III Rewillding in Practice

Rewilding Europe: A New Strategy for an Old Continent

Wouter Helmer, Deli Saavedra, Magnus Sylvén and Frans Schepers

Abstract The European landscape is changing and new opportunities for conservation are arising. The main driver of this change is an unprecedented shift in agricultural practices that started in the mid-twentieth century. As a result, shepherds and small-scale farmers release nearly 1 million ha of land from agriculture, each year. Although land abandonment is often seen as a major socio-economic problem, it could also be an opportunity for a new rural development based on nature and wild values. This idea can be further enhanced by the comeback of a number of iconic wildlife species, by an increased network of protected areas, by better legislation and enforcement, and a more favourable environment policy. Rewilding Europe responds to these major changes in the European landscape by ceasing this opportunity for both the European natural heritage and Europeans. The initiative aims to rewild 1 million ha of land by 2022, creating ten wildlife and wilderness areas all across Europe. Besides the ecological benefits of rewilding abandoned landscapes, wild values can create new opportunities for entrepreneurship in these areas, while a restored and preserved wildlife will attract many visitors to watch, enjoy and experience the wild. Ultimately, a large-scale shift in land use across Europe towards wilder nature and innovative ways to use this resource for employment and subsistence could be achieved, thus turning threats and problems into opportunities.

Keywords Rewilding Europe Land abandonment Wildlife comeback Rewilding

enterprise Wild values Key species

The Opportunity of Change

Europe is changing rapidly, offering more opportunities for nature today than for the past centuries. One of the major reasons of this is an unprecedented change in land-use, a unique circumstance driven by three major forces: a strong migration of in particular younger people to the cities[1] (EC 2008), intensification of agricultural use on the most productive soils (e.g. Pinto-Correia and Mascarenhas 1999) and, at the same time, large scale land abandonment in more remote areas (Keenleyside and Tucker 2010). Each year nearly 1 million ha of land are abandoned by shepherds and small farmers. Where land abandonment is often seen as a major socio-economic problem, it may provide an opportunity for new forms of rural development based on nature and certain valuable attributes of wild landscapes (see Chap. 1).

This opportunity is complemented by the major comeback of a number of iconic wildlife species (Deinet et al. 2013; Enserink and Vogel 2006; Kuemmerle et al. 2010; Russo 2006; and see Chaps. 4, 5, 8), supported by a growing network of protected areas (especially Natura 2000) better designed to suit multi-use criteria, with, for example, strict conservation, development, and ecotourism (e.g. Geneletti and van Duren, 2008; Zhang et al. 2013); better legislation and enforcement (Habitats, Bird and Water Directives, Bern Convention); and a more favourable policy environment (Wilderness Resolution, new EU Biodiversity Strategy); all contributing to an historic opportunity to create more space for wild nature in Europe. By reacting to these developments, European conservationists can make significant steps forward in their efforts to create a robust network of ecosystems that can sustain and improve their ecological values based on natural processes. The main challenges to the conservation of Europe's natural heritage are not so much related to where and what to protect, but how to protect and manage these often considerably large areas, and to optimise their ecological potential.

A fundamental challenge to this process exists in reinforcing the relevance, importance and value of these vast natural areas to European citizens and both urban and rural communities (Hochtl et al. 2005; Lupp et al. 2011). Over the last 10 years a growing number of initiatives all over Europe are focusing on natural processes and the reintroduction of missing keystone species (e.g. Burton 2011; Decker et al. 2010; Sandom et al. 2013)[2] as a key conservation approach, as opposed to active human management. Because most of these, often stand-alone, projects focus on the broader trends described above, the need to combine the approach and create an opportunity for collaboration has emerged. This is now available through the European wide initiative: Rewilding Europe (Sylven et al. 2010).

  • [1] eea.europa.eu/pressroom/speeches/urbanisation-in-europe-limits-to-spatial-growth.
  • [2] For more examples, see:wildeurope.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article


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