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.

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:

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.

‘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.

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