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Wilder nature

Nature is amazing! When left to manage itself, natural processes begin to function more effectively.
Such processes include natural grazing, the roles of predators and scavengers and natural flooding.

Diego López/Wild Wonders of Europe

Wilder nature

Nature is amazing! When left to manage itself, natural processes begin to function more effectively.
Such processes include natural grazing, the roles of predators and scavengers and natural flooding.

A continent in motion

Staffan Widstrand; Wild Wonders of Europe

Functional landscapes

Natural processes play a vital role in shaping landscapes and ecosystems. Such natural processes include flooding, weather conditions, natural calamities, natural grazing, predation and scavenging. Natural processes lead to what we call “functional ecological landscapes”.

Rewilding Europe is creating space for natural processes like forest regeneration, free flowing rivers, herbivory and carnivory to impact ecosystems. Across the continent, the interaction of these processes leads to constantly evolving landscapes rather than fixed habitats. A forest today can be a grassland in a few years, and vice versa. Understanding this dynamic – the ever-changing habitats in space and time – is the key to preserving Europe’s rich biodiversity.

Catalin Georgescu

Enabling natural processes

Rewilding Europe aims to create enabling conditions for wilder nature across Europe and has started this process at selected priority areas and pilot sites.

Within our now eight rewilding areas we promote natural processes through various kinds of agreements with landowners, local park and reserve authorities, area manages and concession holders. We have established dozens such rewilding agreements: these include those in Swedish Lapland relating to river restoration and in Velebit Mountains to wildlife watching, in the Rhodope Mountains relating to restoring prey populations, and in a range of countries relating to natural grazing. Other agreement-related activities include work on wildlife corridors between national parks in the Central Apennines, based on agreements with so-called Bear Smart Communities. The total area of land under such rewilding agreements is now over 50,000 hectares.

Juan Carlos Muños Robredo / Rewilding Europe

Natural grazing

Natural grazing is an important ecological process which we now support in 21 different pilot areas across nine countries. These natural grazing pilots cover 15, 500 hectares, with the largest located in the Velebit Mountains (Lika Plains), Western Iberia (Faia Brava) and Danube Delta (Sfântu Gheorghe).

As a natural progression of their reintroduction, the free-roaming horses and bison in the Rhodope Mountains (several sites) and the bison herd in the Southern Carpathians (Romania) have already expanded their home range by thousands of hectares. Through the mechanism of the European Wildlife Bank, new grazing areas have also been started in ERN member sites in the Netherlands (European bison), the Ukraine (rewilded horses), and the Czech Republic (Tauros). The benefits of natural grazing are being evaluated within the three-year project GrazeLIFE.

“Forests and herbivores are antagonists. On need of each other, they perform a dance that continues in slow motion throughout the European landscape.”

Deli Saavedra

Deli Saavedra
Rewilding area coordinator

Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Rewilding forests

The rewilding of forests is becoming increasingly important in our work, with the first pilot sites now becoming operational.

In the Oder Delta, a section of the Olszanka alluvial forest has been protected, while in the Velebit Mountains work is underway to save 270 hectares of beautiful old growth forest in the Ramino Korito area. Our rewilding work in the Greater Côa Valley in Portugal focuses on restoring the high conservation value of Mediterranean forests and changing practices through transforming forestry plantations to wilder forest.

Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Rewilding rivers and wetlands

In Swedish Lapland, the Pite and Råne River Associations continue their work on river restoration, with the removal of lateral dams, thereby restoring spawning areas for migratory fish and reconnecting tributaries of these rivers. In the Danube Delta and Oder Delta, we are working on the removal of dams and large-scale reflooding of former polders, and reconnecting Danube lakes with the main river again.

Through our enterprise work, we are looking to work with forest and water management authorities, companies and initiatives to develop business models that support the rewilding of these ecosystems.

Natural processes

When nature is working properly it provides us with an abundance of clean air, fresh water, carbon storage and flood prevention. It gives us everything from fuel and food to medicine and building materials.

Working properly means that nature is free to work undisturbed in all its breathtaking and beautiful complexity. In such an environment, natural processes are driven by the Earth’s systems and by species doing what they have evolved to do over millennia. For example, a wolf’s activity helps to bring back trees through their influence on deer grazing behaviour, trees and dead wood maintain the health of rivers and natural grazing helps thousands of species to thrive in our grasslands and half-open forests.

While we may conduct research and analysis, we can never fully understand the vast, intricate workings of nature. We can observe though. And we can understand that nature is the best manager of natural processes. Below are six examples of important natural processes. This list is far from exhaustive but demonstrates the incredible complexity of the natural environment in which we live, and on which we depend for our very existence. Rewilding can keep nature healthy and help recover it. In fact, you could argue that it is critical to our very survival.

 

Weather conditions

Such as storms, avalanches, coastal dynamics and wind-shaped sand dunes.

Natural calamities

Such as natural fires and disease like bark beetle infestations.

Flooding

Such as dynamic water levels, erosion, sedimentation and seepage.

Natural grazing

The role of herbivores in driving vegetation dynamics.

Predation

The impact of carnivores on prey species and thereby other species and even the vegetation.

The role of scavenging

Cleaning up carcasses – completing the circle of life.

Rewilding and climate change – time to act

 

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.

Anders Geidemark; Wild Wonders of Europe

Tackling emergencies

Restoration of nature, based on rewilding principles, is one of the best ways of tackling our current climate and biodiversity emergencies. Rewilding ecosystems across Europe not only benefits wild nature, but it also 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. 

Yet, only 2% of all climate-related funding globally is put into the recovery of nature, while an estimated 37 of global emissions can be mitigated through such measures. 

Edwin Giesbers/ Wild Wonders of Europe

Legally binding targets

In its new Biodiversity Strategy 2030, the European Commission has proposed legally binding targets on ‘restoration’ for EU member states, that really drives the landscape-scale restoration and ensures the connectivity of ecosystems vital for biodiversity and climate.

Such legislation is critical, as it would increase the amount of EU territory in good ecological condition, if it includes hard, legally binding restoration targets expressed in square kilometres, and deliver increased levels of financial investment. Existing policies that undermine nature restoration – such as EU incentives to grow bioenergy crops or harvest forest biomass for energy, as well as the Common Agricultural Policy also need to be revised. 

Our main achievements

Rewilding areas at the forefront

Rewilding Europe puts its vision into practice through working in 8 large landscapes across Europe. Based on a screening of over 30 nominations from all over Europe, submitted by a variety of organisations, the first rewilding areas became operational by the end of 2011. Starting work in five rewilding areas in 2012, Rewilding Europe now has eight operational areas across Europe, covering a size of in total nearly 2.3 million hectares.

Rewilding agreements

Within these rewilding areas, we have signed a range of agreements with landowners, reserve managers, local communities and individuals that have user rights for management, grazing, hunting, fishing, tourism and others. The number of areas with rewilding agreements has raised from one in 2013 to dozens of agreements now, covering active rewilding measures of more than 50,000 hectares of wetlands, grasslands and forests.

Natural grazing

For grazing rights, we have established 21 different pilot sites where we work to show the importance of natural grazing. In total, these grazing pilots cover some 15,500 hectares in total, located in 9 different countries. The main species and breeds we work with are European bison, Tauros and various primitive breeds of horse, Asiatic wild ass as well as water buffalo.

Supporting the Circle of Life

In all the natural grazing areas, the large herbivores are prone to predation of (mainly) wolves. If not already, the animals are learning to defend themselves from attacks; some species even form mixed herds for that reason. Carcasses act as an important food source for scavengers – the Circle of Life.

New rewilding models

New rewilding models are introduced in a range of areas. Examples are the restoration of food chains (carnivores, scavengers) by restocking herbivores and supporting carnivores, the transition of hunting to more diversified wildlife management with wildlife watching and naturally grazed forests, creating co-existence corridors, restoring peat marshes as wildfire prevention in the Mediterranean.

Rewilding of rivers

Rewilding of rivers takes place in two rivers in Swedish Lapland through removal of dams and in the Oder Delta, where small rivers discharge into the main Stettiner Lagoon (Poland). Both are key for important fish species such as Baltic salmon, brown trout, grayling and sturgeon. In the Danube Delta, we are preparing plans for large scale reflooding of polders, both on the Ukrainian and Romanian side. In 2019, we removed 10 smaller dams from two rivers in the delta.

Natural process:
the beaver as an ecosystem engineer

Consider what happens in nature when a beaver fells a tree. The tree falls and floods part of the river. This creates a pond, which attracts insects and fish. These attract birds, which carry seeds, which grow more trees. These help to mitigate the effects of heavy rains, which may stop the flooding of towns and villages… and so the whole, interrelated system continues. A clear example of how nature and people benefit.

Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Rewilding Europe partner in Dam Removal Europe

Free-flowing rivers are the veins of Europe’s richest ecosystems. They boost an enormous variety of species, including flagship species like salmon, sturgeon and otter.

However, there are hardly any free-flowing rivers left in Europe. Europeans have been fragmenting rivers for centuries thanks to the construction of dams, weirs and other constructions that influence natural flow of water and sediment. Nobody knows exactly how many river barriers there are in Europe but we are talking about hundreds of thousands.

The ambition of Dam Removal Europe is to restore and preserve free-flowing rivers in Europe. This is because natural rivers provide better opportunities for fisheries, flood protection, drinking water, recreation and nature. Dam Removal Europe main focus is on the removal of old, obsolete dams to ‘free’ our European rivers again. By signing a partnership agreement in February 2018, Rewilding Europe has joined this initiative to actively help realising this ambition.

Dam Removal Europe

Circle of Life

Markus Varesvuo / Wild Wonders of Europe

Across our continent today, wild carcasses have become a rare commodity. Wilderness has become arable land, populations of wild grazers are often managed at low densities, and legislation demands the immediate removal of dead livestock. As a result, much of the biological “waste” has disappeared from the European ecosystem and is no longer part of the natural cycle of life. Denied a natural food source, populations of scavengers are decreasing and dying out, while many predators have no option than to turn to domesticated animals for food.

Rewilding Europe wants to help Europe’s scavengers by encouraging a fresh look at how carcasses are managed across the continent. This new approach is called the ‘Circle of Life’. The concept of scavenging involves subjects that are naturally repellent to many people: carcasses, dead animals, road kills and putrid meat. Yet for species that need carcasses as a food source, the availability of these things is key to their survival.

Magnus Elander / Wild Wonders of Europe

Rewilding Europe works to support vulture populations in three of its areas – Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains, the Velebit Mountains of Croatia, and the Greater Côa Valley. While artificial feeding may still have a role to play here, our main focus will always be to help scavenging species – across all our operational areas – by boosting the availability of wild carcasses and thereby supporting the circle of life. Increasing the availability of such carcasses can be achieved both by enabling wildlife comeback, and by reintroducing species – such as red deer, bison and wild horses – that would, if not for human interference, be part of the local ecosystem.

Circle of Life – a new way to support Europe’s scavengers

Learn more about the Circle of Life

Rewilding Europe works – together with ARK Nature – to help Europe’s scavengers by encouraging a fresh and new approach, called the ‘Circle of Life’. A brochure on this topic was published and presented in 2107, at the International Vulture Awareness Day. We want to see carcasses retake their place in nature, allowing Europe’s numerous scavengers to once again eat their fill.

This brochure provides a practical overview of the possibilities for such an approach, addressing relevant stakeholders such as those managing nature, wildlife and roads. The background information this brochure contains is intended to inform policymakers, as well as other parties interested in expanding their knowledge about this fascinating, essential and often overlooked link in the food chain.

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