Rewilding Europe for biodiversity and conservation

Rewilding Europe for biodiversity and conservation

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, senior research fellow at the ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and member of the British Ecological Society, answers the questions of Government Europa Quarterly about the importance of biodiversity and conservation efforts across Europe.

The European Commission has reinforced its commitment to biodiversity and conservation of species through several directives. The Birds Directive was adopted in 1979 in an effort to protect all wild bird species which are native to the European Union. Extending this work, the Habitats Directive was established in 1992 with the mind to ensure that biodiversity in Europe is maintained, protecting over 1,000 animal and plant species, and 200 types of habitats.

Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) operates as an international scientific, conservation and education charity, working to promote and achieve conservation of animals and habitats across the world. Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, senior research fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and member of the British Ecological Society, answers the questions of Government Europa Quarterly about the importance of biodiversity and conservation efforts across Europe, and how rewilding can assist.

How have legislation and initiatives, such as the Habitat Directive and Natura 2000, impacted the way in which we conserve habitats in England and across Europe?

In England and across Europe, the current biodiversity policy is underpinned by both the Birds and Habitats Directive. These directives are based on a ‘compositionalist’ paradigm, predicated on the preservation of particular species assemblages and habitat types. Such an approach is codified in law in all member states, with conservation policy driven by strong legislation that identifies targets for species and habitat protection. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the other key piece of legislation relevant to wildlife management in the EU. CAP currently incentivises the maintenance of marginal lands in agricultural production through the structure of agricultural support payments.

What impact has this had on conservation and biodiversity across Europe? Is further revision and support required in order to address an increasing threat to rare and threatened species?

The Birds and Habitats Directives have helped protect key ecological communities, species and wildlife populations in many parts of the EU. However, these directives have favoured compositional approaches, focused on the preservation of historical conditions, at the expense of approaches focused on ecosystem processes and embracing uncertain outcomes. The problem here is that global environmental change is driving some ecosystems beyond their limits, so that restoration to historical benchmarks, or modern likely equivalents, may no longer be an option.

This means that the current environmental policy context could present barriers to the broad implementation of projects that do not focus on the preservation of, or restoration to historical conditions.

What role does rewilding play in the conservation of biodiversity? Can this be a successful and sustainable management tool?

Rewilding is a novel and rapidly developing concept in ecosystem management, representing a transformative approach to conserving biodiversity. Originally defined as a conservation method based on “cores, corridors, and carnivores”, the term is now broadly understood as the repair or refurbishment of an ecosystems’ functionality through the (re)introduction of selected species.

Rewilding could represent a cost-effective solution to enhance local biodiversity and ecological resilience, reinstate vegetation succession, reactivate top-down trophic interactions and predation processes, and altogether improve ecosystem service delivery.

But a number of things need to happen for rewilding to deliver on its potential: a better appreciation of current policy opportunities and constraints is required; this, together with a scientifically robust rationale for its local implementation, currently is a pre-requisite to engage governments in revising legislation, where required, to facilitate the operationalisation of rewilding.

You are a member of the British Ecological Society’s Policy Committee. How does the Society help raise awareness of biodiversity and conservation issues?

The British Ecological Society (BES) is the largest ecological society in Europe with around 6,500 members worldwide. With the aim of communicating the value of ecological knowledge, the society brings together the expertise of its membership to present the best scientific evidence to policymakers. A lot of work goes into helping ecologists develop the necessary skills to build up networks and drive policy engagement.

The BES also supports the publication of peer-reviewed science, which is key for raising awareness around the major issues in biodiversity monitoring and conservation among scientists. For example, I am a senior editor at the Journal of Applied Ecology, one of the society’s peer-reviewed journals that publishes research in all areas of environmental management, including conservation, land use, restoration, pollution and pests.

What does the future for biodiversity and conservation look like in England, and beyond?

England, and the UK as a whole, is at a crossroads and the future for biodiversity and conservation is so far quite uncertain; a lot depends on the decisions that will be made in the next two years. Brexit offers opportunities to better integrate land use policies with conservation work, and promote novel approaches to environmental management, such as rewilding. At the same time, Brexit could lead to deteriorating environmental standards and loss of momentum and resourcing for conservation actions.

Globally, the world has yet to find a way to combine development and conservation goals. Scientists around the world are working hard to tackle the challenges posed by a growing human population and rising demands on our planet, and conservation successes are happening. The BES annually participates in the Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity exercise, which is one way to help identify novel conservation issues that require the world’s attention.

In your opinion, what are the priority areas for UK environmental policy this year?

In the UK, the priority this year is definitively making sure that there’s a robust plan guaranteeing that environmental standards are maintained post Brexit. Out of the EU, the UK will need a new, well-funded, environmental statutory body, capable to oversee implementation of environmental plans such as the 25 Year Plan, monitor government performance against its goals, and enforce action if the government falls short. Another priority is to develop a co-designed and co-owned common framework for the whole of the UK’s environment, in order to retain policy coherence among devolved nations post Brexit.

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli
Senior Research Fellow
Institute of Zoology
Zoological Society of London
Tweet @ZSLScience @BritishEcolSoc


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