On our last day at the park, we arrived in the office at 8:30am to meet Ester and get involved in some top-secret activities. Two of the male bison are being exported to another project on Monday. (This is now Monday in the past, so we’re all clear to let the cat out the bag – or the bison out of the Netherlands!) The movement is being kept hush to allow it to happen in peace, away from press and public. It’s the first time they’re doing this type of transport, so being calm on the day is important. The reason the two males are being moved is to prevent in-breeding in the small herd. In their enclosed environment, with no opportunity to move away and find other females to mate with, the bulls would end up fathering calves with their own mothers and sisters. Eek.
So the two males (which are 4 and 5 years old) were tranquilised two weeks ago and moved to a new holding pen. They spend two weeks in the pen, acclimatising to the environment. There is a narrow corridor that they will have to walk along to be loaded onto the transport truck, and they have been led along it every few days to get them used to it. Ester was taking us for another practice round.
We got in the van and headed into the park, Ester cutting three juicy looking branches on the way to give the bison a break from eating hay. We arrived at the pen and Ester told us a bit about the design. There isn’t a lot of knowledge on the moving of European bison – there were only about 50 animals left at one time! And although there are now around 5,000 across Europe, there are very few that are kept in a ‘natural’ way, so best practice guidelines on managing animals like the ones in Holland are lacking. Many land owners with European bison feed them over winter, so they could be said to be partially domesticated. The bison here in Holland are never fed except when they have to be moved. So the design and use of the pen was taken from North America, and ranchers’ experiences with their own North American bison.
There is an enclosure where the animals hang out and where they are provided with food and water. From there, a corridor leads around in a semi-circle, leading back to that same enclosure. The bison can be enticed in with tasty treats or shooed in by someone walking towards them. They walk around the narrow corridor, arrive back where they started and are none the worse off for it. So they don’t have any qualms about going down the corridor.
When they are eventually ready for transport, a gate is moved and the corridor no longer leads back to the enclosure but into the back of a truck. Sneaky!
We put out the branches to entice them into the corridor, then Ester had to gently shoo them in because apparently they weren’t hungry. Once they were in the corridor, I closed a big sliding door and they walked around to go back into the holding pen. I think they were back inside before I’d even finished closing the door! Speedy bison.
Mission successfully completed, we headed back to the office. Dave and I had an appointment with a local journalist, which Yvonne had organised! We had a chat with him, got our picture taken and wondered whether we were going to appear in the newpaper the next day…
That evening, we were told that the village just to the north of the National Park is in the middle of their week-long annual village festival. Did we want to go along? Dave didn’t need to be asked twice and he convinced me to go even though I was feeling tired and antisocial by the end of the working day!
We cycled through the park, my need for dinner becoming more and more urgent following a day of very little food. “Dave, I’m literally dying of starvation here”, I proclaimed melodramatically, before holding onto his rucksack to get towed along for a bit.
When we arrived at the festival, we locked our bikes to a wire fence, met Ester and her husband and headed straight for a pizza house! One pizza and one beer later and I was enthusiastically engaged in the conversation. A band started playing by our table and we enjoyed watching the singer pour out his soul in a pair of neon pink leggings. Then the rest of the group appeared and took us over to the main stage, where a fantastic covers band was playing. Eight beers later, around 11pm, we were all clustered near the main stage, singing, dancing, bouncing, drinking and chatting with each other. They were such a lovely group of people and it was a fabulous evening.
Just after midnight, everyone from the project got emailed the journalist’s article about us, which was going to press the next morning! The owner of the Highland cows kindly translated it for me and we got to look at the lovely picture.
Coming up to 1am, we decided to head back. Ester and Jesus live in the National Park (lucky bastards) about half way back to our campsite. Dave and I didn’t have lights with us, and Ester’s lights didn’t work, so the four of us followed one little wobbly light along the unlit cycle path through the forest. It was cloudy and the moon was nowhere to be seen, but we managed to stay on the trail, mostly. Ester fell off at one point, for no other reason than she couldn’t maintain her balance any longer! Giggling, she got back on and off we went again. When we made it to their place, they invited us to stay over – in a bed, no less! I would have taken them up on the offer, but if we went home, we got to ride through the rest of the park in the dark… and that was an appealing prospect. It was such a peaceful night, calm and quiet and warm. I’d been harping on about a night walk all week and here was our chance to be out at night!
So off we went, away from the welcoming lights of their house and into the dark woods. After a minute or so, my eyes starting to get accustomed to the dark and I could make out the trail and the sky above the trees. Then we emerged from the forest and were out in the dunes, with much better visibility, although everything remained either dark grey or really dark grey. There were some horses on the trail and we managed to avoid hitting into any of them on the way! Then eventually we emerged onto the road at the end of the park and headed to the campsite and collapsed into bed – what a day!