Two things in particular, strike me as being very different between the UK and The NL. They are cycling and wildlife.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the wildlife here, although I’d read that the Dutch use a lot of chemicals on their farming land, that it’s essentially an urban environment, very flat and more or less devoid of anything interesting in the way of ‘nature’.
I have to disagree with this. Although we have been in the more rural north, Fryslan and Overijssel and it’s probably a different story in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Anyway, here is where I am so I’ll try to describe some of things I’ve seen.
Yes, it’s true that the landscape is flat here. Extremely so. When we motored from Leeuwarden to Grou, we could see the tall modern office and appartment blocks in Leeuwarden for practically the whole journey. There are slopes, especially when you go over bridges on a bike, but nothing to write home about. It’s also true that the landsacpe is fairly urban. This is a very crowded country and they also manufacture a lot of things. This means that much of the ground is covered with housing and factories. They transport some of their goods and raw materials on the water (of course!)so there are quays and ports and other industrial infra-structure. But there are lots of fringes, whether around fields, alongside canals, around warehouses or just where the houses stop before the motorway begins, which are left to their own devices and become covered with wild flowers and grasses and thus provide habitats for many birds and other living things.
At the edge of Bloksjil, there was a community orchard. In May, the village ponds were literally alive with frogs. It took me a while to work out what the noise was.
It’s something when a group of White Storks in a field hardly gets a second glance. The farmland alongside the waterways provides hunting grounds for Kestrels and Buzzards and perhaps also Marsh Harriers, although I haven’t positively identified one yet. I’ve seen hundreds of swans on the meers and of course more coots, grebes and ducks than I’m used to. I was sitting outside the Pikmar in Grou at dusk a few weeks ago and a starling murmaration flew over. They did it again the following night. The cuckoos were calling until the end of June and Common Cranes making a terrific noise from their nesting point in tall trees at the end of April. My birthday treat on 1st May was a Tawny Owl, eye-balling me from his perch in a tree. This all makes me optimistic that there are not too many chemicals on the land, because otherwise the invertebrates and small mammals which these birds need to eat, wouldn’t be there.
Birds are one thing, but mammals a different matter altogether. In my long, long life, I’d seen about five hares before coming here. One ran through the frame of our tandem as we whizzed down a hill in Hampshire, in the early 1980s. It’s something we find hard to believe, even though we were there! Since being in The NL, I’ve seen eight hares, all fairly close and all in broad daylight. Again, there must be food and shelter for them to be here.
It can’t be helped that there is limited geographical variety here. This country is mainly land reclaimed from the sea, in other words, it’s man-made. But the way it’s been managed and cared for means that it affords many niches for animals and plants. And as for not being particularly ‘wild’, I agree that even the National Parks, which are beautiful, may seem a little tame when compared with Snowdonia or the Malvern Hills, but a large component of these parks is water. Looks pretty – but you only have to be out on in a sudden squall to understand just how wild that can be.
Cycling is much more common than in The UK and much safer.
It seems that as soon as a child can walk, he or she is put on a bike. First of all, they ride on seats at the front of an adult’s bike, presumably held on by a harness, but no-one wears cycle helmets. We’d consider both of these practices sheer madness. Tiny children cycle around the streets where they live and ride alongside their parents to the shops. Ten or twelve year olds use bikes as for getting around, to school, to play sport, to see friends. Car drivers are very considerate towards cyclists and drive as if they expect a cyclist to be round every corner. It probably helps that if there is an accident, the law if very firmly on the cyclist’s side. And you can do most journeys in designated cycle paths.
Every junction or closed bridge accumulates a large group of cyclist, who take off like a flock of birds once they get the green light. Schoolchildren, businessmen, parents with children and old people all embrace their bikes. In the case of bikes with handlebars which provide an arm rest at the front, they literally embrace them and bike and rider seem to meld into a single entity.
There are few road markings on roads in residential areas. This means that everyone has to be more aware of where other road users are. Drivers drive slowly, very slowly. Well, wouldn’t you, with all these children and old people around? These women, members of a Shanty Choir, were doing a bike based treasure hunt around Grou, as their last meeting before the summer holiday. And having a great time!
Drivers are happy to manoeuvre around cyclists and anticipate when a child (or anyone else) might wobble, stop suddenly or change direction. I haven’t seen any ‘road rage’ between cyclists and motorists or any evidence that cyclists are selfish and dangerous road-users, as is the understanding in parts of the UK.
And all this when it’s common for people to cycle holding an umbrella with one hand, holding a dog’s lead, texting, smoking and pulling a wheeled suitcase. Not that I recommend any of this.
The cycling accident statistics include 70-90 year olds. Just let that sink in for a moment. I bet if you saw a 90 year old cycling in the UK, you’d give him or her more of a glance than I now give a White Stork in a field.