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The area of the Netherlands, which includes huge stretches of water such as IJsselmeer and the Waddenzee, is 41 863 sq km / 16 163 sq mi, of which 9 896sq km/3 821sq mi is reclaimed land. The longest distance from one end of the country to the other is 310km/192.6mi, from Rottum Island in the north of the province of Groningen to the south of Limburg. Agriculture in the Netherlands is highly intensive and productive, but represents only a small percentage of the gross national product (GNP). Stock-raising is well suited to the fertile reclaimed areas. Industry, especially chemicals, metallurgy and food processing, is concentrated within the Randstad area, the Twente, Noord-Brabant and Limburg. The Netherlands relies heavily on imported raw materials and the export of its manufactured goods. Because of its privileged geographical location trade, especially goods in transit between Europe and the rest of the world, plays an important role in the Dutch economy.

Holland and the Netherlands

Over the years the name Holland has come to designate the whole of the Netherlands. In fact, this old province, separated since 1840 into Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland, supplanted the other regions of the United Provinces in the 17C due to its economic prosperity and political supremacy. Napoleon I ratified the primacy of Holland by creating the short-lived kingdom of Holland in 1810. In fact, as early as the late Middle Ages the plains stretching from Friesland to Flanders were called Lage Landen or Nederlanden (Low Countries). In 1581 the United Provinces of the Netherlands (Verenigde Provinciën der Nederlanden) came into being. In 1815 this was still the name used when William I became ruler of the kingdom, which included part of Belgium. The name has remained unchanged – Netherlands – despite the secession of Belgium in 1830, and Queen Beatrix has the title of Queen of the Netherlands (Koningin der Nederlanden). The country has 12 provinces.


A cloudy sky pierced by a few timid rays of sunshine or a misty horizon are typical of the climate, and were beautifully captured by the landscape artists of the 17C. The oceanic climate is humid and cool. An average of 750mm/29.5in of rain falls each year, spread over more than 200 days. The temperature is fairly cool in summer without being too harsh in winter. Winters are warmer than in the past, as proved by Avercamp’s delightful 17C skating scenes; in 1795, too, the town of Den Helder fell after the French took advantage of the fact that the Dutch fleet was frozen into the ice. The westerly winds are often strong, and many of the farmhouses are protected by a screen of poplar trees.

A “Low Country”

The name Netherlands, from the Dutch ‘Nederland’, is very apt (neder = low, land = country). The sea is a constant threat, since more than one third of the country is below sea level. Without the protection of dunes and dykes, more than half the country would be under water during surge tides or when the rivers are in spate. The lowest point, 6.5m/21.3ft below sea level, is at Alexanderpolder, near Rotterdam.

There is a marked difference between east and west. The west of the country is a low-lying plain with an average altitude of less than 5m/16.4ft. This area is the most densely populated. In the east, on the other hand, the Veluwe Hills rise to a height of 106m/348ft at Zijpenberg to the northeast of Arnhem, and Drielandenpunt (321m/1 053ft), at the junction of the Dutch, Belgian and German frontiers, is the highest point. The Netherlands represents a depressed area of the earth’s crust which has subsequently been filled in by alluvial deposits from the rivers and depositions from the sea.

A land of water

The land above sea level represents only five sixths of the total area. The country is criss-crossed by a network of rivers, whose estuaries form an immense delta. In addition, the large freshwater lake, the IJsselmeer, created by the Zuiderzee Project, covers an area of 120 000ha/296 526 acres. Elsewhere, ponds, small lakes, canals, streams and ditches abound, especially in Friesland, whose flag has water lily leaves as its emblem. The percentage of land above sea level increases with the altitude from west to east. In the east the land is relatively well drained, while water tends to accumulate in the low-lying plains and polders of the west.


Apart from a few hilly regions, the Netherlands consists of an immense plain with little diversity of soil, resulting in a corresponding lack of variety in the landscape.

The polder lands are the result of man’s determined intervention throughout the ages, but they also give a somewhat monotonous appearance to the countryside. However, they are one of the quintessential aspects of the country and their peacefulness, light and colour give the landscape a poetic dimension.

Vast sandy tracts

Sand covers 43% of the land with the main areas in the south and the east, notably the Kempenland of Noord-Brabant, which is a continuation of the Belgian Kempenland, the Veluwe and the north of the provinces of Overijssel and Drenthe. In addition to agricultural land there are moorlands of heather, broom and gorse and forests (in the vicinity of Breda and the the Veluwe, with its pines). The great Scandinavian glaciers left tracts of morainic material with their telltale erratics in the undulating Utrechtse Heuvelrug and the Veluwe. The glaciers were also responsible for deflecting the course of the Rhine and Maas rivers westwards.

There are several areas of marshland (De Peel and Biesbosch) and lakes, for example in the south of Friesland. Unlike those in the province of Holland, these have not been reclaimed due to the infertility of their sandy soil.


Coastal currents have caused offshore sand bars to form along the coast. The coastal sand dunes are of utmost importance, as they provide protection against the high tides. Marram grass is planted to stabilise the dunes, which are carefully monitored by local authorities. Public access is restricted in certain sectors to prevent further erosion and damage to this fragile ecosystem. In some cases the chain of dunes is strengthened by a dyke. The dunes also act as reservoirs for the rainwater which then filters down to the water table. The vast sandy beaches beyond the dunes and dykes are a valuable asset for the local seaside resorts.

In the north, the Wadden Islands form an important offshore barrier. They are lashed on the north and west by the waves of the North Sea, with the calmer waters of the Waddenzee on the landward side.

Alluvial deposits

Marine deposited clays cover 28% of the country, especially in the Delta area, around the great coastal estuaries and bays, and in those which have been reclaimed as polders, such as the Lauwerszee and the Middelzee, which once reached as far inland as Leeuwarden. The fluvial clays which cover 10% of the Netherlands are associated with the many rivers in the centre of the country and the Maas Valley, to the south of Venlo.

Peat bogs

In the Netherlands there are two types of peat bog. The first has formed in the lagoons on top of marine sediments. Once the peat was extracted, lakes then formed which were drained and used for agricultural purposes. In the upland region peat formed in the marshy areas; here again it was used for fuel and the land was then given over to agriculture. The provinces of Groningen and Drenthe were known for the peat colonies (veenkoloniën) which flourished from the 16C to the 19C.

Limestone plateau

The limestone landscapes of southern Limburg provide a sharp contrast to the rest of the country. Some parts of the bedrock are silt-covered (loess), as in the Hesbaye region of Belgium, while others appear as rocky outcrops more akin to the ancient (Hercynian) Ardennes Massif, again in Belgium.

All mining activity has now ceased in the Limburg coalfields, which are a continuation of the coal seams of Kempenland in Belgium.

The fight against the sea

The history of the Netherlands tells of man’s continuous struggle with the elements, against the sea, storm surges and rivers in spate. The first dunes were formed to the south of Haarlem around 5 BC, and by AD 1000 a sand bar stretched from the Scheldt to the Eems. The bar was breached at several points, creating the chain of islands now known as the Wadden Islands, and the sea inundated the peat bogs lying inland to form the Waddenzee.

First steps: terps and dykes

Around 500 BC the Frisians, the earliest inhabitants of the coastal areas, were already engaged in their struggle with the sea. They built artificial mounds or terps to protect their settlements from the encroaching water. As early as AD 1200 they were building dykes and had drained a few areas of land – the very first polders – between Leeuwarden and Sneek. During the 13C there were at least 35 great floods, and large tracts of land were inundated, creating the Dollard and Lauwerszee in the north and the Zuiderzee, now IJsselmeer, in 1287.

Windmills: the first polders

In the 14C windmills were being used to drain lakes and marshes. By the 15C the rivers of Zeeland had already carved out an intricate network of peninsulas and islands, and the coastal dunes were crumbling under the assaults of the waves. The overall lack of protection was responsible for the catastrophic St Elizabeth Flood in 1421. Following this disaster, windmills were increasingly used in the threatened low-lying areas. Thus in Noord-Holland small polders appeared in Schagen in 1456 and in Alkmaar in 1564. Many of the coastal dykes of the time were the work of Andries Vierlingh (1507–79).

17C : a series of polders

In the 17C, much of the draining of inland tracts of water was carried out by Jan Adriaenszoon Leeghwater (his name means low water). Leeghwater supervised the successful draining of the Beemstermeer to the north of Amsterdam in 1612 with the help of 40 windmills. (The Beemsterpolder has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1999). The success of this initial project encouraged the Dutch to continue reclamation work, and they built the polders of Purmer in 1622 and Wormer in 1626. In 1631 the town of Alkmaar started reclaiming the Schermermeer in accordance with Leeghwater’s instructions. This time 50 windmills were used and the work was completed in 1635. Another of Leeghwater’s projects (one he never completed) was the draining of Haarlem Lake. As early as 1667, Hendrik Stevin proposed a project to drain the Zuiderzee “to evacuate the violence and poison of the North Sea.” The project was only eventually completed in the 20C.

In the 18C autonomous water boards (waterschappen) were invested with the responsibility for building, maintaining and monitoring the country’s dykes, canals and locks. These bodies still exist, but today they fall under the authority of the Ministry of Transport and Waterways. Steam power was introduced just before 1800, and this proved capable of pumping water over high dykes, thus replacing several rows, or gangs, of windmills. Pumping operations no longer depended on the vagaries of wind power.

The ambitious projects of the 19C and 20C

The most spectacular period of land reclamation began in 1848 with the draining of Haarlem Lake, which was completed four years later. Three large pumping stations were built, including that of Cruquius, which has now been converted into a museum.

After the great floods of 1916 it was the turn of the Zuiderzee itself. This great arm of the sea was closed off by the barrier dam or Afsluitdijk in 1932, creating the outer Waddenzee and an inland freshwater lake now known as the IJsselmeer. Once enclosed, work began on draining several polders around the edge (Wieringermeer, Noordoost, Zuidelijk Flevoland and Oostelijk Flevoland). The fifth polder (Markerwaard) was abandoned in 1986.

Other polders reclaimed in the 19C and 20C are the Prins Alexander Polder (1872) near Rotterdam and the Lauwersmeer Polder.

The most recent disaster occurred during the night of 31 January 1953, when gale force winds swept landwards at high tide; 1 865 people died and 260 000ha/642 474 acres were inundated. The success of the Zuiderzee Project encouraged engineers to find a similar way to protect the islands of Noord- and Zuid-Holland. The outcome was the Delta Plan, work on which began in 1954. This vast project was not completed until 1998, with the building of the storm surge barrier in the Nieuwe Waterweg.

Conquering the sea

Since the 13C, about 7 050sq km/2 722sq mi have been reclaimed from the sea. Coastal dykes have been responsible for creating 4 000sq km/1 544sq mi, the IJsselmeer for another 1 650sq km/637sq mi and a further 1 400sq km/540.5sq mi has been reclaimed by other means.

However, in the early 21C, some parts of the Dutch landscape may undergo a radical change. New EU farming regulations, the surplus of floral and market garden products, and the critical level of pollution – partly caused by large-scale pig breeding – led the Dutch government to pass a bill in 1993 stipulating that one tenth of arable land should be left fallow.

Nature conservation

In this highly industrialised and densely populated country, certain groups are very active in the protection of the environment. The Nature Conservation Society (Vereniging Natuurmonumenten) is a private organisation which acquires and preserves unspoilt coastal and rural areas. The Society currently manages more than 300 nature reserves (natuurmonumenten) covering a total area of 78 000ha/192 742 acres of varied habitats, including woodlands, moors, dunes and marshes. In general visitors are welcome at the reserves, and some have visitor centres, nature trails and bird hides, but there are usually restrictions. There are also 84 National Heritage Sites and 13 National Parks. State-owned forests and woodlands are managed by the Forestry Commission (Staatsbosbeheer). Recreation is encouraged and the facilities include picnic sites, nature trails and campsites.


The great variety of habitats provided by the Netherlands’ seasides, hills, waters and woodlands attracts many bird species, both native and migratory.

One of the most common species is the lapwing with its plaintive “pee-wit” cry, which is almost considered the national bird. This plump little bird is about 30cm/11.8in in length, with lustrous bronze plumage, and prefers grassy areas, especially in Friesland. Its eggs are considered a delicacy, but plans are afoot for a ban on their sale, and Queen Juliana ended the tradition whereby the first lapwing’s egg to be found each year is given to the queen.

The seashores are home to terns, seagulls and other gulls, particularly the Black-headed Gulls, which often nest inland. Colonies of oystercatchers, a small black and white wader, nest along the shores while the Grey Heron can be seen along the canals. The Spoonbill is rarer but can be seen in shallow estuaries, while the White Stork is protected to prevent its extinction.

All sorts of ducks abound in the canals, ponds and marshes: the wild duck or mallard and the sheldrake with multicoloured plumage are the most common.

The country’s numerous nature reserves provide protection for a variety of species and their coastal and inland habitats. The reserves provide safe breeding and feeding grounds and facilities for scientific study. Public access is limited and usually prohibited during the breeding season (April to August).

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