The potential for restoration

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

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

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 being implemented 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).

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

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

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.

Vision for a bright future
Vision for a bright future

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.

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.