Nature Restoration Law (NRL) passed – lessons for the future

Nature – and the economy – triumphs over 275 Neros. For now.

At last a prize worth cheering about, as the European parliament votes 329 votes in favour, 275 against, to back the NRL.

The final step will involve Council endorsement towards the end of March, with Environment Ministers meeting on 26th. Thereafter successful implementation will depend on Member States adopting effective National Restoration Plans. 

Behind the celebrations there is much ground to cover.

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Rescuing the Nature Restoration Law

NRL squeezed though the European Parliament, but fundamental reforms are needed for it to succeed

It is a stark but surprisingly little-known fact that farming and forestry interests opposing the Nature Restoration Law (NRL) represent less than 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product in the EU. 

Yet the costs of inappropriate management in worsening climate change and ecological degradation fall on the remaining 97.5% of the economy.

A letter sent by Wild Europe to each of the 51 MEPs in the Environment Committee and the Agriculture & Rural Development Committee on 10th July, just prior to the vote on the NRL, pointed out this GDP mismatch and stressed that it was in the interests of all sectors of the economy to get the Law voted through.

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Huge potential for a wild country

Rewilding for Ireland – from theory to practice

After centuries of deforestation and degradation, ecological restoration projects are starting to spring up across Ireland – seeking to address climate change and reverse biodiversity loss.

There is useful scope for establishing a few standardised principles of good practice, and this was the theme of a presentation to some 120 members of the Irish Wildlife Trust, given in 2021 by Zoltan Kun of Wild Europe and member of the IUCN Thematic Rewilding Group.

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Wild Europe inputs to EC Forest and Restoration consultations

A Forest Strategy not Forestry Strategy

The EU planning process is in full spate.

In December 2020 Wild Europe contributed to two consultations: on EU Forest Strategy and Restoration Targets. These are part of a wider process that includes determination of EU Timber Regulations, Land Use and Land Use Change and Forestry (the discordant LULUCF), with other measures to follow. 

At stake in this determination of policy over the next decade are our fast-disappearing ecosystems and their wildlife. 

The State of Nature in the EU Report published in October by the Environment Agency makes a grim backdrop: species in freefall decline, majority of habitats in unfavourable condition, climate change accelerating and budgets pressurised by COVID.

In this context the potential offered by rewilding, with its focus on non-intervention and cost-effective nature based solutions, has never been more important.

Wild Europe’s input to the consultation process 

Restoration of Carbon Absorbent Biodiversity Rich Ecosystem Areas

In a formal consultation process limited to 4000 characters, we focussed on those key actions essential to ensure the necessary radical action to address the twin crises of species extinction and climate change. 

We seek extended protection and extensive restoration of natural ecosystems. The producer associations seek the status quo. There is however much more common ground between the two ‘sides’ than is often appreciated. We need to explore and establish this.

Lobby groups representing agriculture and forestry interests may be influential, but together they represent less than 2.5% of GDP in the European Union – much less if heavy subsidies from the remaining of the economy were withdrawn. The overwhelming weight of public opinion, backed by growing awareness among consumer and taxpayer associations, wants to see more proportionate attention paid to vital environmental concerns that affect their future.

It is in everybody’s interests to secure far-reaching agreement.

Input to EU Forest Strategy consultation

Input to nature restoration targets

Germany unveils large Wilderness Fund

The Federal Environment Ministry announced a massive boost for wilderness on 9thJuly 2019 – a 10 million euro per year “Wildnis in Deutschland” initiative aimed at stopping loss of species and habitats. 

This is intended to catalyse the 2% national target for wilderness, announced in 2007, of which 0.6% has so far been achieved. The mission statement for each area is cited as compatible with the Wild Europe definition in the BfN Federal Agency wilderness criteria.

More landscape like this, please…
(CC BY-SA 3.0,

The funding will be used by conservation organisations to purchase land and land use rights, with particular focus on securing large integrated wilderness landscapes. 

A clear precedent for France, and elsewhere in Europe

This represents spectacular success for a campaign by a network of German NGOs, coordinated by Manuel Schweiger of Frankfurt Zoological Society. 

With President Macron of France recently outlining what could become even more extensive 10% national targets for areas “in full naturalness”, there is huge encouragement and a clear precedent for wilderness advocates in France and elsewhere to follow.

Rewilding in Britain – significant opportunities emerging

Brexit Britain to be greener?
(Wikimedia Commons)

One of the few positive aspects of Brexit is the opportunity it offers for a wholesale rethink on using nature-based solutions to address climate change.

In its consultation document “rewilding and climate breakdown” (May 2019), the Rewilding Britain initiative where Wild Europe has trustee representation lays out a costed proposal for massive restoration of natural habitats and processes as a key route to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Promoted under the “public payments for public goods” agenda, this advocates spending 2.1 billion euro per year – 30% of the current 6.6 billion UK CAP budget – to restore over 6 million hectares including woodland, peatland, species rich grassland and salt marsh. This would sequester some 47 million tons of CO2 annually, more than 10% of the UK’s emissions. The report cites carbon taxes as a source of funding, although there is also potential related to flood alleviation – and of course the CAP budget itself.

Massive public support

These proposals are paralleled by a public petition that has now secured over 100,000 signatures, and will trigger a debate in the Westminster Parliament. 

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IUCN offices
IUCN offices at 64 Boulevard Louis Schmidt, where the meeting took place.

IUCN ‘Rewilding’ Task Force meeting in Brussels

The recently established IUCN Task Force on Rewilding was unveiled on 8th of October 2019 in Brussels, at a meeting hosted by Wild Europe.

Taking place in the IUCN offices on Boulevard Louis Schmidt, the meeting was attended by representatives from DG Environment and DG Clima, with participation and written inputs from conservation NGOs and land user organisations.

Steve Carver, Co Chairman of the Task Force, explained the objectives and operating principles of the Task Force. There was some debate on the extent of the overlap between rewilding and restoration, and feedback included the suggestion of a collation of existing rewilding experience. Clear objectives and targets were also recommended.

As ‘rewilding’ gains momentum in Europe, there is a need for a formal definition of the concept, together with a standardised framework which the various initiatives can reference.

Any requests for further information via please.

Wild Europe funds for mapping of France’s potential wild nature areas

A meeting of the IUCN’s Wilderness Group in Paris in March, Chaired by Christian Barthod from the Ministry of Sustainable Development, discussed progress with mapping wild and potential wilderness areas in France. This is now supported by funding from Wild Europe, a member of the IUCN Group.

IUCN France Wilderness Group meeting in Paris (Thierry Lefebvre, IUCN France)

The project engages cartographers from IGN (Institut National de l’Information Géographique et Forestiere), Nantes University and the Wildland Research Institute at Leeds University.

Its current stage involves identification and mapping in a dozen regions of France – of which seven contain significant wild or even prospective wilderness areas. The remainder provide a context of different land uses, and the dozen areas together effectively represent a ‘continuum of wildness’.

The outcome can lay the basis for development of an overall strategy to protect and restore large natural ecosystem areas (wild and wilderness).With her significant spatial and biogeographic assets, her expertise in applied ecology and excellent nature tourism offer, France is well placed to take a leading role in Europe for this agenda.

New IUCN Task Force on Rewilding established 

As the momentum of rewilding gathers pace, IUCN has set up the Rewilding Task Force to provide a framework of supporting principles and scientific standards. 

This will have a global remit, but with specific relevance to Europe as the number of projects multiplies, and with it the variety of interpretations.

Chaired jointly by Ian Convery from the University of Cumbria and Steve Carver of the Wildland Research Institute, its initial two year work plan involves collecting inputs from a range of organisations to develop a working definition, accompanied by guiding principles and a series of case studies to collate existing experience.

The continuum of wildness (Erwin Van Maanen and Ian Convery, University of Cumbria)

At the heart of the initiative will be the application of ecological restoration within the context a ‘continuum of wildness’, with heavily modified landscapes at one end, ranging through progressively purer naturalism to wilderness at the other. 

Rewilding involves scale, naturalness and integrity of habitat and process. It can bring powerful environmental, social and economic benefit. But it also has – and requires – strong cultural, philosophical and spiritual roots that are often overlooked.

New protection for ancient English woodland

Amid the gloom of Brexit with its uncertain outlook for environmental legislation, new planning rules in July 2018 offer highly welcome extended protection for ancient woodland in England.

Epping Forest, an ancient wood …… in Greater London. Photo by David IliffEpping Forest, an ancient wood …… in Greater London. Photo by David Iliff

This habitat, under pressure from new infrastructure and housing schemes across the country – with only 2% of original cover remaining – will now benefit from equal status to listed buildings and scheduled monuments.

Ancient woods, defined principally as existing continuously on maps since 1600AD, may now only be damaged by development for ‘wholly exceptional reasons’ – a phrase yet to be tested in law for this context, but its equivalent already provides stringent guardianship for built heritage property.

The next step will be a campaign to extend this protection to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with devolved jurisdiction over woodland issues.

Wild Europe is liaising on the Old Growth Forest Protection Strategy with DEFRA, the English Environment Ministry which also represents the United Kingdom as a contracting party to the Bern Convention.

President Macron announces 10% natural habitat vision for France

President Macron has pledged commitment to protect 10% of France’s land and sea area “in full naturalness” (en plein naturalité). 

He announced this objective in a speech at the Elysée Palace on 4thMay, as part of a wide-ranging vision to combat climate change and restore biodiversity that would see protected areas expanded to cover 30% of the nation’s territory.

President Macron announces the 10% natural habitat vision for France in the Elysee palace
A visionary President for wild nature in France (source:

Consultation will now occur to establish more specific objectives and plan their implementation. France’s IUCN Wilderness Group, where Wild Europe is represented and currently funding a mapping exercise, has discussed our definition of wilderness (espace à haute naturalité) which is used in the EC’s Management Guidelines for the Natura 2000 Network and the EC Wilderness Register. Together with the wild area (zone sauvage) definition it has potential to play a key part in this vision. In addition to environmental value, these definitionsproffer the practical potential of economic and social benefits for local communities and landholders.

President Macron’s vision, suitably focused on wild nature, is a powerful step alongside Germany, where the Federal government has designated 2% of the country to be natural wilderness: encompassing 5% of all forests and 10% of state forests. Wild Europe’s wilderness definition is cited by the German Federal Agency as compatible with the mission statement for the areas involved (Wild Europe’s wilderness definition in French).

Overview of 2% wilderness target in Germany published

A key overview of the German Federal government’s target for wilderness on 2% of national territory has been published in the Journal for Nature Conservation. Other aims include 5% of all forests and 10% of state forests.

Germany is setting an important lead for Europe through this strategic framework, and the overview document titled More wilderness for Germany: Implementing an important objective of Germany’s National Strategy on Biological Diversity (JNC 42/2018) provides an authoritative insight into the rationale behind the target.

The definition of wilderness used in the target incorporates Wild Europe’s approach, also adopted by the European Wilderness Society. It is assessed along with consideration of the scale & location of areas which could be involved.

The task of reaching this target is regarded as achievable – a message which, alongside the good management practice that increasingly underwrites it in Germany and elsewhere, provides an important catalyst for other countries assessing a wilderness strategy.

EC Presidency Conference pointed the way to large scale restoration

Kurt Vandenberghe - Wilderness was included in the new EU Biodiversity Strategy
Kurt Vandenberghe – Wilderness was included in the new EU Biodiversity Strategy

10 years after it was held in Brussels, Wild Europe’s conference on restoration remains highly relevant.

An updated strategy of ecological restoration is currently being developed within Wild Europe network and further announcements will follow. Meanwhile it was useful to retain key elements from the 2010 conference.

Hailed as a timely success, the Conference initiated development of an effective strategy for restoring natural habitat and process to very large areas. A broad range of proposals was provided by participants.

Organized in Brussels on 16th and 17th November by Wild Europe, the Conference took place just a week after the Nagoya summit with its urgent call to halt the loss of global biodiversity.

With the current recession in mind, emphasis throughout was on the potential for such restoration to deliver cost:effective outcomes for the Natura 2000 network, both within the EU and relevant conservation initiatives in neighbouring states.

There is unprecedented opportunity for large scale restoration of wilderness and wild areas. The CBD’s 2010 Global Biodiversity Outlook published in mid 2010 defined potential for ‘rewilding’ 200,000 km2 of marginal and abandoned land across Europe. This is paralleled by a key objective announced at Nagoya which targets restoration of 15% of degraded lands by 2020.

The restoration strategy outlined by the Conference will now be developed through a wider inter-sector consultation exercise.

Key announcements for wilderness

Stefan Leiner - A Wilderness Register would be developed in 2011
Stefan Leiner – A Wilderness Register would be developed in 2011

A considerable boost was provided for this strategy towards the end of the conference by two announcements:

Kurt Vandenberghe, Head of Cabinet to Commissioner Potocnik, declared that, for the first time, wilderness was formally included in the EU Post 2010 Biodiversity Strategy.

This follows representations by Wild Europe and supporting organizations, and should have a significant positive influence on provision of policy and funding support.

Stefan Leiner, Head of Unit for Natura 2000, delivering the final presentation which summarised recommendations from the conference, confirmed that implementation of a Wilderness Register would proceed in 2011. Wild Europe had provided proposals for this.

This will be of relevance to newly restored as well as existing wilderness and wild areas.

There is an Agenda and a list of Presentations from the conference.

A background of great opportunity

Jo Mulongoy – global significant of wild area restoration in Europe
Jo Mulongoy – global significant of wild area restoration in Europe

Jo Mulongoy, Head of Science for the CBD in Montreal who opened the conference along with Ladislav Miko, Director of Natural Environment at the European Commission, hailed the opportunity for restoration of large wild areas with natural processes, habitats and wildlife in Europe as a contribution to global biodiversity objectives.

This had already been cited in the CBD’s 2010 Global Biodiversity Outlook. It was now further enshrined in the Nagoya Strategic Plan, not least in the target for restoring 15% of degraded land by 2020, as well as associated documents and COP 10 decisions.

Ladislav Miko spoke of the need to adopt an ecosystem approach based on natural processes in the EU Biodiversity Strategy, underlining a three pronged plan: protecting existing wilderness, restoring large wild areas, and reinstating natural processes on marginal farm and forestry land.

Ladislav Miko - the conference can contribute significantly to EU Biodiversity Strategy
Ladislav Miko – the conference can contribute significantly to EU Biodiversity Strategy

Natural process restoration and non intervention management were cost-effective. In addition to its intrinsic and spiritual worth as our natural heritage, and its importance for biodiversity, wilderness offered significant economic benefits from tourism and ecosystem services that was especially valuable in time of recession.

A comprehensive definition of wild area restoration was then provided by Vlado Vancura, conservation director for PANParks Foundation. This engaged a spectrum of opportunity from existing wild areas needing relatively minor transition management to become ‘wilderness’ – to the wholesale restoration of natural process and habitat on marginal farmland, for which there was extensive potential.

The Million Project, to protect a million hectares of wilderness across Europe, was a key parallel initiative recently launched by PANParks.

If they can do it….

This overview was followed by presentations highlighting success stories already achieved – even in the most unlikely parts of the EU’s original economic heartland.

Alan Bowley, Senior Reserves Manager for Natural England, explained how formerly fertile croplands in East Anglia were being converted into thriving examples of landscape scale ecosystems producing multiple benefits of carbon sequestration, flood mitigation and tourism revenue for local communities – as well as substantial biodiversity gains.

Christof Schenck from The Foundation for Natural Landscapes outlined a similar picture for purchase and restoration of former military training areas in Brandenburg, Germany – where a target for wilderness on 2% of national territory has been set by 2020.

The achievement of riverine floodplain re-establishment across central eastern Netherlands was highlighted by Johan Bekhuis, Ark Foundation; partnerships with local community and business, cultural and social interests and innovative fund raising were all important facets.

Three stories of restoration in the old EU heartland - former cropland in England, military land in Germany, and riverine floodplain in NetherlandsThree stories of restoration in the old EU heartland – former cropland in England, military land in Germany, and riverine floodplain in Netherlands

The agenda then widened to encompass actual and potential restoration opportunity across Europe.

Magnus Sylven, international consultant former director of WWF Europe & Middle East, provided an overview of how an ecosystem approach focused on natural processes and species reintroductions was an increasingly important aspect of conservation policy in a growing range of countries, illustrating this with examples that included forest, wetland, natural grazing and connectivity schemes.

From vision to practicality – 1 million hectares

Wilderness in the Eastern Carpathians, Frans Schepers WWF Netherlands
Wilderness in the Eastern Carpathians, Frans Schepers WWF Netherlands

The vision for future restoration potential was linked with current practicality by Frans Schepers, Programme Leader for the Rewilding Europe initiative (Wild Europe Field Programme), who announced establishment of five areas, each with a minimum of 100,000 hectares where community focused restoration initiatives based on wilderness principles are to be initiated throughout Europe.

Chosen from many candidate sites following an initial presentation at the Wild Europe conference in Prague in May 2009 these include: Western Iberia, Velebit (Croatia), Danube Delta (Romania), Southern Carpathians (Romania), and Eastern Carpathians in the borderlands of Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine; this latter area alone could extend to some 250,000 hectares.

The launch of Rewilding Europe, also in Brussels, took place immediately following the conference, on 18th November, moderated by Her Royal Highness Princess Laurentien van Oranje of the Netherlands.

The rationale for restoration

Harvey Locke, Vice President of Wild Foundation (US) provided a timely reminder that ‘wilderness’ or ‘will of the land’ originated as a European term. He pointed out that restoration of abandoned farmlands along with connectivity is well established practice in North America, achieving the benefits for conservation and ecosystem services already evident from existing schemes in Europe and providing capacity for mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Some of the key drivers underwriting the potential for wild area restoration were outlined in the following three sessions.

David Baldock, director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), assessed current and likely future scenarios for land abandonment, relating these to commodity price trends, reform of Common Agricultural Policy, global competitiveness and more localized economic and cultural phenomena.

Lech river: restored to its natural hydrological process – Anton Vorauer WWF Austria
Lech river: restored to its natural hydrological process – Anton Vorauer WWF Austria

These suggested an overall prospect equating to 3 or 4% of Europe’s land area, allowing comfortable spatial capacity for large scale restoration targets.

The ecosystem services benefits that can flow from such opportunity were sketched by two specialists: Hugh Fullerton Smith director of the European Nature Trust for carbon sequestration and Anton Vorauer from WWF’s Alpine Programme on flood mitigation using the example of the Lech river in Tyrol.

Both emphasized the economic gains from innovative funding – just one project for carbon offset identifying 4.5 million euro of direct funding potential.

Esa Härkönen, Senior Advisor for the Metsahällitus forestry agency (Finland) paralleled these benefits by demonstrating the impact of ecotourism and other non extractive activities associated with wild areas in providing sustainable development for local communities and the wider regional economy – often in remoter areas where the income and employment secured had considerable effect.

Wild by Design – new landscapes, natural ecosystems

Large herbivores such as this ‘auroch’ surrogate can help retain biodiversity-rich mixed habitat – Pierre Devilliers CMS
Large herbivores such as this ‘auroch’ surrogate can help retain biodiversity-rich mixed habitat – Pierre Devilliers CMS

For its next stage, the conference went on to assess requirements for effective restoration ecology within the overall Strategy. Paul Grigoriev, Programme Coordinator for IUCN’s European Office, chaired a session involving examination of four key elements of restoration ecology.

  • Process: Vania Proenca from Lisbon University underlined the impact of abandonment, assessing the benefits of natural process restoration for biodiversity and local economies. She addressed the need for self-sustaining ecosystems with resilience to climate change and fire risk – the latter particularly important in the Mediterranean region.
  • Management: while non intervention was appropriate for existing areas of wilderness, naturalistic management involving extensive grazing by natural herbivore substitutes such as auroch can play a key role in maintaining a species rich habitat mosaic in newly restored areas. Feiko Prins for the Large Herbivore Foundation also made it clear that natural process management could be cost-effective, although sensitive local communication was required on landscape changes and interactions between wildlife and livestock.
  • Connectivity: linkage of existing and newly restored wild areas is important to strengthen gene pools and enable migration and adaptation in the face of climate change. Giacomo Luciani from the UN Environmental Programme in Vienna explained the example of the Carpathian Convention in establishing corridors though seven countries, with links to the Austrian Alps through the AKK project.
  • Reintroductions of keystone species was championed by Pierre Devilliers Chair of the Scientific Council for the Convention on Migratory Species, as a vital element for ensuring a balanced, healthy ecosystem. There was a moral and cultural as well as ecological imperative to ensure ‘space for nature’, reinstating herbivore and carnivore species formerly present.

Reappearance of keystone species, essential for a balanced ecosystem – Pierre Devilliers CMS
Reappearance of keystone species, essential for a balanced ecosystem – Pierre Devillliers CMS

Day 2 – Developing the Strategy

A tale of two restorations

The Dutch Econet, international linkage of wild areas
The Dutch Econet, international linkage of wild areas

Day Two, Wednesday 17th November, began with two very different but highly significant examples, showing both the challenges and opportunities for a visionary Restoration Strategy.

Chris Kalden, Director General of Staatsbosbeheer, originally a timber producing agency now managing a large proportion of Dutch protected areas and promoting the benefits of nature conservation based on natural processes, began by outlining the National Ecological Network – targeting no less than 17% of national territory by 2018 and extending into Belgium and Germany.

This policy had been achieved by close inter sector cooperation backed by political will. One of its crown jewels, the Oostvaardersplassen, has become an internationally iconic neo-urban wild area with a envisaged expansion that aims to double its size to some 18,000 hectares at a cost of around 400 million euro, an ambitious project of the Province of Flevoland. To manage a wild area in an urban and commercial agricultural setting means that one has to deal sensitively with conflicting value orientations.

In stark contrast was the equally widely applicable model of wild forest restoration undertaken in the Bayerischer Wald (Bavaria, Germany) since its establishment as a national park in 1970.

The ‘Wild Heart of Europe’, Sumava-Bayerisch Wald spans the Czech Bavarian borderThe ‘Wild Heart of Europe’, Sumava-Bayerisch Wald spans the Czech Bavarian border

Hans Keiner, Deputy Director of the Park, demonstrated how natural process reinstatement and non intervention management – even following die back across large areas of forestry caused by windfall and bark beetle – can produce highly beneficial biodiversity outcomes that provide significant benefits for local communities and the wider economy, creating nearly 1000 jobs in the ‘Wild Heart of Europe’.

Since 1999 the area has been linked in a transboundary initiative with Sumava in the Czech Republic.

Building consensus between sectors

Wider replication of such examples can best be achieved through building a consensus on benefits among different sectors. The next session exemplified this, with three presentations from very different perspectives.

Forest restoration – natural processes can offer conservation, ecosystem and tourism income for landholders – Daniel Vallauri, WWF France
Forest restoration – natural processes can offer conservation, ecosystem and tourism income for landholders – Daniel Vallauri, WWF France

Representing the landholder and farmer viewpoint, Marie-Alice Budniok of the European Landowners Association, outlined a number of schemes being developed that demonstrated how private sector estates could gain from restoring natural habitat and processes, given appropriate incentive. There is great potential for closer linkage with conservation interests here.

The viewpoint of the forestry sector was explained by Daniel Vallauri of WWF France, focusing on opportunity for consensus to address the technical challenges of ‘wild area’ forest restoration.

Social benefits from wilderness help address urban social problems
Social benefits from wilderness help address urban social problems

Whilst clarifying the benefits of such restoration, he also stressed the need for the Strategy to identify effective procedure to resolve prospective conflicts from windfall, bark beetle and fire risk.

Jo Roberts, Director of the Wilderness Foundation UK, spoke of the opportunity for urban social programmes derived from wild area experience.

The next steps will be to identify and promote clear scientific evidence for development of large potential markets in youth development, youth at risk, healthcare and conflict resolution.

TEEB and the economic value of wild areas

Moving the conference on to the economic core of wild area restoration, Giacomo Luciani of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) Vienna Office introduced presentations on valuation, business and funding potential.

Pavan Sukhdev – rewilding landscapes across 200,000 km2 in Europe offers cost effective opportunity for biodiversity objectives
Pavan Sukhdev – rewilding landscapes across 200,000 km2 in Europe offers cost effective opportunity for biodiversity objectives

Pavan Sukhdev, the coordinator of the study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) and head of UNEP’s Green Economy initiative, stressed the crucial importance to a Strategy of a framework to quantify benefits, and costs, of restoration projects.

These must reinforce rather than supplant more traditional views of the intrinsic value of nature, but experience worldwide – as exemplified in Nagoya – has shown that ‘returns on investment’ are often high and thus important in gaining policy and funding support.

Emphasis on natural process efficiency is a strong card for wild areas, especially in time of recession with even fewer resources for conservation funding.

Business has a key role in helping deliver these benefits for local communities and landholders. But Neil Birnie, Chief Executive of Conservation Capital Ltd, stressed the need for wilderness conservation objectives to be explicitly stated from the outset.

A new approach was required, more rigorously driven by business practice, and initiatives he proposed to underpin this included a private sector Investment Fund for new low impact ventures, a European Ecotourism Network with focus on wild areas, and development of the Business for Wilderness Forum initiated at the Prague conference in 2009.

Marianne Kettenun from IEEP rounded off this economic focus by considering a range of funding options: better use of existing sources along with effective development of innovative grant, fiscal and private sector capital instruments as well as new markets for services. Multiple benefits of wilderness enabled address of a correspondingly broad set of EC related opportunities – including EU Structural Funds and Social Funds, alongside a reformed CAP and further LIFE schemes. Diversity was the key.

These key drivers were then linked by Alberto Arroyo, Natura 2000 policy coordinator for WWF, to an assessment of the EC policy framework. This affirmed the importance of restoration, explicitly cited in the headline target for the post 2010 Biodiversity Strategy. Protection in Natura 2000 areas would shortly be underwritten by guidelines for non intervention management, with emphasis on better implementation of existing legislation.

In the current difficult economic circumstances, wilderness offered a cost:effective approach through operation of natural process. The underlining focus, in EU and neighbouring states, should be on proving and promoting the values of wilderness and wild area benefits.

What do we need to know, and how do we project the knowledge?

Attention turned to what further knowledge was needed to advance the restoration strategy.

Steve Carver, Director of the recently formed Wildland Research Institute in Leeds University, outlined a research agenda which included practical definitions, mapping and guidelines to inform restoration management, together with a scientific underpin for benefits and development of innovative funding mechanisms.

Today’s children in the wild are tomorrow’s committed environmentalists and voters
Today’s children in the wild are tomorrow’s committed environmentalists and voters

Helen McDade, Policy Director for John Muir Trust, then stressed the importance of including wild areas in the education curriculum – both to reinforce appreciation of the value of conservation, and unlock the great potential for social wellbeing from experiential learning. Of the 100,000 people completing the JMT Award for environmental projects, nearly a quarter are from socially excluded groups.

Amid ever lessening contact with nature, direct experience was the most powerful means of building future support for its protection, among children but also politicians and other decision takers.

Wilderness in the Post 2010 Biodiversity Strategy

Kurt Vandenberghe, Head of Cabinet to Commissioner Potocnik in the European Commission, delivered the keynote presentation – declaring that, for the first time, wilderness was formally included in the EU Post 2010 Biodiversity Strategy.

This follows representations by Wild Europe and supporting organizations, and should have a significant positive influence on provision of policy and funding support.

Referring to the successes (such as ABS) as well as the challenges arising from the Nagoya conference, he cited grounds for optimism through adoption of a green agenda. So far a wilderness was concerned, the restoration agenda fitted well with growing recognition of the value of wild areas and their delivery of ecosystem and other services – as well as the need for focusing on productivity in use of existing resources for conservation outcomes.

The Restoration Strategy should in particular seek to interface with the EU Biodiversity Strategy, CAP reform opportunities, Cohesion Funding and the Green Paper on Forestry Strategy

Communication – the power of imagery

A ‘hearts and minds theme’ was central to Staffan Widstrand’s presentation on communication.

Communicating wilderness to hearts and minds – Staffan Widstrand, Wild Wonders of Europe
Communicating wilderness to hearts and minds – Staffan Widstrand, Wild Wonders of Europe

As founder-director of the Wild Wonders of Europe photographic initiative, he sketched the need for a communication strategy for restoration to have a two pronged approach – for the ‘heart’ of the general public and how to capture it with imagery, emotion, mass communication – and the ‘mind’: ie decision takers in government, the institutions, conservation, business and other sectors.

The power of such imagery was a background theme to the conference.

After the formal close of Day 1, on 16th November, there was a social reception featuring two films – both outstanding examples of creative communication. First, the internationally acclaimed entrée for global Year of Biodiversity made by Wild Wonders of Europe, depicting … the wonders of wild Europe, with emphasis on opportunity for restoration.

Then came Keeper of the Wilderness – a visually stunning story of how Ticha Valley, a formerly burned forest and degraded pastureland in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, has over the last 50 years become a haven for rich biodiversity, symbolized by healthy populations of brown bear, red deer and wolf.

Gyula Heguy coordinator of the massively supported Resolution for wilderness and its restoration from the EU Parliament
Gyula Heguy coordinator of the massively supported Resolution for wilderness and its restoration from the EU Parliament

Gyula Hegyi, who as MEP coordinated the EU Parliamentary on improved protection and funding for wilderness in 2009 by a massive 538 votes to only 19, was well placed to speak on the importance of communicating the right messages to the right ears.

He defined a number of key decision taking points where representation of the value for wilderness and the need for its restoration could have most impact.

Inputting amendments to proposed legislation via a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) was one way in which individuals could get involved. On a broader basis, it was important to take decision takers and journalists into wilderness areas – they understood the moral, conservation and economic arguments once these were explained, but the impact of direct experience was especially enlightening.

There is also potential to develop closer links between the Environment, Climate and Employment and Social Affairs DG among others.

Building the restoration strategy

Central to the proceedings were two sets of workshop sessions where participants contributed their individual expertise.

On Day 1, alternative visions for restoration over 25, 50 and 100 years were laid out – an important exercise given what is by definition a long term concept, but anchored firmly in economic, business, policy and social as well as ecological and biodiversity principles.

This base of practical vision was built on during Day 2 by a further set of participant workshops – covering assessment of the need for new policies and incentives, biodiversity benefits of wilderness, the role of corporates in funding and the sustainability agenda, building a standard ‘toolkit’ for restoration, and development of a communications strategy.

The Wilderness Register – a significant step forward for wild area protection in Europe – Daniel Vallauri WWF France
The Wilderness Register – a significant step forward for wild area protection in Europe – Daniel Vallauri WWF France

Stefan Leiner, Head of Unit for Natura 2000, delivering the final presentation provided a thorough summary of recommendations from the conference.

He highlighted five elements in particular: measures to support a more rigorous business based approach for developing local community capacity to gain from ecotourism and other non extractive activities, the importance of building cross-sectoral consensus behind a restoration strategy, planning restoration projects within a clear cost-benefit framework, and focusing on improved delivery from existing resource as well as seeking new funding.

He also confirmed that implementation of the Wilderness Register produced by Wild Europe will proceed in 2011. This will be of relevance to newly restored as well as existing wilderness and wild areas.

Next Steps

Hailed as a significant success, the EC Presidency conference on restoration has produced many new initiatives.

The conference deliberately avoided framing any rounded conclusions on a restoration strategy. This needs to be based on more comprehensive consultation over the next few months – involving landholding, forestry, farming, business, regional development and urban social as well as conservation interests across Europe.

However a large number of valuable recommendations will be carried forward. These included:

  • promoting the modification and strengthening of existing restoration policies and incentives, with proposal for some new measures – albeit within existing legal frameworks
  • a ‘toolkit’ for practical restoration procedure – planning, management and ancillary aspects (funding, coordination, communication, administration)
  • promoting individual opportunities and initiatives for benefit-based restoration: enlarging and strengthening existing areas, creating new areas, implementing effective linkage
  • further development of practical definitions and mapping in support of this, together with promotion of a general research agenda
  • sharing best practice on identification, valuation and usage of wilderness benefits
  • identifying improved mechanisms for gaining from these benefits, particularly ecosystem and social services
  • development of supportive instruments for local community and landholder enterprise
  • fund raising – improved usage of existing resource, facilitating access to new sources, development of innovative instruments
  • promotion of education and urban related social projects
  • building joint approaches based on common ground with landholding, forestry, farming, business, social and other interests
  • a ‘hearts and minds’ communication strategy, including representation of the value of wilderness to key decision takers – via local, national and regional government and institutions
  • emphasis on sustainable, long term protection of restored areas

From Ireland to the Urals – Europe wide opportunity for large scale restoration
From Ireland to the Urals – Europe wide opportunity for large scale restoration

Coupling ambitious vision with hardheaded economic and political reality offers unprecedented potential to bring substantial benefits to conservation across Europe – from the West coast of Ireland to the Ural Mountains in the East.

Value to global biodiversity

As the CBD and the targets resulting from the Nagoya conerence make clear, the value of such strategy to global biodiversity objectives can also be significant.

If we in Europe are restoring natural processes, habitats and wildlife in our crowded and developed continent – and doing so moreover for economic and social as well as conservation motives – we stand a greater chance of persuading those countries with much larger remaining areas of relatively pristine ecosystem to protect their own natural heritage.

See also:
Conference Agenda

First bison for 400 years roam freely in Germany

For the first time in 400 years, free roaming bison have been reintroduced to Germany.For the first time in 400 years, free roaming bison have been reintroduced to Germany.

A small group of bison has been released, in April 2013, into a 10,000 hectare forest in the Rothaar Mountains of North Rhine Westphalia.

One of the cows has since given birth to a male calf, and it is hoped the herd will grow to around 25 animals.

This release follows a long period of behavioural study, and assessment of the role of bison in the ecosystem as well as their impact on the forest itself. As a large herbivore they fill an important niche and help maintain a mosaic of different habitats – forest intermingled with shrub and grassland – that can support a more varied biodiversity.

Plans were recently proposed by the Rewilding Europe programme to reintroduce bison into the Southern Carpathians.

Rewilding Europe

The Rewilding Europe programme, previously titled the Wild Europe Field Programme, involves restoration of at least a million hectares across Europe.

Ten areas, representing a range of habitat biomes, are to be targeted as model sites. Each will be a minimum of 100,000 hectares although in some cases there may be potential for further expansion and linkage with existing protected land into a network of wild areas.

The initiative was started at the Wild Europe conference in Prague in 2009, where participants were invited to submit potential areas together with nomination of prospective local partners for coordinating their restoration and protection.

As explained in the brief for Wild Europe Field Programme (see brochure depicted above), this is based on wilderness principles, with absence of human infrastructure and no extractive activities in large core areas.

Opportunity for the Programme is derived from the large scale abandonment of former farmland that has occurred across some 40 million hectares in Europe, which provides unprecedented potential for restoration of substantial stretches of wilderness linked to existing protected areas.

Extensive managed grazing will be used to retain a balanced mosaic of open savannah and wooded savannah and forest and seek to maximise richness of biodiversity.

Emphasis will be placed on using nature tourism and other low impact activities to provide income and employment for local communities and landholders. Wherever possible, such benefits will be supplemented by facilitation of payments for ecosystem services and other sources of funding.

New areas announced

Based on applications from all over Europe, five areas have now been selected as the first model projects to show how the vision can be put into practice.

  • Western Iberia (Spain/Portugal)
  • Velebit (Croatia)
  • Danube Delta (Romania)
  • Southern Carpathians (Romania)
  • Eastern Carpathians (border between Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine).

Launch of the Wild Europe field programme

Representatives from the five new areas participate at the launchRepresentatives from the five new areas participate at the launch

On the 18th November 2010 the Wild Europe Field Programme – renamed ‘Rewilding Europe’ – was launched in Brussels by Princess Laurentien van Oranje.

The launch was attended by partner organizations from the first five field projects areas together with representatives from the European Commission, funding institutions and many NGO’s.

Rewilding Europe has since secured a substantial amount of funding and preparatory work has begun in the five areas.

For further information visit:


Reforming CAP – a conservation and landholder coalition

Wild Europe has participated in a number of meetings to discuss Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) reform, and its proposals have been detailed in successive representations. There is great potential to develop a proactive strategy for reform of the CAP, particularly based on the concept of ‘public payments for public goods’.

The Great Fen, restoring wetland in the East Anglia region of England (Photo credit: Thomas & Keith Sisman)The Great Fen, restoring wetland in the East Anglia region of England (Photo credit: Thomas & Keith Sisman)

Currently still taking around 40% of the EU budget in support of less than 4% of Gross Domestic Product, the scale of this budget is politically unsustainable and likely to undergo significant reduction over the next few years.

Opportunity to build a common strategy

By building a coalition of conservation, landholder, farmer, business and community interests, it should be feasible to use CAP subsidies for restoring large areas of wilderness and wild land of natural habitat and process from marginal agricultural and forestry land with low economic viability.

Linked through utilization of economic, social and environmental benefits from such areas to the rural development and urban needs agendas, this CAP reform initiative could enable reallocation of EU CAP support in a manner that would benefit local communities and landholders as well as wild area objectives.

There are three key facets of this process, which must be both realistic and fair to existing landholders:

1,  proactive planning of restoration rather than simply using abandonment – involving for example extensive naturalistic grazing in some areas to ensure a mosaic of habitats, and attention to the role of wild food plants, with a view to maximising biodiversity enrichment whilst focusing on naturalness of habitat and process.

2.  multiple income sourcing to provide a practical alternative to unsustainable subsidy of marginal farming (in particular livestock) – by redirection of CAP payments into restoration activity, and paralleling this income with proactive capacity building to ensure maximum value added for farmers, landholders and local communities from nature tourism, ecosystem services, land banking and other innovative funding mechanisms.

3.  a cost:benefit valuation approach that delivers in the context of rural development and urban needs agendas, as well as providing a far-reaching agenda for large scale and sustainable wilderness and wild area creation.

A colourful earner currently. But without subsidy - is there any profit in keeping the hills bare?
A colourful earner currently. But without subsidy – is there any profit in keeping the hills bare?

By enabling enlargement of existing wild natural areas, creation of large new ones and facilitating the connectivity between them, this approach could substantially strengthen both the N2000 network and the green infrastructure programme within which it sits.

It also offers a direct and practical response to the CBD’s 3rd Global Biodiversity Outlook report which cited the prospective benefits to global conservation of such restoration across 200,000 km2 of abandoned land across Europe.

The alternative scenario may see such subsidy being lost to both farming and conservation under current options for CAP budget reduction, so there is active opportunity to adopt a common approach.

The next step will involve liaison with other sectors with a view to carrying forward these objectives.

Representation on CAP Reform

Wild Europe also made representation to the 2012 EU reform process.

The public debate consultation was based around four key questions posed by the European Commission:

  • Q1    Why do we need a European common agricultural policy?
  • Q2    What do citizens expect from agriculture?
  • Q3    Why reform the CAP?
  • Q4     What tools do we need for the CAP of tomorrow?

CBD Outlook Report highlighted opportunity for large scale restoration across Europe

Wild area restoration in Europe - of global significanceWild area restoration in Europe – of global significance

Potential for restoration in Europe received significant confirmation from the CBD in its 3rd Global Biodiversity Outlook report (2010).

Published in advance of the Nagoya Conference to address the world’s declining biodiversity, the Report cited a huge potential for ecological restoration on abandoned farmland to support global biodiversity strategy.

“…There are opportunities for rewilding landscapes from farmland abandonment in some regions – in Europe, for example, about 200,000 square kilometers of land are expected to be freed up by 2050. Ecological restoration and reintroduction of large herbivores and carnivores will be important in creating self-sustaining ecosystems with minimal need for further human intervention.” CBD 3rd GBO, 2010, page 75

The role of undisturbed old growth forest in particular is emphasized in the Report, not only through storing significantly greater quantities of carbon than its managed counterpart, but via the process of ‘carbon fertilization’ which could augment this capacity further. Similar arguments apply to undisturbed wetland and peat areas.

Against a backdrop of failure to meet most of the 2010 Biodiversity Targets, the Report remains an important indicator for the 2020 UN decade on ecosystem restoration.

For further detail on the CBD Global Biodiversity Outlook Report, see:

Update from 2018 JRC Report

A 2018 report by the Joint Research Council cited an annual increment of some 280,000 hectares being added annually to abandoned land, which it forecast would total around 5.6 million hectares, some 3% of agricultural land, by 3020. A further 15 – 20 million hectares are “at high potential risk” of abandonment – ie have promising potential.

Spain (particularly North/Northwest) and Poland (particularly around the Chelmsko-zamojski region) are cited as contributing almost a third of this. Much of the remainder is focused in Southern and Eastern Romania, Southwestern France, Southern and Central Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Latvia and Estonia.There is thus considerable opportunity for restoring large networks of natural ecosystem areas in the Restoration Strategy forthcoming from the 2030 EU Biodiversity Strategy published in May 2020.

JRC report available here.

The potential for restoration

There is now unprecedented opportunity for restoration of natural habitats and processes across Europe. This could create a series of very large wild areas, linked by habitat corridors into a functioning ecosystem

Abandonment of grazing uplands, Picos de Europa, SpainAbandonment of grazing uplands, Picos de Europa, Spain

Natural regeneration is already occurring, especially in remoter regions, with partial or total abandonment of some 40 million hectares of former grazing land leading to reappearance of shrubs and trees. There are also a growing number of restoration initiatives planned through managed intervention.

This opportunity is underwritten by two main factors.

On the one hand, more marginal areas of farmland and forestry are becoming increasingly uneconomic. Despite recent increases in commodity prices and rising global population, this trend is likely to be sustained by changes in agricultural practice together with reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and pressure for free trade through the World Trade Organization.

At the same time there is growing appreciation of the wide range of economic and social as well as environmental benefits offered by such areas. (see Benefits section)

This in turn offers considerable scope for restoration initiatives that combine wilderness and biodiversity objectives with utilisation of these benefits for local farmers, landholders and communities.

Promoting new wild landscapes

Red deer along with other ungulates can help maintain a diverse mosaic of wood and grasslandRed deer along with other ungulates can help maintain a diverse mosaic of wood and grassland

In addition to occurring naturally, restoration can also be encouraged through managed interventions, particularly in areas which have been substantially modified with substantial or complete removal of original vegetation.

These interventions may include managed planting from external seed sources, breaking up ground compacted by heavy grazing and reinstatement of natural processes – such as re-establishment of fluvial meanders or removal of artificial drainage.

At the same time, there is a need to recognise the importance of herbivores in the maintenance of diverse vegetation structures. By creating more habitats, for example glades in forest and mosaics of woodland and grassland, this that can reconcile the need to maximize biodiversity (as measured in number of species) whilst promoting principles of wildness as opposed to management through direct human intervention. In core areas of wilderness and wild land, where non intervention management is practised, this role is undertaken by deer, bison and beaver.

Elsewhere, there is a growing trend to use ‘naturalistic’ management involving extensive grazing by livestock, some species of which are represented as substituting for their natural ancestors – eg Heck cattle for the extinct forest dwelling auroch and Konik ponies for the ancient tarpan.

Vision for a bright futureVision for a bright future

A vision for the future

There is a historic potential for putting into practice this vision for landscape scale restoration of large natural habitat areas.

Success in developing the vision will require a coordinated consensus of interested parties reaching beyond conservation to encompass government, landholding, forestry, farming, business, local community and urban social interests among many others.

If this can be achieved, the vision has every chance of being realized.



In addition to reinstatement of natural habitat and process, restoration can involve reintroduction of species previously occurring in a particular area.

Some reintroductions occur naturally, such as the return of the osprey to England or the spread of wolf into South Eastern France from the Italian Alps.

Bringing biodiversity and tourism benefits
Bringing biodiversity and tourism benefits

Many reintroductions involve forward planning, including beaver now reintroduced to 26 countries across Europe, or European bison to the Rothaargebirge region in North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

Such reintroductions are provided for in Article 22 of the EU Habitats Directive and can bring significant enrichment to local biodiversity. To many, they also mark the fulfillment of a responsibility by man to reinstate a species he has extirpated.

Such reintroductions can also be controversial and require careful handling with full prior consultation, particularly among local communities and landholders where releases are to occur.

However, they can also help restore more balanced natural processes and enable enrichment of biodiversity as well as bringing economic benefits. Beaver create a wider variety of wetland habitats that support yet further species including mammals, birds, amphibians. Fish and invertebrates.

Similarly, by maintaining a mosaic of forest and grassland, European bison can help support a wider range of fauna and flora than would occur if a monoculture of climax arboreal vegetation were to occur.

There is increasingly widespread use of ‘surrogate’ species in place of their wild counterparts for naturalistic management of vegetation – including Heck cattle as a substitute for the extinct auroch and Konik horses for Tarpan, although there is some question over how far such comparisons reflect genetic reality.

Economic benefits from reintroduction

The wolf has brought prosperity to local communities in Abruzzi
The wolf has brought prosperity to local communities in Abruzzi

Reappearance of species formerly present can provide a major tourist attraction, of significance to the local and even regional economy.

In Scotland, wildlife tourism brings some £65 million annual revenue together with employment for nearly 2,800 – often in relatively poor rural areas. Reintroduction of Sea Eagle, the fourth largest in the world, to the Isle of Mull now produces significantly more income to local communities than farming.

In Abruzzo National Park, only 130 kilometers from Rome, local farming communities now gain better livelihoods from tourism based on the return of the wolf to restored areas of natural habitat than were previously earned from livestock herding.

Located in the Central Apennines the National Park covers 44,000 hectares of mountain forest and grassland and enjoys the Marsican brown bear as its symbol.

Reintroductions can bring similar economic benefits for local landholders and communities across central and eastern Europe as well. This can have a particularly stong impact in remoter areas, where traditional agricultural and forestry practice is less viable. However, alongside reintroduction programmes, there is often a need to focus on capacity building – eg provision of adequate local accommodation, guidance and general services if local communities are to gain maximum benefit from nature tourism.

Provider of valuable engineering services for wetland habitat
Provider of valuable engineering services for wetland habitat

Beaver are particularly prized for their economic benefit. Negative impacts from the 26 countries where reintroduction has occurred over the last 80 years have been almost without exception very limited and localised.

Positive benefits on the other hand have included flood mitigation, alleviation of pollution – together with revenue and employment from nature tourism. Because beaver consume a low calorie diet they forage for up to 18 hours a day, thus making ideal subjects for wildlife watchers.

‘Re-wilding’ – a wind of change gathers strength in Western Europe

Whilst wilderness is mainly associated with Northern and Eastern Europe, where the prime objective is protection of remaining great areas of natural ecology, this is increasingly complemented by re-wilding of habitats and reintroduction of species in Western Europe.

A growing number of countries are now adopting national strategies for restoration of large-scale natural ecosystems, amid increased awareness of their benefit to conservation objectives and society in general.

Kalkalpen National Park in Austria – a wilderness core (Credit: "Hintergebirge 01" by Herbert Ortner, Überraschungsbilder - Self-published work by Herbert Ortner, transferred by Überraschungsbilder. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)Kalkalpen National Park in Austria – a wilderness core (Credit: “Hintergebirge 01” by Herbert Ortner, Überraschungsbilder – Self-published work by Herbert Ortner, transferred by Überraschungsbilder. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Austria has led the fray. In December 2014 it set a 2% target in its 2020+ National Biodiversity Strategy for wilderness and areas with wilderness characteristics. This also called for the extension of wilderness areas in National Parks.

The Wild Europe definition forms the basis for wilderness in the Austrian strategy for National Parks, two of which will have core areas designated to Wild Europe criteria in 2015/16.

Furthermore development of a management strategy for bark beetle based on an all-important consensus between conservation and forestry interests, provides important support – of relevance across Europe.

France is also moving ahead. A specialist group has been formed within IUCN (from 2012) to assess potential for a wilderness strategy. Also based around the Wild Europe definition, this brings together a range of experts. Wild Europe is a member of the group and has provided input to meetings in Paris, a conference in Chambercy and via media such as the Naturalité publication. Prospective opportunities are currently being identified through preliminary mapping.

More recently, but gaining momentum rapidly, Rewilding Britain was established in December 2014 from a coalition of NGOs, with Wild Europe as a trustee. Scotland has greatest geographic potential, with Wild Europe (as Wild Scotland) originally developing a joint study on the benefits of wild areas in 2005.

In Wales Wild Europe is also partnering a project to reintroduce beaver , a keystone species for rewilding, into one of only six countries in Europe where this has yet to occur.

There is even substantial scope for rewilding in England, with initiatives such as Wild Ennerdale in the Lake District and the Great Fen in East Anglia. A strategy for Northern Ireland is pending once the main Rewilding Britain group has become established.

Germany has set a 2% national target, for wilderness and wild areas with wilderness qualities, through its Federal government. This represents some 5% of forest areas and 10% of those in state ownership.

Restoration of former military training areas, BrandenburgRestoration of former military training areas, Brandenburg

In April 2015 Frankfurt Zoological Society co-facilitated a meeting with Wild Europe to discuss opportunity for underpinning this through adoption of a standardized approach and common definition.

A growing number of individual projects

These emerging national strategies are supplemented by a growing number of individual projects, their implementation backed by Guidelines on wilderness management issued by the European Commission in 2013 and based on the Wild Europe’s definition.

The Netherlands contains perhaps the best known longstanding restoration initiative in the pioneering Oostvaardersplassen area, managed by Statsbosbeheer, the state forest agency.

This stunning example of wild nature on land originally reclaimed for industrial development that hosts white-tailed sea eagle, spoonbill and free roaming herds of feral ungulates, is only 30 km from Amsterdam city centre. It is hoped that plans to double the area, extending it Eastwards in partnership with the Province of Flevoland for the mutual benefit of urban dwellers and wild nature, will be revived. This forms part of a Green Network that is eventually envisaged to cover 17% of the country, although progress is currently stalled.

Equally well-established are ventures such as wolf-focused tourism in Abruzzi National Park, Italy, proving how economic benefits from rewilding can offer better livelihoods for communities than traditional land use, in this case sheep farming.

Abruzzo National Park - transforming economic as well as physical landscapes (Credit: "PNAbruzzo2" by Lucius - Transferred from it:wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)Abruzzo National Park – transforming economic as well as physical landscapes (Credit: “PNAbruzzo2” by Lucius – Transferred from it:wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Highly significant though less well known, in the Irish Republic there is ongoing progress with restoration of natural processes and species in the Nephin Mountains, County Mayo, where former commercial forestry plantations have been linked with adjoining bog and grassland in Ballcroy National Park. This visionary venture so far involving some 12,000 hectares was conceived and developed by Coillte, the Irish state forest agency, in tandem with Ballycroy, in 2012 and promoted internationally at a conference co-chaired by Wild Europe in 2013. It is partnered by the local authority and regional development organizations, and will see uneconomic timber extraction replaced by wilderness tourism.

There is important potential here for application across Europe, particularly relevant to loss-making areas owned by state forest agencies. At a time of slow economic recovery, the venture offers triple benefits: savings to taxpayers, sounder livelihoods for local communities – and enriched biodiversity through restoration of natural processes and reintroduction of lost species to large areas of ‘rewilded’ former commercial forest.

Wild Europe is developing an international State Agency Forest programme, based around this opportunity, which will be profiled in 2016.

Of course, restoration projects are by no means merely confined to countries in Western Europe. In Romania, Fundatia Conservation Carpathia (FCC) where Wild Europe participates through a trustee, is undertaking extensive restoration of degraded former forest and riparian habitat.

Repairing the damage: large-scale felling erodes hillsides and silts up streams in the Carpathians of Romania (Photo credit: FCC)Repairing the damage: large-scale felling erodes hillsides and silts up streams in the Carpathians of Romania (Photo credit: FCC)

There is also a collective endeavour by the Rewilding Europe organization to reintroduce species and establish a network of wilderness-based enterprises as a means of securing income and employment opportunities from non-extractive activity, thus cementing support among local communities and landholders for protection and restoration of wilderness areas.

Right across Europe there are opportunities for enterprise-based rewilding, with abandoned and marginal farmland and forestry offering particular opportunity.

From West to East and back, a powerful message

At a time when benefits of wilderness in addressing climate change, providing sustainable income and employment for local communities is increasingly realized, there is of course a strong message here.

If Western countries are striving to restore large natural ecosystems, for economic and social as well as conservation gain, that should send powerful signals Eastwards to governments and institutions where preservation of much larger, richer areas of wild nature can be undertaken at much lower cost with very significant gains for conservation and society in general.

Beaver reintroduction confirmed in Scotland

The beaver (Castor fiber) has been formally recognized by Scottish Government as a native species.

This means that the trial project in Knapdale, on the West coast of Scotland, has become a permanent settlement, which can be expanded. The much larger, but ‘informal’ population of some 150 escapees that have been breeding wild on the River Tay in the East can remain.

24 hours a day of free ecosystem engineering Attribution: Harald Olsen24 hours a day of free ecosystem engineering Attribution: Harald Olsen

This also paves the way for further reintroductions, from which the beaver will eventually spread across Scotland – albeit with careful management under the watchful eye of landowners and farmers.

The announcement should also give impetus to reintroduction in Wales, where it is 11 years since Wild Europe launched the Welsh Beaver Forum at a conference in Newtown (July 2005), and commissioned WildCRU Consultancy of Oxford University to produce the Beavers Mean Business study of their economic impact.

This lead to formation of the Welsh Beaver Assessment Initiative to assess and promote feasibility of reintroduction (see WBAI Report). Approval to proceed has since been given by two ministers, although this has yet to be translated into action.

England, where there have been impromptu releases of a few individuals in the West Country, should not be far behind. Even after Brexit, beavers have little respect for national frontiers…

This icon of natural ecosystem restoration, or ‘rewilding’, has now been reintroduced to some 28 countries across Europe. In addition to enriching wetland biodiversity, its role in mitigation of flooding and stablisation of water tables is becoming well proven, and it offers significant scope for nature tourism.

Full steam ahead for Rewilding Britain

The Great Fen, East Anglia - not all re-wilding occurs in marginal uplandsThe Great Fen, East Anglia – not all re-wilding occurs in marginal uplands

This initiative was established in 2014 from a broad-based coalition of NGOs, with Wild Europe as a trustee.

It aims to catalyse the return of large areas of fully functioning ecosystems together with their wildlife to one of Europe’s most crowded and highly developed countries – highlighting the benefits of such areas to the general public, media and decision takers in government.

By 2030, within 15 years, Rewilding Britain has set itself the target of establishing 300,000 hectares of core land, connected wherever possible, together with three marine reserves.

The three partner countries

Remnant of the Great Forest of Caledon – Glen Affric. Copyright: Alan Watson/Forest Light.jpgRemnant of the Great Forest of Caledon – Glen Affric. Copyright: Alan Watson/Forest Light.jpg

Scotland of course has the greatest geographic potential, particularly in the Highlands and Islands – with the Cairngorms and Flow Country regions beckoning as particularly extensive opportunities. As does the Borders Country with its visionary restoration projects in and around the Carrifran Valley. Wild Europe (as Wild Scotland) set up a joint study on the social and economic benefits of wild areas in 2005, subsequently developed through Scottish Natural Heritage which is now planning an upgraded edition.

Poised for reintroduction. Photo credit: "Beaver pho34" by Per Harald Olsen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsPoised for reintroduction. Photo credit: “Beaver pho34” by Per Harald Olsen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In Wales there is also extensive potential for rewilding: in the southern Brecon Beacons, the mid-country Elan and Plynlimon Valleys, and northwards into Snowdonia.

Wild Europe is partnering a project it initiated (as Wild Wales) back in 2005 to reintroduce beaver, a keystone species for rewilding. This has already occurred in 27 countries across Europe and after much delay it is hoped there will finally be a go-ahead once the Scottish Executive takes its own decision whether to give permanence to a trial reintroduction at Knapdale. There is even substantial scope for rewilding in England, with initiatives such as Wild Ennerdale in the Lake District and the Great Fen in East Anglia already well established.

A strategy for Northern Ireland is pending once the main group has become established.

Throwing down the gauntlet … to mainland Europe

Although only recently established, Rewilding Britain’s advent has been widely welcomed by the conservation community.

It represents a considerable leap forward for the rewilding agenda, building on awareness raised by such organizations as the Wildland Network, and the consultation and planning exercise undertaken by the Wild Britain initiative back in 2004 – 06.

Substantial funding has already been raised for recruitment of a full time director and an executive team.

Perhaps most significant of all, there is potential to establish three areas – one in Scotland, Wales and England – conforming in scale to the Wild Europe definition of wilderness.

That would be a true pointer for all other countries!

Wild Europe joins new rewilding group in France

Rewilding through natural regeneration is widespread in the Pyrenees and many other areas of FranceRewilding through natural regeneration is widespread in the Pyrenees and many other areas of France

In 2012 a specialist Wilderness Group was established, within the IUCN National Committee based in Paris, to assess potential for a wilderness strategy.

This brought together a widely acknowledged range of experts from NGOs with participation by the L’Office Nacional des Forêts (ONF), the state forestry agency.

Wild Europe was invited to participate in the IUCN France Group, and since regularly provided input to meetings in Paris. We have also promoted the benefits of wilderness more generally in a European context, though a conference in Chambery (2013) and via media such as the Naturalité publication.

World class potential

With its extensive near-natural areas, relatively low rural population density, world class conservation management and well developed eco-tourism market, France has great potential for developing its strategy.

This can involved a range of habitats including forest, but also wetland, litoral, grassland and Alpine.

A strategy outline has been proposed and prospective opportunities are currently being identified through preliminary mapping.

Holland goes Wild – a message for developed landscapes

Konik horses running free in Oostvaardersplassen – Photo Hans KampfKonik horses running free in Oostvaardersplassen – Photo Hans Kampf

In the heart of Europe’s most heavily developed country, scarcely 30 kms from the centre of Amsterdam, lies a miracle of wildness.

Literally meaning “wetlands to the East” the 5,000 hectare Oostvaardersplassen was reclaimed at great expense from the sea back in 1968. Because of its central location the site was originally designated for industry. But its importance for wildlife, and particularly waterfowl migration, rapidly became evident. It was saved from development and has now been declared a Special Protected Area (SPA) for birds and a Ramsar Site1.

A Vision for the Wild

The potential to create a radical new experiment in wild area management was realised by a small group of committed ecologists led by Frans Vera from the Dutch Forestry Service and Fred Baerselman of the Agricultural Ministry together with Hans Kampf. Comprising 3500 hectares of wetland and 2000 of higher dry polder in a mosaic of reed beds, grassland and small woodlands, the area is now roamed by large numbers of free-ranging herbivores. It is overseen by Staatsbosbeheer, the Dutch Forest Agency – whose role has been remodeled from timber producer to guardian of natural reserves.

There is a magnificent herd of some 3000 red deer, complemented by large groupings of the stocky Konik horse – a primitive descendent of Europe’s original equine species – alongside long horned Heck cattle, relative of the extinct Auroch or forest ox, and named after the controversial German brothers who conducted a series of eugenic breeding trials in the 1930s.

The wild savannah ... of HollandThe wild savannah … of Holland

The landscape itself bears an eerie resemblance to truly wild savannah in Africa with its drifting herds and profusion of bird life – spoonbill, black stork, egret, bittern, bluethroat, marsh harrier and even sea eagle mingle with vast flocks of duck and goose.

This is precisely the effect its promoters are aiming at: seeing how natural processes unmodified by human intervention will impact on habitat types. In particular, Frans Vera has sought to test his theory that pre-historic, that is pre-hominid, Europe was originally covered not with close canopy forest but a park-like landscape of woodland pasture – similar to its geographic counterpart South of the Sahara where vast herds of ruminants have kept the interaction of forest and open plains in constant flux.

A challenge to peri-urban and developed landscapes everywhere

Beyond the theories underlying its changing patterns, Oostvaardersplassen is a stunning example of how government can be persuaded to lay aside short-term economic interests in a bold initiative that has put Holland, a country of 16 million crammed into only 4.2 million hectares, at the forefront of large-scale wild area creation. In so doing it has created a national treasure of great international significance.

Expansion corridorExpansion corridor

In Britain, France or other Western nations, sheer cost, competition from other land uses, animal welfare and legal considerations could create obstacles to similar initiatives.

It is also questionable whether unregulated increase in herbivore numbers in the absence of key predators or intervention management can produce a sustainable ecosystem in Oostvaardersplassen. And there are many who prefer native browsing and grazing species such as bison and deer to Heck or Konik livestock, creating a more varied and less open landscape.

However, there is no denying that the area has shown what rewilding vision can achieve in proximity to great cities – given the will and ability to match the needs of contemporary urban society.

This was most graphically demonstrated in 2005 when a harsh winter led to massive die off of herbivores and concern about animal welfare in the Dutch Parliament.

The solution? Typically Dutch, typically creative and proactive: a proposed expansion to the South East of Oostvaardersplassen’s area, doubling the wild area. This involved a partnership with the Province of Flevoland with its growing population that planned to complement the demands of urban life on its citizens with a mix of wild area experience and recreational activities. This initiative has faced challenges, and the 200 million euro programme to purchase high-grade agricultural land is currently on hold. But again there is no denying the boldness and vision of the approach.

Kampinos: another island of wildness on the doorstop of a major metropolisKampinos: another island of wildness on the doorstop of a major metropolis

A similar approach has been adopted 500 miles further East, with the creation the Kampinos National Park in Poland. Just 8 kms from the centre of Warsaw in Poland this 40,000 hectare area harbours moose, beaver, lynx and crane.

Is London or Paris ready for a modified version of Oostvaardersplassen or Kampinos on their doorsteps?

Network of Ecological Corridors

Oostvaardersplassen is merely the crown jewel in a yet bigger concept – that of a network of ecological corridors linking natural habitat areas throughout Holland and into neighbouring Germany and Belgium.

Akin to the human blood circulation, the system replicates a series of “green” arteries, veins and capillaries.

The network of ecological corridors in the Netherlands (from Hootsmans & Kampf)The network of ecological corridors in the Netherlands (from Hootsmans & Kampf)

These range in scale from large corridors of restored grassland and trees bulldozed through relocated industrial and housing estates and the building of “eco-bridges” over major transport routes – to the planting of riparian vegetation alongside small drainage ditches.

Originally aiming for completion by 2018, the vision has been based on a partnership of local community, business and conservation interests. It is of epic proportions.

Wherever feasible, a range of compatible land uses will be practiced alongside conservation, including flood management, carbon absorption, healthcare and recreation. Such pragmatism recognises that rewilding – restoration of ecosystems run by natural process rather than human intervention – can address a spectrum of societal needs if large areas are to be successfully secured for nature.

Eco corridor spanning a motorway in the NetherlandsEco corridor spanning a motorway in the Netherlands

Currently also stalled by recession, budget cuts and changes in government, the Network may yet eventually accomplish its target of encompassing 730,000 hectares – a startling 17% of Holland’s total land area – through a combination of direct purchase and subsidised arrangements with private owners. Many of its key components are already in place2.

Wider lessons for re-wilding

Whatever challenges re-wilding and green connectivity in the Netherlands currently face, the opportunities highlighted by this pioneering vision are clear.

A series of large natural wild and even wilderness areas linked by a network of habitat corridors is now an entirely practical opportunity for many other countries, including the UK, France and Italy.

Despite rising commodity prices, particularly for timber and lamb, substantial areas of marginal farmland of far lesser value than Oostvaardersplassen will continue to be uneconomic for agricultural production as subsidy cuts take their toll from CAP reform over the next 15 years. Equally there is growing realization that the economic, social and environmental benefits from large natural habitat areas can now offer an increasingly significant alternative livelihood for landholders and local communities – whether rural or urban3.

Meanwhile, climate change creates its own imperative for species adaptation and migration which traditional small-scale nature reserves may become increasingly unable to deliver. Rising sea levels are managed by economically cost-effective coastal retreat, with creation of new salt marshes in large litoral restoration initiatives.

Britain for example is nearly six times the size of Holland, with a substantially greater proportion of low productivity land. France has even greater spatial opportunity.

Can nature NGOs in partnership with government and a broad array of community social and business interests rise to the occasion – and usher in an era of landscape-scale re-wilding?


1. Special Protected Area explanationRamsar site explanation
2. Hootsmans & Kampf: “Ecological Networks in the Netherlands”. Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Holland
3. Aykroyd TNB “Wild Britain Initiative”

Updated in 2015

Wild Nephin’ launched on former commercial forest land

Support from Irish Prime Minister, EU President

Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny TD, at Wild NephinIrish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny TD, at Wild Nephin

11,000 hectares of former commercial forest, blanket bog and grassland has been inaugurated and acclaimed as Ireland’s first area subscribing to key principles of wilderness.

Hailed as a major initiative by the Irish Prime Minster, Enda Kenny TD, who held office in 2013 as EU President, Wild Nephin is set in spectacular landscape in the North West.

It is unveiled at a time when new sites for wild nature are being assessed and created across Europe, including restoration or ‘rewilding’ of former forestry and farmland which is often unviable for commercial production. The economic and social benefits of wildness for local communities can provide an additional motive.

15 years restoring wild biodiversity

Return of the golden plover (Photo credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)Return of the golden plover (Photo credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen) ...and the red squirrel…and the red squirrel Icon of Atlantic wilderness – the white tailed eagle (Photo credit: Yathin S Krishnappa)Icon of Atlantic wilderness – the white tailed eagle (Photo credit: Yathin S Krishnappa) Bill Murphy – a visionary in his elementBill Murphy – a visionary in his element

This initiative is the vision of Bill Murphy of Coillte, Ireland’s forestry agency, together with Denis Strong of neighbouring Ballycroy National Park – with both organizations contributing their landholdings. The Mayo County local authority brings a third element, regional development planning, to the partnership.

Following a 15 year restoration period during which the plantation forest will be remodelled with native pine and deciduous trees, drainage channels blocked, invasive rhododendron cleared and infrastructure removed, there will be no further human interventions – leaving the landscape governed entirely by natural processes.

There are plans to reintroduce species such as golden plover, merlin and red squirrel, and real possibilities for attracting white-tailed sea eagle – already nesting further down Ireland’s Atlantic coastline – and perhaps osprey.

In place of traditional timber production, facing long-term decline in a relatively remote location, will be carefully targeted tourism projects that build on the popularity of Westport and surrounding villages as a destination. Nephin is to be promoted as Ireland’s first wilderness.

A significant model for Europe

Wild Nephin has a number of aspects that make it a model for replication elsewhere:

  • The conversion of a less productive part of Coillte’s commercial plantations from timber production to biodiversity restoration, non-intervention management and nature tourism provides an attractive example for forestry agencies elsewhere in Europe
  • Use of socio-economic appraisal to underpin this initiative, with earnings and employment from tourism and ancillary activities outweighing income from forestry under any reasonable scenario for future timber prices.
  • Close cooperation between key organizations with a long term planning framework that combines ecological restoration with tourism promotion and regional economic development.
  • Wild Nephin marks a key step in the advancement of wilderness concepts along with non intervention management practice.
  • Its creation in one of Europe’s most developed countries is paralleled by new initiatives in Austria, Slovakia, Romania and France.

Conference addresses a growing trend

The Wild Nephin initiative was unveiled at a Conference on 15th May 2013 in Westport, County Mayo which addressed restoration of large natural areas in a modified landscape.

Introduced by Bill Murphy with Denis Strong, the conference began with a personal message of support from Enda Kenny, Irish Prime Minister and European Union President in 2013.

The Conference brought together experts, representing national and international organisations, to share information and exchange ideas on current and possible future approaches to rewilding modified landscapes particularly former plantation forests and other impacted landscapes.

Chaired by Toby Aykroyd (Wild Europe) and Zoltan Kun (PANParks), it included contributions from:
Jensen Bessell, director of Baxter State NP in Maine
Micheal O’Briain, European Commission, DG Environment
Gerald Murphy, managing director of the Coillte forestry agency
John Fitzgerald, director National Parks and Wildlife Service
Ethna Murphy, Irish Tourist Board

More information

See Bill Murphy and Toby Aykroyd in Nephin video

Read Irish Times, Monday April 8th, 2013 Wild about Nephin Beg

Nephin’s panorama of forest, marsh and grassland stretches into the distanceNephin’s panorama of forest, marsh and grassland stretches into the distance