The Alde Feanen is rightly labelled as being old, since the history of this National Park in the Netherlands goes back thousands of years. Traces of its origins can still be seen in the area. If you’d like to find out more, read the entire history of the area. You will immediately discover more about the unusual location of De Alde Feanen between two totally different zones, the major influence of the last two ice ages, man’s role over time, how it became popular with tourists, and how today’s professional fishermen and reed cutters still contribute to the special character of this beautiful cultural landscape.

The origins

De Alde Feanen is part of the ‘Lege Midden van Fryslân’ (empty middle of Friesland); low-lying peatland wedged between the higher sandy soils on the east side and the clayey soils to the north and west. The last two ice ages had a big impact on the subsoils of the area. In the penultimate ice age, a thick layer of boulder clay was deposited in the north of the Netherlands by the advancing ice.

This layer consists of blue-grey clay, which is virtually impenetrable to water and contains lots of boulders. In the last ice age, when the ice cap did not reach the Netherlands, a layer of sand was deposited on the boulder clay by the action of the wind. After this ice age, about 10,000 years ago, the climate became warmer and wetter. The melting ice sheets caused the sea level to rise, there was more rain, and groundwater levels also rose. This rain made its way to the sea in rivers from higher areas through the lower areas. Some of those original river courses (De Boarn, De Drait, Kromme and Wide Ie) are still visible in De Alde Feanen.

The warmer climate and rising groundwater level led to the formation of peat. Since approx. 3,500 years ago, peat bogs developed along the western edge of the Drenthe Plateau. The conditions were ideal: humid west winds, rising temperatures, and plenty of rain. Peat formation was also helped by the slow drainage of water, as a result of rising sea levels.

These higher levels also led to the sea occasionally penetrating deep inland. Everywhere this happened, peat formation came to an abrupt end. The border between the peat and clayey areas is just one kilometre west of De Alde Feanen, which means the sea never reached De Alde Feanen, leaving the peat intact.

The role of man

Human activity has been a major influence in the area over the past thousands of years. Initially this was only on a very limited scale, but as the population grew in the Netherlands, so did the role of humans.

The peat

The peat in De Alde Feanen has been important for the area’s development, since it was found to be an excellent source of fuel when dried. This increased the demand for peat, and led to it being excavated. Initially, in the 17th century, peat extraction was limited, but by the 18th century more and larger areas were being exploited.

Around 1700, most of the area around Earnewâld was still land. It was in this period that peat extraction started, initially using the Frisian method of peat bogs ringed by dykes. Later, after 1751, the Gieterse method was applied, and it was at this stage that strips began appear, with large areas of standing water between them. The peat layer was dug away down to the sand, which lowered the surface level. Large parts of the area were flooded, and suffered the influences of water and wind. Slightly higher areas were also swept away by the turbulent water. Dykes broke and bog holes became large lakes, such as the Grutte Krite and the Saiterpetten. This interplay between humans and nature resulted in a varied area of land, water and everything in between. Peat extraction continued until the 19th century, when all that remained was a barren landscape, partly consisting of murky canals and excavated plots, with virtually no vegetation. However, nature soon began appearing spontaneously, once again taking possession of this wilderness. A new, swamp-like bog hole landscape arose.

Farming in De Alde Feanen

After peat extraction ended, the edges of De Alde Feanen were transformed by man into meadows and hay fields. Later on, large-scale reclamation began. The last major reclamation was the 400-hectare De Hege Warren, in 1939, but most of De Alde Feanen was not reclaimed.

With the modernisation of agriculture and increasingly large farms, it became difficult for farmers in De Alde Feanen to scrape a living. The wet, small-scale landscape and lack of good access and utilities made farming unviable in the heart of the area, and gradually nature and recreational interests took over. The last farmsteads were turned into holiday homes.

The rise of recreation

The first holidaymakers were passing sailors enjoying the nature, who began to discover the area around 1915. It wasn’t long before nature and water sports enthusiasts started buying pieces of land for their summer houses. At that time, these were few and far between, because going on holiday was still an elite pastime. However, from that time on, more and more people discovered De Alde Feanen, and with the growing number of holidaymakers, a growing recreational sector developed in the surrounding villages. Business was good for the middle class. After the Second World War, the importance of the recreational sector as a motor of the local economy increased sharply.

Reed cutters and fishermen

Throughout the centuries, reed cutting and fishing have been activities that define the area. Even today, these two ancient activities still take place in De Alde Feanen, albeit on a modest scale. The occasional professional fisherman can still be seen with traps and nets, and reeds are still cut in the winter. As a result, these activities continue to contribute to the special character of this wonderful cultural landscape.