Rewilding Europe — a Netherlands-based NGO advancing ambitious, large-scale conservation projects — has a growing foothold on the continent, thanks partly to Dutch efforts over the past 30 years at creating a manmade “new” wilderness (see our article on Oostvaardersplassen/OVP) and using it as a testbed to study how animals –herbivores, small mammals and birds– influence grasslands and forest ecosystems. The Dutch people also play an important role: Rewilding Europe receives multi-year funding from the Dutch Postcode lottery. (See resources below story for more history.)
U.S. origins of rewilding
In the U.S., where the idea of “rewilding” originated, biologists Michael Soulé and Reed Noss proposed in the 1990’s the idea of North American conservation on a continental scale, using what they call the “three C’s: cores, corridors and carnivores.” They were joined by other biologists who embraced the idea: large swaths of land connected by natural corridors, with “wide-ranging, large animals – especially carnivores” for wilderness restoration. In its purest form, Pleistocene Rewilding would include large cats and megaherbivores as stand-ins for species that became extinct, starting 10,000 years ago. The pure form continues to meet with opposition from ranchers, private landowners and others in the U.S. West who fear the large predators. (U.S. rewilding will follow our 4-part European series.)
European rewilding: different definition, noble intentions
Europe has four times the population density of the US, with huge concentrations in cities and major villages throughout some 48 countries. Many people are unaware that massive amounts of land in Europe are being abandoned: small villages that lack a vibrant economy, rural farmsteaders who seek a better life elsewhere, and waterways or places where the remnants of war (as recently as the Balkan Crisis) include uncleared minefields and other dangers.
Rewilding Europe is a new, ambitious conservation vision: it intends to be continental in scale and sets as a goal by 2020, to reuse and restore one million hectares (20,000 square km.) of abandoned, disused and threatened lands in many European countries, including some that once were behind the Iron Curtain.
The “fix” is not one-size-fits-all conservation. There are transboundary projects that require cooperation between national governments; careful work with local populations to stop illegal hunting and the poisoning of wolves; and help in overcoming poor economic prospects through ecotourism, landholder farming and local investment in wild lands.
Targets for success
Rewilding Europe seeks to achieve, in just years or decades, what U.S. conservationists and government took a century or more to build, with infrastructure, regulations, management plans, public buy-in, and ecotourism in national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and other places under protection.
Here briefly are the major targets to success Rewilding Europe has identified:
- 10 reserves at 100,000 hectares each (that’s 2.2 million acres)
- Reintroduce natural grazing as a key part of the ecological process to achieve balance
- Return of herbivores (grazers) such as bison, red deer, ibex, wild horses, wild boar and specially bred cattle (tauros)
- Allow wildlife to return, supported by re-introductions where necessary
- Help establish high quality wildlife tourism
- Help people in these regions: stimulate entrepreneurship and business, including local investment
- Achieve wide European awareness and support for conservation success.
Model projects – places of discovery
Five large-scale model projects now underway, from Western Spain to Romania, are mind-boggling in terms of the ecosystems, dramatic natural features, rare and endangered species they encompass – from dry coastal Mediterranean habitat to Europe’s largest wetlands. Five more sites will be announced in October 2013 at WILD, World Wilderness Congress in Spain.
The cornucopia includes:
Danube Delta (border between Romania and Ukraine): huge area of over 600,000 hectares, coastline, large scale landscapes, Europe’s largest estuary, world’s largest reed beds, site of hundreds of thousands of nesting and migrating birds and waterfowl, a primeval forest. Among the goals: create communal wildlife conservancies; reintroduce red deer, beavers, wild-living horses, cattle and possibly European bison. (Additional information)
Eastern Carpathians (Poland-Slovakia-Ukraine triangle): a critical cross-roads to achieve a joint vision among the three countries to protect and revive some of the “wildest corners of Europe”; lynx, roe deer, wild boar, wolves, bears. Half-million hectares of national parks, biosphere reserves, forest reserves, nature parks and Natura 2000 sites). Bieszcady Park (Poland) already has a thriving tourism component. (Additional information)
Southern Carpathians (Romania): a rich variety of wildlife (Eurasian lynx, brown bear, red deer), spectacular scenery, canyons, waterfalls, caves, and early ruins dating to the Romans. Re-establish balance with “lost wild-living species” – wild bovines, horses, European bison and deer; reintroduce the beaver. Create hunting-free zones. Rewilding Europe calls this area an almost “forgotten corner” of Romania, with a unique opportunity to balance and create a new economy (tourism) that derives from “wild values and sustainable use of natural resources.” (Additional information)
Velebit Mountains (Croatia): Seriously impacted by the Balkan Conflict (1991-95), this area on the Adriatic coast has experienced severe depopulation and abandonment. Extraordinary range of habitats, natural mountain chain, climbers’ paradise, caves, scenery. Several well-organized parks help form the “backbone” for rewilding, especially reintroduction of grazers and improvement of natural grazing systems. (Additional information)
Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain): Significant depopulation and western region has few economic prospects. This region has set aside 1.3 million hectares for conservation, interesting habitats, and populations of cliff-loving species (vultures, eagles, Iberian ibex). Great example of organizations working together to create models in four core area. An open-air Paleolithic art site (40,000-10,000 BC) depicts the aurochs (wild cattle, now extinct), red deer and wild horses. Grazing regime will include “proxies”: horses, Sayaguesa cattle, red deer and ibex. Some of Europe’s the rarest species are in this region – Spanish Imperial eagle and Iberian lynx. The storied Paleo Campanarios de Azaba was repopulated in 2012 with horses. (Additional information)
Partners and Teams
Rewilding Europe is an initiative of the WWF-Netherlands, ARK Foundation, Wild Wonders of Europe and Conservation Capital, with many other partners, e.g. land owners and communities at a European and a local level. Each Rewilding Europe project has a local team.
The Dutch Postcode Lottery awarded a 500,000 euro award annually for five years, announced February 14, 2013.
RESOURCES: LEARN MORE
Rewilding Europe web site: Go to
Rewilding video (ignore the music) (4 mins)
Wild Wonders of Europe exhibition opens March 16 in Turin
Recall of the Wild, Elizabeth Kolbert , The New Yorker, (December 24, 2012). Excellent article, covers the rewilding movement, breeding of tauros cattle (backbreeding), field visit to Campanarios Azaba reserve, and the Dutch OVP. Read full article
Pleistocene Park, Sergey Zimov, Science May 6 2005. Director of the Northeast Science Station in Cherskii in the Republic of Sakha (Siberia). Zimov has led the effort to recreate a grassland ecosystem from the Pleistocene epoch that is populated with large herbivores (reindeer, bison, horses), wolves and other predators. He describes the ambitious project at a site that few have visited. Read full article
Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation, Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, Wild Earth, Fall 1998. The flagship article on rewilding as a guide for North America. Read full article