I The Theory of Rewilding

Rewilding Abandoned Landscapes in Europe

Laetitia M. Navarro and Henrique M. Pereira

Abstract For millennia, mankind has shaped landscapes, particularly through agriculture. In Europe, the age-old interaction between humans and ecosystems strongly influenced the cultural heritage. Yet European farmland is now being abandoned, especially in remote areas. The loss of the traditional agricultural landscapes and its consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services is generating concerns in both the scientific community and the public. Here we ask to what extent farmland abandonment can be considered as an opportunity for rewilding ecosystems. We analyze the perceptions of traditional agriculture in Europe and their influence in land management policies. We argue that, contrary to the common perception, traditional agriculture practices were not environmentally friendly and that the standards of living of rural populations were low. We suggest that current policies to maintain extensive farming landscapes underestimate the human labor needed to sustain these landscapes and the recent and future dynamics of the socio-economic drivers behind abandonment. We examine the potential benefits for ecosystems and people from rewilding. We identify species that could benefit from land abandonment and forest regeneration and the ecosystem services that could be provided such as carbon sequestration and recreation. Finally, we discuss the challenges associated with rewilding, including the need to maintain open areas, the fire risks, and the conflicts between people and wildlife. Despite these challenges, we argue that rewilding should be recognized by policy-makers as one of the possible land management options in Europe, particularly on marginal areas.

Keywords Farmland abandonment Land-use change Passive management

Ecosystem services Land sharing Land sparing


Deforestation and the loss of natural habitats remain major global concerns. Nonetheless, although scenarios for the next decades project the continuation of these dynamics in tropical ecosystems, the projections made for much of the Northern Hemisphere are quite the opposite (Pereira et al. 2010). In fact, most deforestation in Europe occurred before the industrial revolution (Kaplan et al. 2009), and the amount of forests and scrubland is now increasing following the land abandonment that began in the mid-twentieth century (FAO 2011), a trend that is expected to continue over the next few decades (van Vuuren et al. 2006). Natural vegetation recovery is a complex process that occurs during the progressive alleviation of agricultural use (Hobbs and Cramer 2007; Stoate et al. 2009). This reduction in land-use intensity, including abandonment at the extreme, is, at the local scale, explained by a combination of socio-ecological drivers (MacDonald et al. 2000; Rey Benayas et al. 2007) such as low productivity and aging of the population. These factors interact between them and with the ecological dynamics of succession, creating positive feedback loops, which increase the irreversibility of farmland abandonment in marginal areas, and reduce the effectiveness of subsidies awarded to farmers to halt abandonment (Figueiredo and Pereira 2011; Gellrich et al. 2007). In Europe, there has been a decline of 17 % of the rural population since 1961 (FAOSTAT 2010). Some parishes of Mediterranean mountain areas have lost more than half of their population in a similar period (Gortázar et al. 2000; Pereira et al. 2005). At the regional scale, the current farmland contraction is best explained by an increase in agricultural productivity and the slowing of population growth in Europe (Keenleyside and Tucker 2010).

Landowners and managers facing increased agricultural market competition have resorted mostly to one of three active management strategies (Fig. 1.1): intensification, extensification, and afforestation. Intensification is often chosen on the most productive soils and where good conditions exist for mechanization (Pinto-Correia and Mascarenhas 1999). Extensification consists of obtaining higher productivity by expanding the area of the farm through land consolidation or in developing multiple uses of the land. This has happened in the Montado and Dehesa areas of Portugal and Spain, an agroforestry system that integrates animal production, cork harvesting and cereal cultivation, while hosting high biodiversity and providing recreational and aesthetical benefits (Bugalho et al. 2011). Finally, in some areas with poor farmland soils, the option has been to plant forests, often of fast growing species (Young et al. 2005).

In this article, we discuss a fourth option: rewilding abandoned landscapes, by assisting natural regeneration of forests and other natural habitats through passive management approaches. Rewilding has seldom been considered as a land management policy, as often it faces resistance from both the public (Enserink and Vogel 2006; Bauer et al. 2009) and the scientific communities (Conti and

Fig. 1.1 Landscape management strategies plotted against agricultural use intensity and level of management (from active to passive): agricultural intensification, agricultural extensification, afforestation, and rewilding

Fagarazzi 2005; Moreira and Russo 2007). Arguments against rewilding include the loss of the traditional agricultural landscape and negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services (for example, Conti and Fagarazzi 2005). This situation has given rise to a pattern of double standards: developing countries are asked to halt deforestation while some developed countries are actively fighting forest regeneration on their own land (Meijaard and Sheil 2011).

Here, we critically examine some of the arguments used in support of the maintenance of the traditional landscapes and contrast those arguments with the potential benefits for ecosystem services and biodiversity that could accrue from rewilding. We conclude with an analysis of the main challenges associated with rewilding abandoned landscapes.

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