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Rewilding as a tool, and the role of science

August 14, 2012

As rewilding is gaining popularity across Europe, it is important that scientific research follows, to answer at least some of the many questions that arise: how and to what extend can we reintroduce natural processes in larger ecosystems, what animals to reintroduce and where, how will they fit in the existing ecosystems, how do we know what the former wild Europe really looked like, how does rewilding relate to other types of conservation management, just to mention a few.

This subject was addressed at a one-day symposium “Rewilding as tool and target in the management for biodiversity”, held at Aarhus University in Denmark on 11 April 2012. The proceedings of the symposium are now available online.

Through discussions, five key issues surfaced: what should the ecological baseline for rewilding be, to what scale can we expect rewilding to be possible, how is it possible to restore entire processes instead of just single species or areas, how does rewilding fit in the current cultural landscape, and what to do with fences versus open systems.

Numerous presentations highlighted that rewilding is already being put into practice in Europe. However, it also became clear that rewilding as a tool and as a target still lacks clear definition. The original founding principles of large core areas, connectivity and keystone species were presented and while these are still relevant today, there was a distinct progression towards discussing rewilding in terms of “restoring ecological processes and ecosystem function”.

In this context the target of rewilding in biodiversity conservation emerged as the restoration of naturally functioning ecosystems with a reduced need for human management, while rewilding as a tool was discussed as the reintroduction of natural processes. The restoration of processes perhaps mostly relates to keystone species needing large core areas and connectivity, but thinking about rewilding as a tool also opens for an employment of the principles at smaller scale in more fragmented landscapes.

The emphasis on process also served to highlight rewilding as a concept that does not aim at fixed conservation of particular species, habitats or a priori lost landscapes, but rather opens for the continuous and spontaneous creation of habitats and spaces for species.

Also, the question of the role of science in rewilding projects was raised. This led to discussions relating to science as an input to and an output from rewilding projects. Science has a clear role in identifying, understanding and restoring ecosystem functions. However, rewilding as a process can also reveal new information about the functioning of the natural world and in this way advance ecological theory. And new empirical evidence would be useful in future rewilding projects. The point was raised that science can also hinder the development of rewilding projects by requiring considerable investment of time and resources into feasibility studies and baseline data collection. In this process there is a risk that science becomes prescriptive, particularly with regard to feasibility studies. Science can perhaps be most usefully employed by identifying ideal starting points for rewilding projects, i.e. the conditions managers need to restore the ecosystem to, that will then allow natural processes to function. Once these starting points have been achieved, science moves back into a learning phase by monitoring the function of the restored processes.

Rewilding Europe recognizes the need for a role of the scientific community in Europe to play a role in rewilding. We are planning to set up a network of scientists in Europe that are interested to work on this subject, and are in the process of identifying key research questions to address.

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