An abandoned village in the Huesca Pyrenees has undergone ‘passive rewilding’. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock
Rewilding is often thought of as a fantastical vision of the future. One day we might share the landscape with wolves and bears, but in the present day, it seems unlikely. For many people in Europe though, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing for at least the past decade.
Rewilding means bringing back the species and habitats which have disappeared from a region. Initially, conservationists imagined creating vast nature reserves which could be connected by “wildlife corridors” of forest, so that carnivores such as lynx could be reintroduced and thrive in a landscape that’s been heavily altered by humans.
But that idea is changing. The current emphasis goes beyond just restoring habitats for reintroduced species and considers ecosystems as a whole, and how they can be helped to recover. Better yet, much of this involves little human effort and could have positive consequences for society and ecosystems.
From agricultural land to forest
The cheapest and most effective way to rewild a landscape is to eliminate or reduce as much as possible the causes that have contributed to degrade it. For the last 12,000 years in Europe, these causes have largely involved agriculture and grazing livestock which have destroyed natural vegetation, especially forests, grasslands and wetlands, and replaced them with cropland and pastures.
But as people have migrated from rural areas to cities, large areas of farmland – especially isolated patches in remote areas – have returned to nature. This has been happening in Europe since the second half of the 20th century.
As crops and pastures are abandoned, shrubland and forests naturally regenerate. Despite 40% of the world’s land being cultivated or grazed permanently by domestic herbivores, there has been a big increase in the area occupied by forests in recent decades, explained mainly by these habitats naturally regenerating as humans have left.
Forests returned at a rate of 2.2m hectares per year between 2010-2015 alone. Spain, for example, has tripled its forest area since 1900 – increasing from 8% to 25% of its territory. The country gained 96,000 hectares of forest every year from 2000-2015.
All this new habitat has been recolonised by wildlife. Populations of large carnivores such as the brown bear, the wolf, the Eurasian lynx and the wolverine have all increased in Europe. Populations of large and medium-sized herbivores, such as the red deer, the wild boar, the roe deer and the Iberian ibex, have also increased. Other species, such as the Iberian lynx and the European bison, have been reintroduced on purpose.
Restore as much as possible
The same strategies cannot be generalised everywhere, nor should the aim always be to recover pristine ecosystems, which is often simply impossible in today’s world.
The goal in most cases should be to improve the ecological condition of landscapes as much as possible and ensure they can serve multiple functions for people and wildlife. Ecological restoration should be flexible and pragmatic without losing awareness of what the natural ecosystem originally looked like, so as to regain the highest possible levels of biodiversity.
In Europe, around 30% of the land is cultivated for crops and another 15% is covered by pastures or heath and moorland. Around 10% of the territory is made up of towns, cities and roads. More wilderness could be encouraged in all these environments, which could allow agriculture and livestock production or residential areas and industry to coexist with higher levels of biodiversity.
Large parts of Europe have been passively rewilding for decades as people have moved out of rural areas. Reintroducing species more widely can only be done with the approval of the different people likely to be affected. Due to the low densities of people in the remote fringes of Europe’s rural areas, they remain the best options for places to reintroduce wild herbivores and carnivores which would restore natural processes thanks to their key role in food webs.
About the Author
José M. Rey Benayas, Catedrático de Ecología, Universidad de Alcalá
The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall
by Mark W. Moffett
If a chimpanzee ventures into the territory of a different group, it will almost certainly be killed. But a New Yorker can fly to Los Angeles--or Borneo--with very little fear. Psychologists have done little to explain this: for years, they have held that our biology puts a hard upper limit--about 150 people--on the size of our social groups. But human societies are in fact vastly larger. How do we manage--by and large--to get along with each other? In this paradigm-shattering book, biologist Mark W. Moffett draws on findings in psychology, sociology and anthropology to explain the social adaptations that bind societies. He explores how the tension between identity and anonymity defines how societies develop, function, and fail. Surpassing Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens, The Human Swarm reveals how mankind created sprawling civilizations of unrivaled complexity--and what it will take to sustain them. Available On Amazon
Environment: The Science Behind the Stories
by Jay H. Withgott, Matthew Laposata
Environment: The Science behind the Stories is a best seller for the introductory environmental science course known for its student-friendly narrative style, its integration of real stories and case studies, and its presentation of the latest science and research. The 6th Edition features new opportunities to help students see connections between integrated case studies and the science in each chapter, and provides them with opportunities to apply the scientific process to environmental concerns. Available On Amazon
Feasible Planet: A guide to more sustainable living
by Ken Kroes
Are you concerned about the state of our planet and hope that governments and corporations will find a sustainable way for us to live? If you do not think about it too hard, that may work, but will it? Left on their own, with drivers of popularity and profits, I am not too convinced that it will. The missing part of this equation is you and me. Individuals who believe that corporations and governments can do better. Individuals who believe that through action, we can buy a bit more time to develop and implement solutions to our critical issues. Available On Amazon
From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.