Lessons from a wild Europe

Europe’s wildlife is on the march as wolves, lynx, bears, beavers and bison reclaim their former haunts. Now this rewilding success offers a compelling vision of how – if attitudes change – big mammals and people could flourish together in Britain. Lenny Antonelli reports.

BBC Wildlife, Spring 2015

Leo Linnartz is searching for phantoms in the forest. The Dutch ecologist is looking for wolves in the Netherlands, a country that doesn’t officially have any, but he’s expecting them any day now. The wolf population in neighbouring Germany is spreading, and it seems only a matter of time before they cross the border.

A lone female wolf has settled less than 30km away inside Germany. Juvenile wolves typically strike out from the pack to claim a territory of their own, often travelling hundreds of kilometres. So if this lone female has pups it’s inevitable that some will slink towards Holland.

Leo’s group Wolves in the Netherlands has set up camera-traps in forests and nature reserves along the border. So far they’ve only captured images of deer and wild boar. But even with 30 trailcams, the chances of photographing any wolves that cross over are slim. “It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Leo says.

Indeed, wolves have probably already visited the Netherlands. In 2011 motorists captured pictures of a wolf-like animal in the Dutch town of Duiven, but the images weren’t 100 per cent conclusive. That same year a film crew searching for lynx in the Ardennes Mountains of southern Belgium put a camera beside the carcass of a sheep killed the night before. That night they captured footage of it being dragged off by a wolf, the first confirmed in Belgium for over a century.

New wolf packs have also sprung up in Germany, France and Switzerland. And late in 2012 a wolf was found dead in Denmark, the first recorded in the country for 199 years. An autopsy revealed that it died of natural causes. The following year researchers found evidence of 11 male wolves in the country. And if wolves can survive in Denmark’s heavily modified landscape, where can’t they?

Wolves aren’t the only big predator to gain ground in Europe, either. The Eurasian lynx has been spreading too, having been reintroduced to many parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Lone individuals have also been snapped by camera-traps for the first time in Bulgaria and Serbia, moving like ghosts in the night.

Most European populations of grey wolf, Eurasian lynx and brown bear are either stable or growing, according to a paper published in the journal Science last December. Europe has twice as many wolves and 10 times as many brown bears as the lower 48 states of the USA, despite being half the size and more than twice as densely populated – and having much less real wilderness. The little-studied golden jackal is also spreading from the south-east of the Continent.

NEW SPACE FOR WILDLIFE Legal protection is one reason these carnivores are faring so well. They are all protected by the EU’s Habitats Directive and by the Bern Convention. And as Europeans abandon remote rural regions for towns and cities, they are leaving more space behind for wildlife.

Populations of other charismatic mammals such as the European bison (also known as the wisent), wild boar, Eurasian beaver and wolverine have grown too, according to a recent report. The European bison became extinct in the wild during the 1920s, but after captive-breeding and reintroductions there are now an estimated 2,760 roaming the east of the Continent. The World Wildlife Federation, along with the NGO Rewilding Europe, will release 14 more animals into the Tarcu Mountains of Romania later this year. The ultimate goal is to establish a population of about 500.

The conservation organisation Rewilding Europe is also working to bring back large-scale wild ecosystems in seven other areas, including the vast wetlands of the Danube Delta, the oak woods and rocky heaths of northern Portugal, and the beech forests and mountain pastures of central Italy. The group aims to rewild 1 million ha of land by 2020 – a phenomenally ambitious target that dwarfs comparable projects planned in the UK, even the bigger ones in Scotland managed by Trees for Life or the Scottish Wildlife Trust (see ‘Visions for a wilder Britain’, August 2014).

Rewilding is a controversial new approach to conservation that in essence says humans should step back and let nature take control. This can mean restoring lost species, but more often than not also more prosaic steps such as letting bark beetles or fire destroy a forest as part of the natural cycle of death and regeneration, or allowing rivers to silt and flood. Rewilding, its proponents say, is cheaper than intensive land management, too. “It’s incredibly exciting and surprising to see what happens if we step back and become more visitors than managers,” says Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe. “We are trying to discover what nature can look like in Europe in a much wilder form. At the moment there is no single area in Europe where we have a near-complete system – where there are carnivores, herbivores and scavengers in natural densities, interacting with a natural landscape.”

One study says that up to 168,000 km2 of European land — an area larger than Greece – may be abandoned by 2030. So the time for rewilding is nigh. In many of the places where Rewilding Europe is working, it is bringing back key herbivores. The group says that the carnivores will spread on their own, as long as we let them.

In Croatia’s Velebit Mountains, which rise from the blue Adriatic into ragged limestone peaks, Rewilding Europe wants to restock depleted local populations of chamois and red deer. The group has bought hunting rights to 17,000ha of hunting, release these animals and encourage wildlife watching. “Velebit has all the components needed to be a wilderness, but it could be much more,” says project leader Davor Krmpotic, a native of the region.

Emigration has hit Velebit hard. “If you count the people who still live in the mountains of Velebit, you will find that there are fewer there than in the Sahara,” points out Krmpotic. But he believes that rewilding can rejuvenate his homeland’s economic fortunes, as well as its ecosystems, by bringing in wildlife tourists.

Rewilding Europe is the biggest NGO in a busy field. In Germany the Brandenburg Wilderness Foundation is turning vast old military bases near Berlin into forest wilderness. In the west of Ireland the state-owned forestry company Coillte is rewilding pine and spruce plantations in the Nephin Beg Mountains; and in Romania Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) is, with the help of wealthy donors, buying big chunks of land in the Fagaras Mountains.

By the end of the year FCC hopes to control 25,000 ha. Much of this land is spruce plantations that will be returned to the wild and ‘naturalised’ in some places by thinning the canopy and introducing native fir, elm and sycamore. In the long term the group aims to create a 200,000ha national park, then donate it to the Romanian people. It’s a similar vision to that of the eco-philanthropist Douglas Tompkins, who has been helping to create a massive reserve in Tierra del Fuego as a gift to the Chilean people.

Christoph Promberger, FCC’s energetic director, is fizzing with enthusiasm. “Our idea is actually to create a national park that eventually – we’re talking about 20 years from now – is so big and so important that we could talk of a European Yellowstone,” he says.

RECREATING AN UNKNOWN PAST But rewilding raises a question: what should we rewild to? There is fierce debate about what Europe looked like before Homo sapiens started shaping the landscape. This centres on whether Europe was mostly a closed-canopy forest, or an open mosaic of grassland and woodland. Proponents of the first theory might be inclined to let abandoned pasture revert to woodland, while proponents of the second might prefer to introduce wild herbivores to keep the landscape open. But rewilding by definition doesn’t have an end goal. Ultimately it’s about bringing back lost species, kickstarting ecological processes and letting nature run its course.

Horses and cattle have also been introduced by Rewilding Europe to some of its project areas. The move has attracted criticism, but the NGO’s Frans Schepers is undaunted: “Some people claim that these are not wild animals but domestic. Yet you could also say that they are rewilded species. What’s the difference if you have herds of horses in a social structure, which are predated by wolves and moving around freely?”

The group is currently working with the Tauros Project, which aims to breed cattle that resemble the extinct auroch – the wild precursor to domestic cattle that once roamed Europe and died out there during the 17th century – using genetically similar domestic breeds.

But John Linnell, a carnivore expert at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, argues that Europe will never have enough wilderness for carnivores and herbivores to live more or less unimpeded by humans – the Continent is just too developed. “This is not necessarily a problem,” he adds, “since most Europeans value their modified landscapes. Our goal is just to make these landscapes a little wilder by adding carnivores.” As carnivores spread, however, they create new conflict with shepherds and their livestock. “Saving species such as wolves from extinction in Europe was relatively easy, whereas learning to live with them is something else,” Linnell says. “Most carnivore populations in the Continent will do fine if we simply give them space, but the question is whether we are willing to do that.”

He emphasises that public support is vital, because anti-wolf campaigns are gaining momentum. But pro-wolf advocates must be pragmatic too, and Linnell says that he is willing to accept limited hunting of carnivores if it helps rural communities co-exist with them. Conservationists are now encouraging shepherds to embrace age-old methods of guarding their flocks, such as using guard dogs, together with newer ones such as electrified fencing.

But convincing struggling rural communities to embrace the wolf is a tough sell. Even so, rewilding advocates believe that ecotourism can bring much-needed cash to remote communities and give locals a livelihood that is based on wildlife rather than threatened by it. Wolf-watching and tracking holidays are gaining popularity in the Spanish Pyrenees and Sierra de la Culebra, and in the forests of Transylvania in Romania, where people can often spot bears, too. Africa’s safaris and eco-lodges also provide an example that Europe can learn from. Rewilding Europe is building wildlife-watching huts, and funding small businesses that embrace wildlife tourism – including a horse ranch in Velebit, a wildlife-guiding company in the Apennines, and guesthouses in the Danube Delta and northern Portugal. FCC is also building wildlife hides, and hoping to open a wilderness lodge too.

Ultimately, if rewilding is to work, locals need to believe in it and benefit from it. “Wilderness has got to be all about people or else it will be seen an elite pursuit,” says Toby Aykroyd of the Wild Europe Initiative, a coalition of groups working in the field. He warns that the opportunity for rewilding won’t last forever. If the price of lamb goes up, for example, people might go running back to their mountain pastures.

Meanwhile the Netherlands now has a national wolf plan, preparing itself for the predators heading towards it. Looking 20 years ahead, what does Leo Linnartz see in store for wolves in his homeland? “I would expect 5–10 packs to be present in the Netherlands,” he predicts confidently.

For now, though, it’s just a matter of sitting and waiting. The wolves are out there, moving inexorably toward another border that they cannot see, the apex predator of Europe’s new, encroaching wild.

Species profiles

GREY WOLF POPULATION 1970 14,000 | 2008 16,800 Persecution drove the grey wolf into pockets of Southern and North-East Europe during the 19th century. Today, some estimates put its population on the Continent at well over 16,000. Legal protection, growing public acceptance and recovering deer populations have all helped to boost numbers. In the east of Europe, wolf populations from the Balkans north through Russia and into Finland are fairly well connected. But further west, small populations in Germany and Scandinavia are more isolated, while in the Sierra Morena mountains of southern Spain there is just one pack left. Despite this, the species is spreading into many parts of Western Europe. It is legally protected, though some hunting or culling takes place in many countries.

EURASIAN LYNX POPULATION 1900 3,000 | 2003 10,000 At the start of the 20th century, Europe’s largest surviving feline clung on only in isolated, mountainous areas of Eastern Europe, such as the Carpathians and the Balkans. But legal protection and conservation efforts have seen its population quadruple in the past 50 years. This stealthy species is protected across its range, but there is limited hunting in some places, such as Scandinavia. The European population is estimated at 9,000–10,000 individuals; Scandinavia, Finland and the Carpathians are strongholds. Reintroductions have boosted the Alpine population, and the species has also been reintroduced to the Harz Mountains of northern Germany. However, the small, isolated population in the Balkans is sadly still Critically Endangered.

EUROPEAN BROWN BEAR POPULATION 1970 10,000 | 2008 25,000 Brown bears roamed across much of Europe as recently as the 19th century, but deforestation and persecution saw them retreat to strongholds in Scandinavia and isolated mountain ranges further south. However, most populations are now stable or growing, largely thanks to legal protection, and today the Continent has an estimated 17,000 bears. There are roughly 7,000 bears in the Carpathians and 3,600 in the Balkans, but further west populations are more fragmented. Some, such as those in the Pyrenees and Italy’s Apennines, remain small. Limited hunting is allowed in many parts of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

EUROPEAN BISON POPULATION 1927 13 | 2010 2,760 The European bison, also known as the wisent, became extinct in the wild during the early 20th century, driven out by habitat destruction, hunting and poaching. By 1927 there were just 54 captive individuals left. Captive-breeding and reintroductions saved the magnificent herbivore, and there are now 33 wild herds in Eastern and Central Europe. The biggest group, of roughly 900 animals, is in the ancient Białowie ̇za Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus. Europe now has about 2,760 wild bison in all, but though the species is protected throughout its range, it is classified as Vulnerable due to its low genetic diversity and a poor connection between populations.

EURASIAN BEAVER POPULATION 1900 700 | 2003 680,000 By the early 20th century, the Eurasian beaver had been driven to the brink of extinction by deforestation and hunting for fur, meat and castoreum, a secretion used in traditional medicines and perfumes. Just 1,200 individuals remained in isolated populations. But the species has staged a phenomenal comeback, boosted by numerous reintroductions (a far cry from the situation in the British Isles) and also by legal protection. The IUCN estimates its population to be at least 337,500 in Europe, and the species has recovered much of its original range. Limited hunting is allowed in certain countries, such as Sweden and Norway. Since the beaver’s distribution is still patchy in Western and Central Europe, it is expected to keep spreading.

Major rewilding projects in Europe

OOSTVAARDERSPLASSEN, NETHERLANDS This 56,000ha area is grazed by deer and elk, plus Heck cattle and konik ponies (pictured), breeds genetically close to their wild ancestors. It also has wintering wildfowl and waders, plus resident white- tailed eagles, egrets and bitterns.

RANDENBURG WILDERNESS Near Berlin, the Brandenburg Wilderness Foundation is turning four old military training grounds, totalling 12,700ha, into roadless wildernesses of forests, heaths, bogs and lakes. Germany has now declared that 2% of its national land area will be designated as wilderness zones by 2020.

VELEBIT MOUNTAINS, CROATIA In the Velebit Mountains of Croatia, Rewilding Europe plans to restock populations of red and roe deer and chamois. The group has also bought hunting rights to 17,000ha of land, where it can release these mammals and encourage wildlife watching in collaboration with local hunters. A recent study also indicates that the ibex (pictured) was once native to the area, which could make future reintroduction possible.

CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS The 1,500km-long Carpathians hold some of Europe’s last big tracts of virgin forest, along with major populations of wolves, lynx and bears. Rewilding Europe is working in the Southern Carpathians – where it has reintroduced bison – and in east end of the range, while Foundation Conservation Carpathia hopes to create a 200,000ha national park in the Fagaras Mountains of Romania.

RHODOPE MOUNTAINS, BULGARIA The Rhodope Mountains are a mosaic of forest, scrubland and pasture, home to wolves, brown bears and golden jackals. Rewilding Europe is carrying on previous work that aims to restock populations of fallow and red deer, and to introduce ‘wild’ horses. The group is also working to protect local vultures (an Egyptian vulture is pictured). The aim is to create a natural mix of carnivores, herbivores and scavengers. Hides have been built to encourage wildlife tourism, too.

CENTRAL APPENINES, ITALY Amid limestone mountains, beech forests and alpine pastures, Rewilding Europe hopes to link up three national parks. A key aim is to expand the range of the Marsican (or Apennine) brown bear, a Critically Endangered subspecies.The NGO also wants to develop wildlife tourism in the area. KALKALPEN NATIONAL PARK, AUSTRIA The fir, spruce and beech forests of Kalkalpen National Park, which was established in 1997, are home to lynx, brown bears and golden eagles. Over 70 per cent of the park is now managed according to wilderness principles, which means no motorised vehicles can enter, over 250km of roads have now been closed, and bark beetle infestations are allowed to proceed naturally.

KNEPP CASTLE ESTATE, UK One of the few big rewilding schemes in the lowlands of southern England. The 1,400ha estate is grazed and browsed by introduced red and fallow deer, longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies, and supports breeding turtle doves and nightingales.

WILD NEPHIN, IRELAND I reland’s state-owned forestry company Coilite plans to rewild 4,400ha of pine and spruce plantation in the Nephin Beg Mountains of County Mayo. Over 15 years the project aims to naturalise the forest by thinning the canopy, introducing native trees and closing forest roads. Then Coillte will step out and let nature take over. Wild Nephin adjoins the vast bogland of Ballycroy National Park, and the whole area could become a prime spot for future species reintroductions.