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Economic and Social History Blog

52. The second domestication (28-5-2020)

The second domestication (28-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Why are black terns breeding in a half-open cage? They used to breed on the big leaves of the water lily (the leaves that are on the flag of the province of Frisia), but that nesting place was always a bit unstable and could easily be disturbed by a wave, a rainstorm or a rat – or another predator. When the population of black terns declined rapidly during the second half of the 20th century, it seemed that improving their breeding success might help to stabilize the population. Conservationists experimented with different artificial ‘islands’ – such as the half open cage – and the birds were keen to switch (on the condition that the habitat remained the same – these breeding islands are always part of a lake or canal with the original water lilies). For their breeding the black tern has become entirely dependent on human assistance. Volunteers – birdwatchers often – make the artificial breeding places, carefully position them on the right spots, maintain them, and take care of them after the breeding season – and at the same time the breeding is closely monitored, the chicks are ringed, the breeding success is analysed, and all this work is done by members of one of the local ‘werkgroepen zwarte stern’ that are spread over the country, often as part of local associations of birdwatchers.

This is not an exceptional story. Many birds, mammals, butterflies, plants and ‘even’ fish are monitored and supported in similar ways. Artificial nesting places of the kingfisher, the barn owl, the sand martin and many other birds are created to enhance their reproductive success and stop their decline – or help the growth of their population. Entire nature parks are reorganized to induce the breeding of spectacular species such as white-tailed eagle, crane or fish eagle, and the province of Limburg spends millions on stabilizing the ‘korenwolf’ – by artificially breeding dozens of them and releasing them into the wild (where they are easy prey for predators). Extensively used hay fields (known as ‘blauwgraslanden’), well-known for their variety of plant life – orchids in particular – are ‘reconstructed’ again, in the hope that biodiversity there may come back after ‘reclamations’ which ‘developed’ them during the 1950s-1980s. The list of similar experiments to recreate, manage and monitor ‘nature’ in the Netherlands is extremely long.

Biologists and ecologists are key players in this. They collect the data to justify interventions, and monitor their species with cameras and with trackers – devices that trace all the movements of the animals. Websites such as ‘beleef de lente’ advertise themselves as follows: “Geniet mee met het liefdesleven van vogels in de lente” (enjoy the lovelife of birds in spring). You can follow the ups and downs of breeding couples there from day to day (in fact from minute to minute). The trackers make it possible to follow the movements of birds and other animals over the entire globe – and learn how they come to their end, by the hands of hunters on Malta or exhaustion crossing the Sahara.

In our book on the history of Dutch nature we have called this movement the ‘second domestication’. The first domestication – the invention of agriculture and animal husbandry – aimed to manipulate natural processes in such as way that it produced commodities – foodstuffs, wool, hides etc. – for human material consumption. The second domestication uses the manipulation of spontaneous, natural processes to produce ‘wilderness’, a rich nature. For human consumption, obviously, as we are and remain the measure of all things – but this consumption is not material, but the pleasure of the birdwatcher and the conservationist.  The paradox is that our desire for wilderness leads us to intensely regulate nature, to ‘verdierentuin’ it – to turn nature into one giant zoo. That is why the black tern is half-caged – it is a symbol of the fate of nature during this ‘second domestication’.

Continue reading: Kremlin, Moscow, 9-10-2015 (29-5-2020)