The pastoral landscape of The Netherlands marshes. De Agostini/Getty

The Dutch capital has long been a global model for flood management in a manmade landscape. Now it is seeking to break ground on how it preserves wetlands.

Travel beyond Amsterdam’s northern outskirts and you enter a scene that looks like a 17th century Dutch painting. Cows chew their cud in lush pasture fringed with reed beds, in a region of pretty villages whose houses are often snapped up by wealthy urban commuters. By Dutch standards, this watery landscape has been left relatively undeveloped. Scratch the surface, however, and all is not well.

“We saw that biodiversity was going down and that peat was disappearing,” says Saline Verhoeven, who is currently leading a project to restore the local environment. Hemmed in by heavily developed land, the area still needs to sustain farmers. But current agricultural methods often drain significant water from the meadows, leaving the peat vulnerable to erosion and creating conditions that threaten marshland species.

To find a way to restore the marshlands and pastures while maintaining its agricultural capacity, the Amsterdam Wetlands project will plow $9 million of funding into experiments. The scheme, a a collaboration between three nature preservation agencies, is intended to incorporate more water into low-lying areas instead of damming and pumping it out.

If fully realized, it could demonstrate how restoring land and making it more storm-resilient needn’t just mean rewilding terrain through marsh expansion and turning it all back to nature. Agriculture, if well-managed, can also play a role in maintaining balance, providing habitats in places where humans have been reshaping the landscape for more than a thousand years.

You would be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the Amsterdam Wetlands. Until very recently, nobody had. That’s because the English language term is in fact a new coinage, used to describe the 50-odd square miles of marsh, pasture, and waterways directly to the north of the Dutch capital, so dubbed because Dutch has no equivalent term as broad as the word wetland.

The world has already looked to the Netherlands for guidance on flood management as sea levels rise. This project fits into a global picture of wetland restoration.

From the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of China, states are increasingly realizing the vital role that marshlands can play, by protecting from high tides, promoting biodiversity, and keeping watercourses in good health. Amsterdam’s new project is modest in scale but helps refine the picture. While wetlands need water to thrive, they may also struggle if submerged: Amsterdam’s wetlands are inland and freshwater, and the project’s goal is to continue controlling water flow into the area so that its river and channel system remains clean and doesn’t become an overflow space for other watercourses in the region.

Some plans for the area are already taking shape. Wetland areas will be expanded so that reed beds can be knitted together into a single habitat that will attract wildlife such as otters and sea eagles. But as Verhoeven points out, much can also be done by introducing better land management around the area’s current 120 acres of protected nature reserves. “What we need is a certain type of zoning: a core of nature reserve, certainly, but one which is surrounded and supported by nature-inclusive agriculture.”

In practice, this means adopting methods of farming that preserve the peat. Verhoeven describes this fragile earth as “a real diva among soil types” that only thrives when kept properly wet, with clean water. Dairy farmers typically pump a lot of water out of the soil, drying out the peat and causing it to release CO2. They do this for good reason. Dairy cattle are heavy, and sink easily into waterlogged ground. The solution to this could be straightforward enough: the introduction of lighter cattle breeds such as Angus cows, more suitable for beef than dairy production.

By rearing lighter cattle, farmers can leave their land a little more waterlogged, allowing the peat to restore itself and attract more of the species that thrive on it. As Verhoeven explains, this could have advantages for farmers too.

“The land is so wet and the plots of land are really small, so that farmers have to transport their [cattle] by boat,” Verhoeven said. “This makes dairy farming a difficult business there because it involves moving the cows daily for milking. The other [beef] breeds are a bit easier because without milking they don't need to be moved so much, and can be left to themselves a little more.”

A wetter landscape could also help wildlife. Many birds indigenous to the region thrive on the extra insects provided by wetter land, even though some are meadow rather than marshland species. Meanwhile, the distribution of food produced on these farms, much of which is currently exported, could once again be targeted primarily at Amsterdam. As many villages have waterways linking them directly with the city, it could even arrive there by boat.

The project’s continuing human intervention should come as no surprise. Much of the Dutch landscape is actually human-made, shaped and reshaped by many centuries of draining and cultivation. It makes sense that the human inhabitants that substantially created its shapes through levees and reclamation can still have a role in its future. They just need to learn to walk with a lighter tread.

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