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 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: Elysee.fr)

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).

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org)

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

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.

Brexit Britain to be greener?
(Wikimedia Commons)

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. 

The outcome of this opportunity is of course uncertain. But the scale of a well-costed proposal reflects massive potential for supporting the European Commission’s Natural Capital agenda. Amid heavy irony that one of the biggest practical affirmations of this agenda comes from Brexit Britain, progress on this theme and CAP reform generally in the UK is being closely watched across the European Union.

Further information is available here.

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.

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!

Rewilding in France – the first green shoots

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, to assess potential for a wilderness strategy.

This brings 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 has been invited to participate in the IUCN France Group, regularly providing 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 klms 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 from TNB Aykroyd, 14 September 2005