Should you legally force the government to tackle sheep farmers? Getting your political right in court is risky | Opinions

Do you think that a farmer emits too much nitrogen or that a sheep farmer does not properly protect his sheep against wolves? Action groups then go to court. It is a risky strategy that solves little, argues Hilbrand Polman.

It will just happen to you. Sheep farmer Stefan Worst from Vledder received from a reporter last week Newspaper of the North to hear that his company is the target of legal proceedings. Sausage would not sufficiently protect his animals against wolf attacks. Action group Animal Rights is therefore going to the administrative court to demand that the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) take enforcement action against Worst. It is a legal obligation to properly protect your animals and the NVWA must supervise this.

Wolves are good swimmers

Formally, of course, the NVWA is the target of Animal Rights, but the press release with which the action group announces the legal proceedings is not exactly flattering in its direction. Worst ‘refused to take adequate measures’, it says. ‘Sometimes he does not take into account the fact that wolves are good swimmers and does not place a fence on the side of a canal, then the bottom wire hangs too high, so that the wolf could crawl under the wire, or the posts are standing too far apart.’ Sausage himself is convinced that he spares no expense to protect his sheep.

Many sheep farmers suffer from wolf attacks and this is already causing tension. It leads to tensions with conservationists who have a warm heart for the wolf. Animal Rights believes that sheep farmers should do more to protect their animals and fears that the call to lower the protected status of the wolf will increase because of the many sheep killed.

In its own words, NVWA chooses not to go to the farmer with the coupon book, but to give the livestock farmers time to improve their measures themselves. The wolf has not been in the Netherlands that long and the nature reserves here are smaller and more fragmented than elsewhere in Europe. Therefore, we need time to learn to live with this predator.

PAS detectors

It seems like a sensible approach. Nevertheless, Animal Rights is not satisfied with that and takes the matter to court. It is very reminiscent of the lawsuits that the so-called PAS reporters have to contend with. These are farmers who until recently did not need a permit for business expansion, but suddenly did since the Council of State brought down the Nitrogen Approach Program (PAS) four years ago. These entrepreneurs also face the threat that environmental organization MOB will go to court to force the province to take enforcement action.

It leads to a lot of extra tension and uncertainty in the family businesses. Is it wise to throw extra oil on the fire with legal proceedings? And does this bring a good solution to the wolf and nitrogen problems closer? Is the judge the right person to solve a political problem?

No foothold

Rowie Stolk is conducting doctoral research at the University of Leiden into the phenomenon of interest groups trying to get their case through the courts. It is certainly not new, she says, but she has seen an increase in recent years. “It is often the only way for organizations like Animal Rights to make their point. They argue that they often do not get a foothold in politics, unlike large companies such as Shell and Tata Steel.”

In addition, it is not legally possible to challenge the general policy of the government, or an agency such as the NVWA, Stolk continues. “That is why you have to look for concrete, individual matters, such as with sheep farmer Worst. Then you can challenge the decision in court not to intervene in the way he protects his sheep.”

And politicians often need a stick behind the door, says Stolk. She refers to the Nitrogen Approach Program mentioned earlier. “The government has repeatedly been reminded that this was not enough to protect nature. Nevertheless, the responsible politicians continued to look for goat paths to prevent drastic measures. It was really necessary for the Council of State to declare that this was not possible.”

It is different with the wolf, she admits. “We still have to learn to deal with this.” And she can understand that it is very annoying for the individual entrepreneurs if an interest group chooses them to conduct a kind of exemplary process. Even though the interest groups emphasize that the legal action is not directed against them personally. “Johan Vollenbroek, who litigates on behalf of MOB about PAS holders, therefore often goes for coffee with these farmers to talk things out.”

Separate schools

She has also researched it in the United States public interest lawyering , as it is called there: litigate to realize your ideals. “It started there in the 1950s and 1960s, much earlier than in the Netherlands,” says Stolk. “It started with activist groups wanting to tackle school segregation, the phenomenon that black children had to go to separate schools.”

Although this approach initially had an effect, Stolk points out that the long-term effects are less favorable for the initiators. “It depends on the subject whether it actually succeeds in changing something. Litigation can make an important contribution to protecting vulnerable interests and perhaps even force a political breakthrough, but it can also be counterproductive. It arouses annoyance among political opponents and a counter-movement is started.”


Conservative organizations seem to be able to easily copy the tricks of their progressive counterparts such as Animal Rights and MOB. Stolk: “In the Netherlands, you can already see this in lawsuits that Urgenda is filing against Shell. Urgenda wants Shell to quickly stop supplying energy from fossil sources, but then another foundation joins the process that demands that the security of energy supply be safeguarded.”

In short, legal litigation in order to prove your political right entails risks. It fuels the contradiction with those who think differently. At the provincial elections in March, the BoerBurgerBeweging got a lot of wind in its sails. In Groningen, Frysland and Drenthe, this newcomer won 12, 14 and 17 seats respectively. With the votes of CDA, VVD and other right-wing parties added, you can conclude that a majority of northern voters think completely differently about the wolf and nitrogen than Animal Rights and MOB.

Negative daylight

Then you can be proven right by the administrative court, this does not bring a solution closer that is acceptable to as many parties as possible. On the contrary, it undermines support for laws that should protect the wolf and nature, and as a result, the call to change those laws is increasing. Because many of these laws come from Brussels, European cooperation is also seen in an increasingly negative light.

Being right is often different from being right. It would be to the credit of all parties to remain open to consultation and dialogue and to leave the administrative court in peace more often.

Hilbrand Polman is a political reporter for Dagblad van het Noorden.