Wild ideas

June 18, 2012

Site visits in the company of ecologists tend to be fun. If these ecologists come with a long-term vision on the landscape, the trip becomes wild. I had the pleasure of the company of Frans Schepers and Wouter Helmer in the Velebit mountains of Croatia, when we visited one of Rewilding Europe’s pilot sites, together with staff from the implementing office of WWF’s Mediterranean Programme.

Rewilding Europe is a young organisation with some bold ideas. Where others see threats and decline of habitats, they see opportunities and wildlife comeback. Where most of the conservation movement is aiming to stem biodiversity loss, they are seeking biodiversity gains. Where policy makers desperately try to preserve a rapidly disappearing lifestyle of herders and smallholders in the margins of agricultural Europe, they propose a reintroduction of the aurochs. And where hunters and foresters alike see ‘optimum’ wildlife numbers, they see emptied landscapes with no wildlife to speak of.

The proposition of Rewilding Europe reminds me of the Copernican turn. There is the universe, as we knew it before Copernicus, and a universe after. They don’t look very much alike.

The people of Rewilding Europe draw inspiration from various sources: the wilderness movement in the US and Canada, the spectacular restoration of riparian life in the Dutch delta in the past two decades, the pioneering work of Frans Vera, a Dutch conservation activist, who dedicates his life to proving that a closed canopy forest is not the primordial state of European nature, and an increasing number of studies demonstrating that wildlife numbers in Europe are recovering from their depth in the 1970s.

And they see a business opportunity too. Around 18% of Europe’s land surface enjoys protection under the Natura 2000 governing scheme, yet the budget for proper ecological management of the land is not there. Natura 2000 is becoming the victim of its own success. Europe can no longer afford the detailed management plans now required to protect an often statically defined diversity of species. And what about the millions of hectares of abandoned land across Europe, where small farmers no longer till the soil or their cattle graze the land?

In come the rewilders! With natural grazing as the key ecological process, their idea is stunningly simple. Stop the high intervention, high maintenance type of conservation management and fire up the numbers of roe deer, red deer, wild horses, bison and what have you. Once in place, they take care of themselves, they keep the landscape open, their dazzling numbers will attract scores of tourists and predators will thrive on their prey. Even hunters will be happy, as the spillover in numbers benefits their quota too. More nature, less money spent and alternative income sources for rural people at that.

Too good to be true? I don’t know. It is worth a try. The rewilders will have to rewrite conservation biology here and there as they claim that more than half of Europe’s biodiversity is dependent on half open landscapes. Conventional wisdom claims the opposite for forests. Why the extinct aurochs need to be brought back into the foodweb needs some further explanation too. But it is a wild idea. And it may work!

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