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Can rewilding reinvigorate European nature policy?

May 27, 2016
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Reflecting on rewilding (Image: Per Harald Olsen)

Rewilding is a concept that has increasingly captured the attention of environmentalists and the public across the world.  Broadly put, rewilding projects attempt to restore natural ecological processes in degraded ecosystems, and often to reintroduce flora and fauna that has become locally extinct.

In this way, rewilding approaches often draw from ecological theories which emphasise ecosystem processes, disturbance and uncertainty.  A subtle, but important, distinction between rewilding and restoration ecology, then, is the openness in rewilding to new and different landscape trajectories when functional processes (see, for example the ‘ecology of fear‘ in Yellowstone following wolf reintroduction) are reinstated.

Restoration projects, on the other hand, frequently define a set of compositional targets for restoration – specific habitats, species or ecological quality targets, for example.  Rewilding takes inspiration from past environments without necessarily attempting to recreate them, and often takes a landscape-scale approach to encouraging interconnected and dynamic ecosystems across wide geographical areas.

Of course, rewilding shares many approaches, practices and goals with restoration, and any differences in approach and outcome may be seem as only semantic.  Indeed, rewilding is often framed as a progressive, experimental, hopeful, or even unrealistic, branch of restoration ecology.  But through emphasising the value of wild environments, rewilding is increasingly catching the attention and imagination of wide public and academic audiences.

The question is: what can rewilding ‘do’ for degraded ecosystems that widespread and established restoration projects aren’t doing already?

A new policy brief produced by Rewilding Europe and Paul Jepson from Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment argues that rewilding approaches can reinvigorate European environmental policy, and extend and improve existing restoration approaches.  In ‘Making Space for Rewilding: Creating an enabling policy environment‘, the authors frame rewilding as a ‘logical next step’ for the development of EU policy, and suggest how policy spaces for rewilding might be encouraged in the future.

Paul Jepson explains, “We need new concepts and innovation in policy for nature conservation to regain ground. Rewilding presents an opportunity to shift gear from protection to restoration, upgrading ecosystems, improving network connectivity and creating new value for people”

The authors carried out interviews with ten experts in EU nature policy to explore the potential role of rewilding approaches in environmental policy, the Nature Directives, wilderness and ecosystem restoration.  The resulting policy brief identifies how rewilding might contribute to existing policy frameworks such as the Water Framework Directive, and a Trans-European Green Network (TEN-G).  Notably, the authors suggest rewilding as important part of policy approaches seeking to reach the 15% restoration target committed to in the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy

Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe suggests that “There is huge potential in Europe for rewilding and large landscape restoration. Through this lens we can imagine a pan-European network of sites that capture the public imagination and ‘brand’ different regions of Europe, with a positive impact of creating a European identity.”

Rewilding is a term rarely heard in debates over freshwater ecosystems.  Restoration is the dominant approach and discourse, with projects seeking to reverse the damage done by humans to rivers and lakes over many decades, even centuries.  Restoration is at the centre of the EU Water Framework Directive, which requires member states to improve the ecological health of their freshwaters to ‘good’ status.

Perhaps the relative absence of freshwater rewilding discourse (at least compared to terrestrial environments) is that aquatic life is often invisible or hard to see without specialist equipment.  This means that the ‘charismatic‘ animals that often help legitimate and communicate rewilding projects on land (wolves, lynx or sea eagles in the UK, for example) are often difficult to see in freshwater environments. One notable exception, of course, is the European beaver, which is being reintroduced (although not always officially) as part of a trial rewilding project at Knapdale in Scotland.

It could be argued that a key element of any rewilding practice is imagination: not only to imagine what the past might have been, but more importantly what the future could be.  This is a hopeful environmentalism, which sits within (and at odds with) wider contexts of debates over the Anthropocene, which emphasise the role of humans as (largely negative) architects of the Earth system.

Accordingly, does the lack of visibility of freshwater life, and the invisible threats of dissolved and minute pollutants (as opposed to, say, deforestation or development on land), mean that rewilding discourses will remain marginal in freshwater ecosystem management?

To return to our first question (and one, not entirely addressed in this short brief) how might the philosophies and practices of rewilding extend, or even reinvigorate, a European freshwater policy system which already places great emphasis on restoration?

Finally, how can rewilding philosophies which emphasise dynamic and potentially uncertain ecosystem trajectories be integrated into policy-making processes based on ecological targets and management plans?

We will publish a special feature with Paul Jepson in the coming weeks to expand on these questions and explore the potential value of rewilding as concept and practice for EU freshwater environments.

Making Space for Rewilding: Creating an enabling policy environment

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