Rewilding Europe and its conservation landscapes
Rewilding has been a relatively underused phrase until very recently. If you went back 15 years, you would be hard pushed to find the term at all.
Search for it today and you will see that it’s become something of a buzzword on the lips of the likes of conservationist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, activist Greta Thunberg and even former US president Barack Obama.
But what is it? The phrase ‘rewilding’ is believed to have first appeared in print in 1990. In the subsequent 30 or so years, its meaning has been refined and redrafted and today there remain myriad variations, but most with the same core theme; the restoring of Nature’s ecosystems to an area where it no longer requires human assistance or interference.
Given that in Europe there are now upwards of a million hectares of land that are part of rewilding programmes, and the UN itself has recently suggested there needs to be global rewilding that amounts to an area the size of China, Aether looks at some of the projects ongoing within Europe from mountain ranges to river deltas and everything in between.
In the far north of Sweden is an environment that is some of the wildest on the whole of the European continent. The area shows little sign of outside interference, perhaps indicative of the fact that almost the sole human inhabitants are the Sami people who have co-existed with Nature for millennia. Given the moniker of ‘Europe’s Alaska’, the area is found in the far northwestern corner of Sweden, bordered by Norway.
It is home to some of the most natural taiga forest; the cold, subarctic areas of the planet between the frozen tundra in the north and temperate forests further south, and the landscape includes spectacular mountain ranges and glaciers along with extensive wetlands and fast-flowing river systems.
Despite its seemingly idyllic and untouched appearance, however, the far north of Sweden has, like many areas, seen a disturbing decline in species over the last 50 years. Once home to vast populations of deer, European elk, otter, beaver, wild boar, peregrine falcon, musk ox and wolf, until recently all of whom were in parlous states despite efforts to halt their declines.
But all are now showing signs of recovery as the parameters of Swedish Lapland become established and the benefits of Nature tourism provide much-needed funds for local people to continue to develop the landscape into something akin to what it once was. However, other species such as forest reindeer, European bison and wild horses remain missing from this northern landscape and the hope is for their return some time in the future.
River Côa Valley © Pedro
Iberian lynx © vivtony
Mountain and valley
The Rhodope Mountains lie primarily in Bulgaria and are home to a number of at-risk raptors such as the eastern imperial eagle, saker falcon, Levant sparrowhawk and the peregrine falcon.
But it is also the last hunting ground of the huge black vulture, which breeds across the border in Greece, but often comes hunting for its food in the Rhodope Mountains landscape. At the same time, the area, consisting of soaring mountain peaks and densely forested valleys, has become a major habitat for both wolf and jackal, with brown bears also making a comeback.
The natural integrity of the area has been developed over time and the landscape is now a mosaic of wild areas interconnected at the very least by wildlife corridors little affected by human interference. Several large and distinct areas make up the whole, each close to or achieving the overall aim of repopulating their full complement of species.
The area has been witness to massive land abandonment in recent decades, but the connective nature of the landscape, which plans to ecologically link similar natural and wild areas such as the Dadia and Rodopi national parks in Greece and the Rila and Pirin national parks in Bulgaria, has seen an upsurge in local pride as new wildlife tourism ventures bring opportunities to the local populace.
The Rhodope Mountains landscape is also the focus of a major investment in herd animals. In the not too distant past, large grazing herds of European bison, auroch and wild horse would roam the region. Their reintroduction, should it happen, will alter the landscape making it possible for endangered species such as the souslik, a kind of ground squirrel, and the marbled polecat to return.
Healthy wolf populations keep herbivore numbers at manageable levels and assist in the growth of black, griffon and Egyptian vulture numbers.
A crucial crossroads
The Oder Delta straddles the German-Polish border where it meets with the Baltic Sea. This landscape comprises lagoon and surrounding forest and is a key location on the migration paths of several bird species. Recent improvements to wetlands on the German side accompanied with an end to peat-cutting in Poland has seen a transformation in the area’s natural fortunes. The fact that the Oder Delta is in relative proximity to a major international city (Berlin) and is also close to a number of Baltic Sea resorts, shows that the rewilding concept can still occur in areas of higher human density.
The delta has improved dramatically since it became a Rewilding Europe landscape. European bison are returning in ever larger numbers, whilst sea eagles, moose, wolves, beaver and the rare sturgeon fish are also appearing, as well as many species of northern migratory sea birds that use the Szczecin Lagoon as a stopover. Grey seals and lynx are two other species that are slowly returning to the area, all of which has happened with little human intervention.
But the River Oder has been in the news in recent weeks. Thousands of dead fish have been found on riverbanks upstream, and no-one seems certain as to why. Climate change is not thought to be the reason, although there have been suggestions that unprecedented high temperatures in the region, coupled with drought and extremely low water levels could have contributed to a lack of oxygen in the river system. German and Polish authorities are investigating possible industrial contamination, and both have told citizens not to bathe in the river or eat any fish they catch from it. Dead fish have been found as far downstream as the Szczecin Lagoon and authorities have used oil booms to try to stop the fish from floating any further into the lagoon or the Baltic Sea.
Whether man-made or natural or further evidence of climate change, the effect on the Oder Delta rewilding landscape could be catastrophic, but the hope is that the gains made already mean the recovery will be swifter than otherwise. This is a test of rewilding. Is a Nature-led ecosystem more resilient to such an event?
Wild horse and the Rhodope Mountains © Jeanne Menjoulet
Nature’s Iberian corridor
A staggering project to rewild a river valley between two points of outstanding natural beauty is taking place in Portugal, close to the Spanish border, in the northeast of the country. The Greater Côa Valley landscape plans to rewild 120,000 hectares along the River Côa from the Malcata Mountains Nature Reserve in the south to the larger River Doura further north. Snaking between populated areas, innovative land use methods are being implemented in an area with one of the highest levels of land abandonment in Europe. Through careful negotiations with landowners and, given the terrain, hunting groups, an audacious plan to return herbivores, carnivores and scavengers to the area is being implemented in a bid to improve the natural processes of the ecosystems along the Côa.
Whilst the Iberian wolf is the top predator in the region, its populations are fragmented and need consolidation. But with plans to return the Iberian ibex and the critically endangered Iberian lynx to the area, natural methods of population stability will develop along the corridor. The valley is a biodiversity hotspot where its many secluded and hard to reach areas offer an unblemished landscape largely free from human interference. Extending the more remote areas so that they spread along the length of the valley will provide unprecedented opportunities for different species to return to what once was ideal habitat for them.
The Iberian lynx in particular is set to benefit from the rewilding programme. Until recently numbers in the animal’s strongholds of Andalucía and Extremadura in southwestern Spain were falling as habit loss and climate change caused twin challenges. Talk of translocating the animals to areas such as the South Downs of England, where the temperatures are now much more like those seen in southern Spain in decades gone by, coupled with an overpopulation of rabbits, was common in conservation groups. Unlikely to get past the ‘local farmer syndrome’ that besets so many animal reintroductions, the realisation that a new landscape not far from the current stronghold of Iberian lynx makes a much better, and likely more successful, opportunity to reverse the decline of one of the world’s rarest wild cats.
Black vulture © Angelia Hardy
As of today, there are nine Rewilding landscapes across Europe. The Danube Delta in Ukraine, Romania and Moldova is seen as the continent’s unrivalled wetlands host to many waterfowl and fish not found in such large amounts anywhere else in Europe. The work conducted there will also be of particular benefit to many species of migrating birds from areas such as the steppes, boreal forests and tundras further north.
Italy’s Central Apennines is a mountain range that forms the backbone of the country. Once home to a large population of brown bears, the landscape is being carefully managed to allow a return of the iconic animal to its former stronghold. High on the list of challenges is to develop a tourism network that allows the tourist to view these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. Like the other landscapes, the Central Apennines is looking to ecotourism as one of a number of methods of raising funds to continue the goal of developing a unique environment in the heart of Italy.
The Carpathian Mountains in southern Romania provide the impressive backdrop for one of Europe’s largest wilderness landscapes. Covering more than a million hectares, the Carpathians are host to one of the wildest and most impressive lists of animals to be found anywhere in Europe. Wolf, Eurasian lynx, brown bear, wild cat, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and chamois are among the species doing well in an area that has suffered from the ongoing, large-scale abandonment of farmland. That abandonment, as in other areas, is an opportunity for wildlife to return and has created an urgent need for new economic opportunities in these traditionally rural areas.
Croatia’s Velebit Mountain range descends right down to the Adriatic coast. It comprises two national parks, a biosphere reserve and a number of well-preserved old-growth forests from the central European beech forests to almost boreal systems and Alpine grasslands at higher altitudes. The Adriatic coast is already heavily developed with tourism in mind, but the area also benefits from well- established hiking trails throughout.
And in 2021, the ninth Rewilding Europe landscape was announced; Affric Highlands in the centre west of Scotland. The landscape came out of plans to recreate the ancient Caledonian pine forest in Scotland, which had shrunk to around a hundred very small and disparate locations across the country. But Affric Highlands is unique amongst Rewilding Europe landscapes in that it is on an island, which brings its own challenges and opportunities. For instance, the reintroduction of species long ‘extinct’ in the region making a comeback. Beaver is the most obvious example, returning after a 400-year hiatus, but not without its difficulties.
Make it ten
And finally, the tenth Rewilding Europe landscape is imminent. Spain’s Iberian Highlands is set to be unveiled in October 2022. The Campo de Montiel is an extensive upland region of south-central Spain characterised by a mix of agricultural land, forest and shrubland. It boasts a number of protected areas and is home to such iconic species as the returning Iberian lynx, the Iberian imperial eagle, Montagu’s harrier and the great bustard.
Rewilding-related measures, including forest restoration, the development of nature-based businesses, and supporting wildlife comeback by encouraging more ecologically friendly agricultural practices are among the main approaches being taken to return this vast landscape to Nature.
The addition of the Iberian Highlands is another key moment in the advancement of the rewilding concept across the continent of Europe. Some of the landscapes are close to some of the biggest cities in the world and others benefit from being remote in the first instance. But all carry the same responsibility and goal; to rewild vast tracks of Europe for the benefit of Nature, its animals, forest, wetlands and mountains.