This year the EU will make decisions that have far-reaching consequences for Europe’s people and nature. A new set of policy papers outlines why and how European politicians should prioritise nature restoration in the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030.

Daniel Allen of Rewilding Europe writes.

Time for action

Today, Europe faces a choice. Do we continue to let climate change and biodiversity decline continue unchecked, or do we employ the most immediate and cost-effective solutions to counter these increasingly harmful trends? In reality, it’s not much of a choice.

Restoration of nature, based on rewilding principles, is one of the best ways of tackling our current climate and biodiversity emergencies.

“Nature recovery works and we know how to do it,” says Rewilding Europe Managing Director Frans Schepers. “Now it’s up to Europe’s policy makers to ensure that it happens at scale, right across the continent.”

Critical new tools

Released today, a new set of policy papers not only calls on EU politicians to prioritise nature restoration, but provides them with critical and effective new tools to do so. Co-authored by Rewilding Europe, together with BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, the WWF European Policy Office, the European Environmental Bureau and the German Institute for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), the papers are the culmination of a three-year, WWF Netherlands-funded programme to promote and strengthen Europe’s ecological agenda.

The highlight of the new papers is a series of maps which, by helping to identify priority areas for landsape-scale nature restoration across the EU, can deliver critical new connectivity between Europe’s Natura 2000 sites. Integrating a range of different national, regional and local data sets, the maps will inform and guide European policy makers at all levels as they plan and deliver nature recovery.

A fragmented, impoverished landscape

Map of Ecological Integrity of European Union and UK landscapes.
(Data not available for Croatia and Cyprus)

By illustrating the ecological integrity of European terres­trial landscapes, the new maps bring the need to scale up European nature restoration into sharp relief. They showcase the serious degradation of wild nature across much of the continent, impacted by factors such as infrastructure construction, intensive agriculture and forestry, and the disappearance of naturally occurring, large-bodied animals.

The maps show that areas of Europe where nature is relatively intact are frequently small-scale and isolated, which often leads to further biodiversity decline. This problem is worsened by the absence or unnaturally low presence of large-bodied animals – such as European bison or bears – which are unable to play their unique role in European ecosystems. This further diminishes the functions and benefits those ecosystems could and should be providing.

European bison (Bison bonasus) Bialowieza forest, Poland
Copyright Stefano Unterthiner / Rewilding Europe

Natura 2000: creating a real network

Europe’s collection of 26,000 Natura 2000 sites, complemented by the Birds and Habitats Directives, are the cornerstone of the EU’s strategy for protecting and enhancing biodiversity. Yet a lack of connectivity between sites is a major constraint on their effectiveness, and one of the main reasons why the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, which aimed to “restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems”, fell well short of its target.

Informed by the new maps, targeted restoration efforts could lead to the creation of a far more connected network of Natura 2000 sites. By passing through and joining up areas of higher ecological integrity, a transcontinental web of blue-green corridors would facilitate the movement of flora and fauna across landscapes, supporting wildlife comeback, ensuring genetic exchange, boosting the ability of species to adapt to climate change, and enhancing the capacity of nature-based solutions to counter global warming, mitigate flooding and regulate temperature.   

Potential corridors for large-scale Green Infrastructure connecting Natura 2000 nodes.

While connectivity is frequently taken into account and prioritised at a local and regional scale in Europe, it is typically neglected in planning and monitoring strategies at the national and international level. The fact that there is often no legal provision for large, cross-border corridors compounds the problem.  

“We can remedy this by restoring strategically located expanses of natural habitat and riparian corridors in intensively farmed areas, rewild large tracts of landscape like abandoned lands and by constructing wildlife passes over roads and railways to increase ecological permeability,” says Schepers.  

The role of rewilding

Rewilding ecosystems across Europe not only benefits wild nature, it enhances the wide range of benefits that such nature gives all Europeans – from clean air and water, carbon sequestration and fertile soil, right through to flood protection, climate change resilience and enhanced health and wellbeing.

Rewilding is not only about active intervention. Despite the widespread degradation of European landscapes, wild nature is slowly recovering of its own accord in many areas – a recovery aided by the trend in rural depopulation that is destined to continue in much of Europe for many years. This can be seen as an opportunity for policies aimed at recovering landscapes where natural processes play a far greater role in restoring wild nature and natural values.

Wild horses from ancient race, Letea forest, strictly protected nature reserve, Danube delta rewilding area, Romania
Copyright Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Policies for progress

Providing solutions to both the climate and biodiversity crises, landscape-scale nature restoration and the adoption of rewilding principles will help the EU meet its biodiversity and climate targets and benefit every European. Supportive European policy can help to deliver those solutions.  

“The European Commission should propose, in its upcoming Biodiversity Strategy to 2030, legislation that really drives the landscape-scale restoration and ensures the connectivity of ecosystems vital for biodiversity and climate,” says Sabien Leemans, Senior Biodiversity Policy Officer at WWF in Brussels.

Such legislation would increase the amount of EU territory in good ecological condition, with hard, legally binding restoration targets expressed in square kilometres. Existing policies that undermine nature restoration – such as EU incentives to grow bioenergy crops or harvest forest biomass for energy – need to be revised.

Stepping up investment is also critical.

“Sufficient financing for nature restoration and nature based solutions for biodiversity and climate must come from different EU funds, such as the Common Agricul­tural Policy, European Rural Development Fund, European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, and climate-related funds, as well as national budgets,” says Sergiy Moroz, Policy Manager at the European Environmental Bureau.

“With the right choices and sufficient finance and space, we need to put European nature back on the map to tackle biodiversity and climate crisis.”

Read the briefing in our online library.

Cover image: Aerials over the Letea forest, Danube delta rewilding area, Romania.Copyright Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe.

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