Rewilding Europe supports a new conservation narrative

Rewilding Europe to support new conservation efforts

Government Europa spoke to Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe, about its long-term vision for conservation in Europe and the role of rewilding.

In Europe, a new conservation narrative is emerging to help restore ecosystems and biodiversity: rewilding. Building on conservation achievements so far, rewilding aims at restoring natural processes and ecosystems in European landscapes which can benefit both Nature and people. Rewilding Europe, a non-profit organisation that believes wild Nature can regain a place in a modern, 21st century Europe, works to put this vision into reality in different regions throughout Europe.

Starting in 2012, practical rewilding approaches have been pioneered in Lapland, Sweden, Oder Delta, Germany/Poland, Western Iberia, Portugal/Spain, Central Apennines, Italy, Danube Delta Romania/Ukraine, Southern Carpathians, Romania, Velebit Mountains, Croatia, and the Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria/Greece.

In May 2016, Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe, and Paul Jepson, School of Geology and the Environment, University of Oxford, released a policy brief, titled ‘Making Space for Rewilding’. This policy brief calls for an enabling policy environment and highlights that rewilding is a multifaceted approach to conservation, one which requires:

  • Restoration and space for natural processes to take place;
  • Reconnection of wild(er) Nature with today’s economy; and
  • Response to, and moulding of, modern perceptions of Nature conservation across Europe.

Government Europa spoke to Frans Schepers about Rewilding Europe’s long-term vision for conservation in Europe and the role of rewilding.

With Nature programmes such as Natura 2000, and the Birds and Habitats Directive, what does the landscape of rewilding in Europe look like today?

The Birds and Habitats Directives are very good legislative tools to protect species and habitats in Europe. Natura 2000 is a geographical translation of those sites with the highest value for habitats and species in the EU countries which provides a very good basis for their conservation.

Together with the Emerald Networks outside of the EU countries, we have a wonderful network of protected areas which is unique in the world, and which has already shown its great value. For good reasons, the main focus of EU conservation policy through these tools over the last 20-30 years has been on trying to protect what is still left in Europe.

However, if we look into the future, I think we need to develop a new and inspirational conservation narrative in Europe that, next to protection, places restoring Nature at an equal priority level. A lot of ecosystems in Europe are broken, whereby species have disappeared or habitats and protected areas have become disconnected or fragmented. Together with pressure from modern agriculture, intensive forestry, unsustainable fishery and traditional water management, this has resulted in an ongoing biodiversity loss. Europe is not achieving its conservation targets that it committed to; apparently, we are not doing enough.

Interestingly, at the same time we see a series of – mostly larger and iconic – wildlife species starting to come back, mainly thanks to legal protection, effective restoration efforts and a more positive attitude of people. A remarkable contradiction that shows that Nature can bounce back if we allow it to – and a real sign of hope.

The post-2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy that is being prepared now provides a great opportunity to design a new conservation narrative for Europe, where Nature is seen as an ally in addressing some of the most impertinent challenges that we face. Think about the opportunities that we have for Nature-based solutions towards reducing flood risk, excessive forest fires in the Mediterranean, better human health and wellbeing, lack of natural grazing, sharp declines in pollination, mitigation of impacts of climate change, and so on.

Unfortunately, the formal commitment of the EU and its member states towards the Convention on Biological Diversity to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems has not made a lot of progress, to say the least. To date, very little has been achieved in that respect. So, if you ask me what would be the future conservation agenda for Europe, it is to protect what’s left and to restore the rest.

What kind of issues persist in rewilding? And what kind of legislative support is needed to facilitate rigorous and widespread rewilding exercises across Europe?

With the Nature Directives, but also other policy frames such as the Water Framework Directive, we already have strong legislation and, within these, there is a lot of opportunity for restoration. But restoration should be put on the policy agenda in a much stronger way. The new, post-2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy could provide the framework for it, including mapping out the restoration and rewilding potential within the framework of a new EU Green and Blue Infrastructure.

This policy frame should allow and support a wide range of restoration initiatives at different scales, both on land and at sea. Restoring landscape connectivity through corridors and wildlife bridges, restoring flood regimes, removing dams, restoring wildlife populations and trophic food-chains comprise just a few of the wide array of positive actions that can be taken.

In Europe, we all grew up in cultural and farming landscapes and we believe that actively managing and controlling Nature is the only way to go. In fact, this is quite strange; in no other continent in the world, is conservation so strongly connected with managed landscapes. Can we imagine a Europe where we have landscapes that are less managed, where wild Nature and wildlife can show their resilience and bounce back? Where natural processes shape landscapes, and not people?

Rewilding means that we change our role, where we allow much more of “Nature’s own ways”, and make sure that we reconnect modern society with wilder Nature. We need to work with Nature instead of against it, as Nature is our best ally! Interestingly, this could also be more cost effective, because intervening and managing recurrently also comes at a high cost.

It is widely understood that the EU budget for conservation is completely insufficient – just 0.3 % of the overall EU budget, while we all depend on Nature and what it brings us! This budget should grow significantly, but apart from this, we need to involve other sectors in this new restoration narrative, including the private sector through Nature-based business approaches and investments. Rewilding Europe has received a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB), through the Natural Capital Financing Facility, to work on such business models that support rewilding.

What kind of effect will rewilding activities have on biodiversity, wildlife conservation, and the reintroduction of species?

To start the rewilding process, often initial measures have to be taken to provide the right conditions to kick off the recovery. These are often one-off interventions, always meant to do less afterwards, including:

  • Removing dams and dykes to restore river dynamics and reflooding;
  • Restore prey base by restocking animals for carnivores and scavengers;
  • Bring in large herbivores to restore natural grazing;
  • Remove fences to ‘unchain’ the beauty and the free movement of wildlife; and
  • Remove tree plantations to restore natural forest, amongst other methods.

After that, man should take a step back and not interfere and let Nature do its work. So, rewilding is not about restoring a painting and then curating it; it is about creating systems that can be much more self-supporting. This is the paradigm shift that we are looking for. We work with a whole range of partners across Europe to pioneer exactly that; but it is not an easy task to come with innovations in the rather traditional and heavily institutionalised conservation sector.

The wildlife comeback that we are witnessing in Europe poses new challenges, but, more importantly, provides huge opportunities. In 2013, the Zoological Society of London, BirdLife Europe and the European Bird Census Council conducted the study ‘Wildlife Comeback in Europe’, commissioned by Rewilding Europe. This study shows that, interestingly, dozens of species are doing remarkably well, increasing in numbers and are expanding their range across Europe. One of the examples is the wolf, which is returning in many countries in Europe, but there are dozens of other species that are showing similar patterns:

  • Eagles;
  • Vultures;
  • Ibex;
  • Beaver;
  • Wild boar; and
  • Crane, just to name a few.

This is a huge success story that we should celebrate and learn from, even though we are still far from where we could be. Europe is now the only continent in the world where all large carnivores are increasing their number and expanding their range. Rewilding promotes further wildlife comeback and helps to find a way for people and wildlife to not only live in coexistence, but even flourish.

How can rewilding support local economic development?

A key component in our initiative is that wilder Nature and wildlife comeback provides a new – or if you like, additional – business case for local, rural economies. We see a lot of regions in Europe where young people are leaving, with rural depopulation and land abandonment as a result, in some areas on a large scale.

In 2020, four out of five European’s will live in urban areas. We cannot keep our rural landscapes alive through just providing subsidies in a situation where young generations don’t want to become farmers or shepherds anymore and prefer to leave for the cities. This poses serious challenges for such regions, and the question is whether we can turn such challenges into new opportunities.

We imagine a transition from low productive, subsidised agriculture, without future prospects, towards local economies where people will have jobs and income based on wild Nature, wildlife, and natural products that these landscapes provide. Rewilding Europe believes that such Nature-based economies could be an answer to these challenges. Dynamic and contemporary Nature- and wildlife-based businesses could build local societies that are more closely tied to their natural environments.

This could also bring a new identity to those regions; cultural heritage and traditional skills can be reinvigorated in a new setting and bring new life, regional branding and local pride into eroded communities. We already see the first examples emerging in some areas in Europe, such as in Finland, Spain, Slovenia and other areas across Europe.

Through Rewilding Europe Capital, Europe’s first conservation loan facility, with support from the EIB, Rewilding Europe supports such enterprises and local entrepreneurship. There is a range of sectors that can leverage positive outcomes, from water and forest management to wildlife breeding through to carbon and biodiversity offsetting, and of course Nature and wildlife tourism.

How is Rewilding Europe engaging in rewilding activities? How is it taking part in advocating for policy following the 2016 annual review?

After we had developed our new vision for a wilder Europe, we wanted to pioneer this in a number of areas in Europe that represent different geographies, ecosystems and social contexts. We also decided that such pioneering rewilding initiatives should have local leadership and ownership to drive them forward. Therefore, we started a process for regions or areas to nominate themselves.

In a three-year period, 30 nominations were made in response to our call, mostly made by NGOs, but also regional governments. Rewilding Europe selected the most feasible and promising areas, where we subsequently began to start working. We envisage such a demand driven approach as critical in order to achieve sustainable and enduring results in the end, under a common vision and agenda and with lessons shared and used between these rewilding initiatives across Europe.

We are now working in eight areas that are intended to become showcases for how rewilding could work in practice, with their practical experiences feeding into the larger policy, and also scientific fields. In order to orchestrate policy change, it is important to address the needs and learn from them in order to inform a practical point of view.

To achieve that, in 2017 we started a coalition with the Worldwide Fund for Nature, BirdLife Europe & Eurasia, the European Environmental Bureau and the German Institute for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) on an initiative to promote and support EU policy for restoration in Europe, using rewilding principles, whilst also looking at the socio-economic and financial aspects of this, as well as synergising with other EU policies. We’re really hoping that embedding rewilding into European policy is achievable and that this new mode of thinking will become a priority in the next EU Biodiversity Strategy.

Frans Schepers
Managing Director
Executive Board
Rewilding Europe
Tweet @RewildingEurope

This article will be published in Government Europa Quarterly 26, to be published soon.


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