Opportunities for Wilderness and Rewilding
Wilderness is both an ecological and social concept. The ecological meaning and extent of wilderness is multi-dimensional and varies depending on the metrics used (see Chap. 2). Wilderness is typically associated with the (quasi) absence of human impact, the large size of the area (e.g. 10,000 ha), and the naturalness of the dynamics that govern ecosystems (European Commission 2013; Fisher et al. 2010). The social and subjective concept of wilderness and wildlands is, for example, associated with the notions of remoteness and solitude (Fisher et al. 2010; Fritz et al. 2000). As a result, the definition of wilderness by the various people experiencing it will also depend on their perceptions of such areas (Nash 1967). Probably one of the most well known definition was given by the Wilderness Act of 1964 in the United States as “ […] an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (US Congress 1964). An area characterized as “wilderness” will thus be managed by “no-intervention” or “set-aside” practices (European Commission 2013). Europe is one of the continents with the least amount of wilderness (Mittermeier et al. 2003), mainly due to its long history of human induced land-use changes (see Chap. 8). Currently, the wilderness of the EU28 is mainly located in Scandinavia and in mountainous areas (see Chaps. 2 and 3).
Globally, wilderness and protected areas do not necessarily coincide. Though some wilderness areas might not currently require protection (e.g. due to their remoteness), wilderness conservation is a proactive measure that could pay off in the near future (Brooks et al. 2006). Using human density, size of the area, and historical intactness as metrics, Mittermeier et al. (2003) found that only 7 % of the world's remaining wilderness was included in Protected Areas of IUCN categories I to IV. When looking into all types of Protected Areas in Europe, there is little to no correlation between the location of Nationally Designated Protected Areas and Natura 2000 areas with higher values in the Wilderness Quality Index (Fisher et al. 2010). However, there is a correlation between the occurrence of areas under the IUCN Categories I and II and high wilderness quality (Fisher et al. 2010). The number of Nationally Designated Protected Areas in Europe that falls under the IUCN Ib category (“wilderness areas”) are located mainly in Sweden, Estonia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Only 12 of the 28 EU Member States manage PAs designed in categories Ia or Ib, with different national legislation regarding the designation, the size of the area, the type of management and the level of human activity allowed (European Commission 2013).
Nevertheless, European wilderness is progressively gaining more importance, both in science, in conservation policy and at their interface. Its role in halting biodiversity loss was officially recognized (European Parliament 2009; Jones-Walters and Čivić 2010), with a will to include wilderness in the post–2010 targets. As a result, the European Parliament called for an effort to define both wilderness and the benefits derived from it, and for a better integration of wilderness in conservation policies. A special attention was to be given to wilderness areas within the Natura 2000 network. Indeed, some conceptual conflicts can arise when the noninterventional management of wilderness areas goes against the management of secondary (semi-natural) habitats of Annex I, such as the “European dry heaths” and “Dehesas with evergreen Quercus spp.” (Halada et al. 2011), unlike primary habitats, which rely on natural processes, for example “Western Taiga” and “Bog woodlands” (European Commission 2013; Fisher et al. 2010).
The European Commission (2013) recently published guidelines on the management of wilderness areas within the Natura 2000 Network. Though not legally binding for the Member States, they illustrate the will to include wilderness in EU conservation policies. The guidelines state that management practices for wilderness in the Natura 2000 network can involve the total or partial interdiction of human activities. When applicable, zonation can be used to define an area of nonintervention management for the wilderness core habitat, and a managed zone for secondary habitats. The guidelines also emphasize the importance of addressing local communities, to explain them the functioning of non-intervention management, and the benefits they could derive from it. Finally, scale has its importance in the designation and management of wilderness areas, as too little, or too fragmented land would not meet the criteria to allow for natural processes (European Commission 2013).
With the ongoing trends of farmland abandonment occurring on the continent, and the momentum gained by wilderness, rewilding appears as a valid land management option (see Chap. 1). It consists in the restoration of ecological processes and self-sustaining ecosystems, either passively, or with low to mild levels of intervention early on if the land-use history requires it (see Chaps. 7 and 8). Rewilding has proven to be beneficial to both biodiversity and human well-being (see Chaps. 1 and 3).
Increasing the area of wild land via the rewilding of abandoned landscapes will contribute to delineating new wilderness areas in the European landscape, with adequate conservation status and appropriate management. As such, rewilding can further increase the ecological coherence and connectivity of the protected areas in the EU28. Increasing the area of wilderness via rewilding will also contribute to the large scale natural processes that maintain it (e.g. European Commission 2013). Some of the most emblematic species benefiting from land abandonment and rewilding are large mammals (Deinet et al. 2013; Enserink and Vogel 2006; Russo 2006; see Chaps. 1 and 2). They demand a large availability of land in order to sustain their dispersal and home range establishment requirements (Jones-Walters and Čivić 2010), and limit conflicts with humans, which also makes wilderness areas essential to their conservation (Mittermeier et al. 2003). Additionally, species listed in the Birds Directive, which are specialists of old-growth forests (e.g. the three-toed woodpecker—Picoides tridactylus), or which have large habitat requirements (e.g. the Siberian tit—Parus cinctus, the black woodpecker— Dryocopus martius), can benefit from the increase of wilderness areas (European
The notion of a “perceived wilderness” (Jones-Walters and Čivić 2010) is important when investigating the benefits supplied by rewilded areas for people. For example, the increase in wild areas and the resulting wildlife comeback are thought to contribute to reconnecting Europeans with nature (Deinet et al. 2013). The cultural services provided via the enjoyment and experiencing of wilderness, for example the perception of solitude and remoteness, can reciprocally motivate its conservation and guide policies and land management. Wilderness areas also supply a wide range of provisioning and regulating services, such as freshwater provision, carbon sequestration, and nitrogen regulation (see Chap. 3).
Having in mind the potential benefits of rewilding and increased areas of wilderness, we can now investigate which could be their contribution to global and European conservation targets.