of the issue there. Barbier in his place was surprised about how important the landscape is in the Netherlands. ’In France we have lots of beautiful landscape. That is why you come to our country for the holidays.’ According to Barbier a relatively small nature area as the Langstraat would not be as important in France.


The region of Audomarois is a 3.700 hectares large area rich of water, with Dutch build, small and narrow polders, about five hundred land owners and about 760 kilometres of watercourses. In the area there is still 1.200 hectares of meadowland which is managed by a hundred to 150 cattle breeders. Still about 150 people live on small islands where the post is delivered by boat. Barbier: ’In general those islands are very small and inaccessible parcels. We need a swift solution for the maintenance of the landscape. In fact it is already too late. Farmers disappear in an alarming rate.’


According to Diemont the way the PNR des Cap et Marais d’Opale works on the maintenance of the landscape in an integrated manner can be an example for the Netherlands. ’The PNR combines all the functions’, endorsed Barbier. ’In the Langstraat only the function of nature is enforced.’ And that is also the problem, said Diemont. ’Natura 2000 is sectoral nature, but 75 percent of the nature in Europe lies on cultural landscapes.’


The big question for the Dutch as well as the French is how the nature management will be paid. There is money for the development of the nature in the Langstraat under the guidance of the water board, but how will the management of that nature be organized in the future? Partly that may be financed from nature subsidies, Diemont said, but besides that people have to find alternative financing methods. Part of the solutions lies in services to the region, like care farming or recreation.




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