Netherland tractors
© Bart Maat ANP/AFP
Tractors drive down the A1 highway on their way to the rural farmers' protest in Stroe.
Thousands of tractor-driving farmers demonstrated in central Netherlands on Wednesday, causing widespread traffic chaos as they protested against the government's far-reaching plans to cut nitrogen emissions.

In one of their largest-ever demonstrations, the farmers demanded the scrapping of recently announced plans by the Hague-based government, which could see a 30 percent reduction in livestock.

The Netherlands, the world's second-largest agricultural exporter, is one of the top greenhouse gas emitters in Europe -- especially of nitrogen -- with much of this blamed on cattle-produced manure and fertiliser.

But farmers say they are being unfairly targeted as opposed to big business and industry, with many vowing to resist any plans to scale down or close farms.

Traffic came to a standstill for kilometres around the town of Stroe, east of Amsterdam, as farmers and their tractors arrived from across the country to protest.

'Crazy'

"It's not normal, what's being done to the farmers," one of the protesters Jan Poorter, 74, told AFP. "It must happen gradually and that's not the case," added Poorter, a retired businessman as hundreds of tractors gathered on a field, many with horns blaring and safety lights flashing. "You can't just close farms that are hundreds of years old. You just can't!"

Protesters carried signs saying "The future of farmers is being destroyed" and "Our children are afraid."

Despite the numbers involved and the anger on display, the demonstration remained peaceful as an official programme got underway. Police however did intervene when a number of farmers drove onto the wrong side of the highway past a police road block, the NOS public broadcaster said. Emergency services handed out water to farmers and motorists trapped in traffic as temperatures rose.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte said earlier this month the government's plan to cut nitrogen emissions "will have an enormous impact on farmers. This sector will change, but unfortunately there's no choice, we have to bring down nitrogen emissions."

The Dutch government plans to cut greenhouse gas nitrogen by as much as 70 percent in 131 key areas -- many of them close to nature reserves -- to reach climate goals by 2030.

For farmers this means a 40-percent drop in emissions is expected, which would require around 30 percent less cattle, according to reports.

The government's announcement comes in the wake of a 2019 ruling by the country's highest administrative court, saying the Netherlands was not doing enough to protect its natural areas.

Thousands of pro-environment protesters marched on Sunday in the port city of Rotterdam to hail measures to reach climate goals fixed in Paris in 2015.