Dutch Deserts

With an average of more than 180 rainy days annually (that’s roughly every other day!), and a total of more than 800mm of rainfall every year, one would not expect to find a desert-like environment in The Netherlands. However, the country actually does contain several areas where you can walk through perfect white-sand landscapes, giving the impression that you are in a desert.

Of course there are no real deserts in this little country, given that an area is generally designated as desert when it receives less than 250mm of precipitation annually. Moreover, and ironically so, the ultimate cause of these desert-like white-sand landscapes actually goes all the way back to the ice ages.

A white-sand “desert” in the middle of the (rainy) Netherlands. Click the pic for a larger view.

During the Saale glaciation, roughly 300,000 to 130,000 years ago, at its maximum extent the edge of the ice sheet reached south to about midway through what is now The Netherlands. This caused the local land to buckle, forming the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, a hilly ridge running through what is currently the Dutch province of Utrecht, in the center of the country.

During the most recent ice age, the Weichselian glaciation, roughly 115,000 to 11,700 years ago, the ice did not come south as far, but it did affect the local climate. During that time, the average annual temperature was less than -2°C. Obviously not much could grow during this period, and strong, predominantly westerly winds were able to move a lot of sand around. This sand mostly came from the (then dry) North Sea basin.

The last two ice ages. The yellow line shows the extent of the earlier Saale glaciation. The red line shows the extent of the later Weichselian glaciation. The Netherlands is on the left edge of the image. Source: Wikipedia.

Due to the hilly obstacles of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, still remaining from the earlier Saale glaciation, much of this wind-blown sand was deposited in this area. Starting around 10,000 years ago the climate improved again, and soon the area, with its sand deposits, became covered with a thick forest.

During the middle ages, local farmers cut or burned down many of these trees, and let their sheep graze in these newly opened areas. This gave rise to the appearance of heathlands and, due to the old sand layers now being exposed, large sand drifts. Some of these sand drifts are still present today, such as in the Soester Duinen (Dunes of Soest).

Heath blooming on the sand dunes.

Currently these sand dune areas are actively being preserved. This means, among others, that every year some of the sand is moved back to where it originally came from, so it can drift once again. Also, some of the vegetation that would otherwise reappear spontaneously is being removed frequently, to maintain the area’s unique look, and to leave the sand exposed.

In 1997 the Soester Duinen were declared a geological monument by the province of Utrecht. It is possible, and even highly recommended, to go for a walk around and through the dunes. This provides a unique experience, giving one the feeling of walking through a true “Dutch desert”. Needless to say, though, you should make sure to go on one of those every-other-days that it doesn’t actually rain!

A view of part of the Soester Duinen.

And of course there are several other such sand dune areas, such as the Loonse & Drunense Duinen, and also along the coast, for example at Zandvoort aan Zee. In short, thanks to a combination of natural (ice ages) and human (burning and grazing) influences, there are some unique desert-like white-sand landscapes to be enjoyed in the otherwise rather wet and flat little country of The Netherlands. Indeed, it’s not all just tulips, wooden shoes, and windmills 😉

Wild fallow deer grazing in some grassy sand dunes along the Dutch coast.

All photographs © Wim Hordijk

This article is part of the Beauty and Science of Nature series.