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Red deer roam freely in the wilds of Italy's Central Apennines. Photo: Bruno D'Amicis / Rewilding Europe

Nature Calling

It’s 2021. It’s time to rewild

It’s 2021. It’s time to rewild

Words: Frans Schepers

Photos: Courtesy of Rewilding Europe

Human activity is hurting the ecosystems that support life on Earth. But there’s a way to fix them. It’s called rewilding, and it’s about giving nature the space to restore itself. Frans Schepers, one of the founders of Rewilding Europe, explains how rewilding works – and why its moment has come.

Until 2014, bison hadn’t been seen in Romania for 200 years. Now, Europe’s largest land animal, once extinct in the wild, is back. Thanks to the work of Rewilding Europe and WWF there are now around 70 European bison living here. Not fenced in, not fed, but free.

The story of Romania’s bison is testament to the power of rewilding – and in 2021, it’s time to take it to the next level.

Trust in nature

This is a critical year for nature recovery. Against the backdrop of rising global temperatures, biodiversity decline and the devastating impact of Covid-19, there has never been a greater awareness of our need for nature and the wide range of benefits it provides – from clean air and fertile soil to the locking up of atmospheric carbon and resilience to disease.

“We need to do more than simply protect the nature we have left. We need to restore nature”

To meet the challenges we face, we need to do more than simply protect the nature we have left. We need to restore nature by rewilding large areas, across the world, ranging from ancient forests to coastal mangroves, from peatlands to coral reefs.

If you haven’t heard the term rewilding before, you’ll be hearing it a lot more. Everyone from Sir David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg is promoting it. But what does it mean?

Rewilding is an innovative and inspirational way of restoring wild nature. It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems, and restore degraded landscapes. It doesn’t have an absolute end point, it’s more about moving up a scale of wildness, where every step represents progress.

European bison were once extinct in the wild, but now thrive in the Southern Carpathians. Photo: Daniel Mirlea / Rewilding Europe

It’s clear that nature knows best how to look after itself. After all, natural processes generated and maintained the Earth’s rich biodiversity for millions of years before humans showed up. We can give it a helping hand by creating the right conditions – by removing dykes and dams that are no longer needed from rivers, by reducing active management of wildlife populations, by allowing natural forest regeneration, and by reintroducing species that have disappeared as a result of human interference. Then we should step back and trust nature to manage itself, which has the added benefit of costing far less than active management.

Rewilding is not just about landscapes and wildlife, but people too. We rely on the natural world for water, food and air, while connecting with nature keeps us mentally and physically well. Rewilding means understanding that we are just one species among many, bound together in an intricate web of life that connects us with the atmosphere, weather, tides, soil, fresh water, oceans and every other living creature on the planet.

“We are just one species among many, bound together in an intricate web of life”

Real world impact

At Rewilding Europe our aim is to inspire and support hundreds of other rewilding initiatives, and we collaborate with local partners in a wide range of large landscapes to make our vision a reality.

Rewilding is about stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. More important than restoring any individual wildlife species is restoring groups of species, and the complex network of relationships between them. These networks support the functioning and resilience of entire ecosystems, enabling them to provide the benefits that we, as humans, rely on.

A good example of this can be found in the Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria, where Rewilding Europe has been engaged in rewilding efforts since 2015. The primary focus here is the restoration of food webs, with the release of red deer and fallow deer increasing the availability of prey for wolves. This, in turn, means there are more carcasses for recovering vulture populations and other scavengers to feed on. When carcasses decompose, they enhance soil nutrient levels and thereby support microorganisms and vegetation, on which the herbivores feed. In this way, rewilding restores the so-called circle of life, creating a healthier, more functional ecosystem.

Wolves help preserve the ecological balance in Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains. Photo: Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

In the Southern Carpathians in Romania, the reintroduction of European bison brings benefits for a huge range of other animals and plant life. Bison are considered a keystone species, playing a vital role in shaping the landscape they inhabit. The excitement generated by the return of these beautiful animals is also supporting a growing local nature-based economy, which includes bison-tracking trips organised by the European Safari Company.

In the Danube Delta – an ever-shifting mosaic of channels, islands, forest, marshes and reedbeds that collectively represent Europe’s greatest natural wetland – rewilding is also focusing on the recovery of natural processes, following decades of intervention by humans. The rewilding area, which is divided between Romania, Ukraine and Moldova, encompasses an expansive area of delta and steppe. Dams have been removed, wetlands have been restored, wild grazers such as Konik horses, water buffalo and kulan introduced, depleted fish stocks revitalised.

In the Danube Delta, old dams have been removed from waterways. Photo: Maxim Yakovlev / Rewilding Europe

Let’s upgrade nature

Many ecosystems – the basis of our natural wealth – are currently broken. Today, rewilding offers a historic opportunity to recover them and the essential wildlife populations they could contain. Rewilding also links ecology with modern economies. Nature-based tourism can help to revitalise communities affected by economic decline and rural depopulation.

“Our generation could be the first to upgrade Europe’s nature rather than downgrade it”

This summer marks the beginning of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and while the challenge is undoubtedly huge, there are many reasons to feel hopeful and energised. Covid-19 has driven home the need to recover nature and instilled a desire to “build back better”. Rewilding is increasingly recognised as an immediate and effective way of helping to mitigate climate change and increase biodiversity at the same time, with growing policy support from the likes of the European Green Deal and EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. The EU has even committed to introducing legally binding restoration targets for member countries. And funding for rewilding is also on the rise, with a growing number of businesses, investors and philanthropists taking financial decisions that help to restore nature.

A female European bison is released into the wild in 2020.
Photo: Daniel Mirlea / Rewilding Europe

It’s working. Many wildlife species are now making a comeback in Europe, helping us to reforge new human-wildlife relations and proving that nature is resilient and will recover – if we create the conditions for it to do so.

Most encouragingly of all, rewilding is resonating ever more strongly with the younger generation, who recognise that nature and biodiversity are essential for addressing climate change and the guarantee of a healthy and sustainable future.

Young rewilders visit Millingerwaard in the Netherlands.
Photo: Nelleke de Weerd / Rewilding Europe

Everyone – from individual citizens to big business – can play a role and become part of the burgeoning rewilding movement. Our generation has the opportunity to be the first in human history to upgrade rather than downgrade Europe’s nature, both in terms of quality and quantity.

Now wouldn’t that be something amazing.

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Frans Schepers is managing director and one of the founders of Rewilding Europe. He leads a team overseeing eight large rewilding initiatives in seven European countries.

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