Copyright Mark Hamblin/Wild Wonders of Europe

Wild world: why letting nature do its own thing can help restoration

A landmark study into rewilding has been published today as an ecological restoration movement that puts hope at the heart of conservation gathers pace.

Rewilding aims to bring back lost species and restore natural landscapes on a large scale. Restoration projects across Europe are increasingly implementing rewilding principles.

The new study assesses rewilding by measuring ecosystem changes that occurred as a result of rewilding actions over time, such as reducing farming, forestry and artificial feeding of wildlife, restricting hunting and fishing, removing dams, or leaving deadwood in forests.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Aurora Torres, from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, said:

Rewilding is not simply the protection of wilderness areas, but an approach to restoring the healthy ecological complexity of natural environments damaged by human activity. Its principles can be applied to a wide variety of landscapes – from highly urbanised sites to remote mountainous areas – with different degrees of ecological degradation. But, until now, a suitable framework to quantify progress in achieving rewilding goals has been missing.

The study’s ‘monitoring framework’ has proven to be applicable to hugely contrasting rewilding projects with vastly different ecologies, geographies and timescales. From the inland wetlands of Iberá in Argentina – where emblematic species such as giant anteater, pampas deer and tapir (gone since the 1970s) have been reintroduced in the 21st century – to the Swiss National Park in the Western Rhaetian Alps, where populations of chamois and golden eagles have rebounded since the park’s designation as a wilderness area in 1914.

Torres said that the work carried out as part of this study will help maximise the conservation and restoration outcomes of rewilding projects, facilitate sound decision-making and connect the science and practice of rewilding.

After creating the right conditions to put nature back on track by letting large areas of forest regenerate, removing dams to allow rivers to run freely, or reintroducing species, rewilders recommend that humans step aside and let nature manage itself.

Senior Policy Officer for Water and Biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau, Sergiy Moroz, said:

“Rewilding is different from other ecological restoration approaches. Natural processes have a way of bringing life back – if we let them.”

The European Environmental Bureau, BirdLife Europe, and WWF are currently working in partnership with Rewilding Europe and iDiv to campaign for rewilding principles to feature strongly in the EU’s post-2020 Biodiversity Strategy.

Sergiy Moroz added:

Our goal is to strengthen the EU restoration agenda and ensure the creation of coherent ecological network in Europe by promoting rewilding principles. Rewilding can play a huge role in restoring biodiversity and ecosystems at a European level.”

Case study: Millingerwaard wetland in the Netherlands

Credit: Jan van den Berg

At the Millingerwaard wetland in the Netherlands, intensive farming and dyke building in the twentieth century ravaged its riverine forests and dunes, with severe impacts on its native populations of otter, badger, wild boar, white-tailed eagle and black stork. In 1990, a 700 ha area was transformed into a rewilding area: farming activities ceased, dykes were removed to permit natural flooding, clay extraction opened up old river channels and sand plains, Konik horses and Galloway cattle were released and allowed to graze freely, and lost species such as beavers were reintroduced. And all to the benefit of nature and man alike through improved water quality and flood mitigation. The wetland has been brought back from the brink. Riverine vegetation has recovered, populations of wild boar, otter and white-tailed eagle have bounced back and the reintroduced beavers now have a thriving community of more than ten families. While some restoration actions will continue for a little longer – sand extraction to protect against flooding will continue until 2020 – many actions have been completed and a flourishing Millingerwaard is well on its way to a wilder future.