Rewilding – helping nature find its own way
Following the publication of a benchmark new study in one of biology’s most prestigious journals, we take a closer look at the science of ‘rewilding’ – the ecological restoration movement putting hope at the heart of conservation.
With ambitious goals of bringing back lost species and restoring natural landscapes on a large scale, rewilding offers a narrative of hope to nature lovers – a ‘Recoverable Earth’. Restoration projects across Europe are increasingly implementing its principles. With nature in crisis, it is no wonder that rewilding resonates amongst a new generation of conservationists: the times we live in demand a new way of thinking.
"Riverine vegetation has recovered, populations of wild boar, otter and white-tailed eagle have bounced back."
Rewilding aims to restore natural processes to landscapes that have been degraded by humans. At the Millingerwaard wetland in the Netherlands, intensive farming and dyke building in the twentieth century ravaged its riverine forests and dunes, with severe impacts on its native populations of otter, badger, wild boar, white-tailed eagle and black stork. In 1990, a 700 ha area was transformed into a rewilding area: farming activities ceased, dykes were removed to permit natural flooding, clay extraction opened up old river channels and sand plains, Konik horses and Galloway cattle were released and allowed to graze freely, and lost species such as beavers were reintroduced. And all to the benefit of nature and man alike through improved water quality and flood mitigation.
A helping hand
It is at this point where rewilding – with its ‘nature knows best’ philosophy – distinguishes itself from other ecological restoration approaches. Nature is a wonder precisely because of how its processes adapt to the elements around it. After all, wildlife’s natural rhythm is the impulse to survive. Rewilding embraces this and advocates for as little human interference in natural ecological processes as possible.
"Rewilding is not simply the protection of wilderness areas, but an approach to restoring the healthy ecological complexity of natural environments damaged by human activity."
That is not to say that rewilders are averse to offering nature a helping hand. One of the movement’s leading groups, Rewilding Europe, readily accepts that human damage to habitats can leave us no choice but to step in and undo our mistakes – by letting large areas of forest regenerate, by removing dams to allow rivers to run freely, by reintroducing species and stopping active management of wildlife populations. But then, once we’ve created the right conditions to put nature back on track, rewilders recommend that we step aside and let nature manage itself. It’s a case of helping nature find its own way.
At the Millingerwaard rewilding site, this “helping hand” has brought the wetland back from the brink. Riverine vegetation has recovered, populations of wild boar, otter and white-tailed eagle have bounced back and the reintroduced beavers now have a thriving community of more than ten families. While some restoration actions will continue for a little longer – sand extraction to protect against flooding will continue until 2020 – many actions have been completed and a flourishing Millingerwaard is well on its way to a wilder future.
The science of rewilding
As the practice of rewilding takes off, it is important that the science underpinning it keeps up. This need receives a welcome boost today with the publication of a special rewilding issue of Philosophical Transactions B an eminent scientific journal published by the UK’s Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy. “Rewilding is not simply the protection of wilderness areas, but an approach to restoring the healthy ecological complexity of natural environments damaged by human activity. Its principles can be applied to a wide variety of landscapes – from highly urbanized sites to remote mountainous areas – with different degrees of ecological degradation. But, until now, a suitable framework to quantify progress in achieving rewilding goals has been missing”, explains one of the issue’s contributors, Dr. Aurora Torres, from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.
Torres was lead author on one of the issue’s stand-out articles, ‘Measuring Rewilding Progress’, which sets a benchmark for assessing rewilding. The researchers designed a set of indicators for measuring ecosystem changes brought on by implementing rewilding actions over time, such as reducing farming, forestry and artificial feeding of wildlife, restricting hunting and fishing, removing dams, or leaving deadwood in forests. This effort was complemented by interviewing practitioners and an extensive review of the effectiveness of commonly used restoration actions for rewilding goals.
This monitoring framework has proven to be applicable to hugely contrasting rewilding projects with vastly different ecologies, geographies and timescales: from the inland wetlands of Iberá in Argentina – where emblematic species such as giant anteater, pampas deer and tapir (gone since the 1970s) have been reintroduced in the 21st century – to the Swiss National Park in the Western Rhaetian Alps, where populations of chamois and golden eagles have rebounded since the park’s designation as a wilderness area in 1914. This work will help maximize the conservation and restoration outcomes of rewilding projects, facilitate sound decision-making and connect the science and practice of rewilding.
The Royal Society’s high profile recognition of rewilding science comes at a particularly timely moment. Right now, leading environmental NGOs BirdLife Europe, WWF and the EEB in partnership with Rewilding Europe and iDiv, are currently pushing to ensure that rewilding principles feature strongly in the EU’s post-2020 Biodiversity Strategy. Our goal is to strengthen the EU restoration agenda and ensure the creation of coherent ecological network in Europe by promoting rewilding principles and demonstrating how they can help to restore biodiversity and ecosystems at a European level. Perhaps rewilding can offer the EU a “helping hand” in finding its own way forward?
Gui-Xi Young - Editor & Campaigns Officer, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia
 Torres A et al. 2018 Measuring rewilding progress. Phil.Trans. R. Soc. B