In today's challenging world, the restoration of nature can benefit wildlife and people alike.
Written by Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe.
Founded in 2011, Rewilding Europe is a nonprofit initiative working to make Europe a wilder place. As part of the rewilding philosophy, we believe that wild nature and restored natural processes can be a vital ally as we attempt to overcome today's socio-economic challenges. Working with nature can protect us from floods, store carbon, prevent wildfires, secure drinking water supplies, boost climate resilience, ensure human health and wellbeing and drive economic growth.
From the greening of gardens, parks and cities right through to the large-scale rewilding of landscapes, more and more people are now realizing that ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions are vital to the long-term health of our planet. The announcement of the "UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030" earlier this year illustrates the increasing importance of this concept on the international policy agenda.
At Rewilding Europe, we want to see Europeans and European wild nature thriving alongside each other, not separated by fences or divided by human-wildlife conflict. If rewilding efforts are to have the best possible outcome, we need to explore how people can not only co-exist, but also benefit from those efforts in a variety of ways, including economically.
Across all of our operational areas, Rewilding Europe is building a "business case for the wild", providing technical expertise and financial assistance to local, nature-based entrepreneurs. By creating new jobs and revenue streams - ranging from bison rangers in Romania right through to sustainable forestry in Portugal—rewilding is helping to revitalize areas of Europe that are frequently characterized by economic stagnation, depopulation and land abandonment.
A Model Approach
Our enterprise work focuses on six different sectors: forest management, water management, private estates, wildlife management, offsetting and nature-based tourism. Within these sectors we have made promising progress on the pioneering of new, scalable business models delivering positive rewilding impact.
In 2018, our work on nature-based economies was greatly supported by key tools such as Rewilding Europe Capital (REC) and the European Safari Company. Through REC we were able to sign two new loans for the rewilding of naturally grazed, wildfire resistant forest in Portugal. Here we are pioneering the transformation of 4,000 hectares of monoculture production forest into far more natural forest, based on a sustainable business model. In Finland, a REC loan was provided to a company that restores former peat mines into wetlands, using carbon offsetting as a finance mechanism. Both business models have huge upscaling potential if they become successful.
A large part of Europe's biodiversity is based around open grassland, mosaic landscapes and their transition to forest edges, open woodland and groves, which all rely on herbivorous grazing for their existence. Yet rising levels of land abandonment, leading to a reduction in livestock numbers, mean that such grazing is now increasingly absent. As large areas become overgrown with shrubs and young, monotonous forests result, biodiversity declines.
For this reason, we have released a total of over 750 free-roaming horses and Tauros (a breed of ancient cattle) on the Lika Plains (Croatia), in the Greater Côa Valley (Portugal), in the Rhodope Mountains (Bulgaria) and Danube Delta (Romania), and several other rewilding sites that are part of the European Rewilding Network. Herbivory as a natural process is now restored on at least 12,500 hectares at these pilot sites.
In 2013, we established the European Wildlife Bank as a mechanism to help partner organizations reintroduce and restock well-adapted herds of large herbivores, thereby boosting natural grazing as a key process for further wildlife comeback. In addition to wild horses and Tauros, the bank consists of European bison and—as of 2019—water buffalo and kulan (wild ass), the latter as key species in the restoration of delta systems and steppe areas.
Going with the Flow
An essential element of Rewilding Europe's work is to give natural processes a far more prominent role in our landscapes. Across all of our eight, pan-European operational areas, we are giving such processes the space to reshape and enhance ecosystems.
In 2018, we worked on the reflooding of former polders in the Oder and Danube Deltas, where thousands of hectares have already been restored into important wetlands. Thanks to substantial new funding, we will continue with the restoration of another 40,000 hectares in the Danube Delta over the coming years.
In Swedish Lapland and the Polish part of the Oder Delta, we are restoring rivers to a far more natural, free-flowing condition by removing dams and creating spawning areas for migratory fish. Our local Polish-German team has so far also succeeded in preventing a potentially disastrous channelization project on the lower Oder River. A partnership with Dam Removal Europe has allowed us to work in a coordinated way on freeing rivers from obsolete barriers.
Making the Connection
We are also working to improve connectivity between natural areas by safeguarding corridors through land purchase, land lease, removing obstacles such as obsolete fences, and the purchase of grazing, hunting or other user rights.
Examples of this model includes the Greater Côa Valley in Portugal, where we are scaling up work to establish a 120,000-hectare wildlife corridor thanks to substantial new funding. In the Central Apennines in Italy, work in wildlife corridors of thousands of hectares will help to connect far larger areas. In total, we have now signed corridor-related contracts and agreements covering 50,000 hectares.
Supporting Wildlife Comeback
Healthy wildlife populations are in many cases the key to rich natural ecosystems. Some of this wildlife—particularly large carnivores, herbivores and scavengers—act as keystone species for the development of wilder nature. This is why Rewilding Europe is prioritizing the spontaneous return of such species, or—if they are unable to return by themselves—through reintroductions.
We support wildlife comeback through measures such as the restoration of natural food chains that distract predators from livestock, damage prevention at farms and apiaries, and the development of wildlife-based economies which benefit local communities. This approach is typified by the return of Iberian wolves in the Portuguese Côa Valley, and bears in the Central Apennines of Italy and Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria.
In cooperation with hunting associations in Croatia and Bulgaria, we have established breeding zones for critical species such as the Balkan chamois and several deer species. With the reintroduction and restocking of hundreds of deer in Bulgaria (red deer and fallow deer) and Croatia (red deer), we have started building viable populations, boosting their role in the restructuring of natural vegetation and restoration of natural food chains, including scavenging vulture populations.
The increasing numbers of vultures in the rewilding areas of Portugal, Italy and Bulgaria/Greece are dependent on the availability of large carcasses in nature. In the Rhodope Mountains, 60% of the food supply for vultures already comes from wolf kills. In Croatia, we are managing and transforming a 17,000-hectare hunting concession to establish a wildlife reserve based on these principles.
At a European level, Rewilding Europe is now collaborating with partners such as WWF, BirdLife and scientists from across Europe to map the level of ecosystem degradation and rewilding potential in Europe. Underpinning this, a science-based framework for restoration, using rewilding principles, has been developed and published in leading scientific magazines. Through these efforts we aim to provide input for the new EU Biodiversity Strategy post-2020.
It is against this backdrop that we continue our practical work, demonstrating how rewilding can contribute significantly to the restoration agenda by delivering hugely positive outcomes at landscape scale—for both wild nature and people—right across Europe.
For more information on our work, visit www.rewildingeurope.com