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Biodiversity SOS: Can rewilding be the answer to nature’s distress call

Published on October 04, 2021

As the scale of global habitat loss becomes clear, we ask Sabine Hoefnagel of Rewilding Europe if rewilding can be the answer to nature’s distress call

On 4 October 2021, it is UN World Habitat Day, which is intended to remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat that is increasingly threatened by both unprecedented biodiversity loss and the climate crisis.

Figures recently published by WWF in its Living Planet Report estimate that two-thirds of the world’s wildlife has been lost in the last 50 years, and this is only getting worse – and fast. Loss of habitat, due to climate change and other human activities such as the exploitation of resources and pollution, is the main cause of the biodiversity crisis. Without urgent action there are huge implications for all aspects of our lives.

As the biodiversity crisis gains more attention on the global stage with the upcoming UN biodiversity conference, we want to lead the debate and inform solutions. This is why we have called together experts in the biodiversity field to share their opinions on how to tackle the crisis in our upcoming Green Dialogues webinar titled “Can we rewild land in our inner cities?” on 7 October.

In advance of the webinar, we asked one of our panellists, Sabine Hoefnagel of Rewilding Europe, to share her knowledge on the successes of rewilding and to set out how the lessons learned in the countryside can be applied to the city to build a sustainable urban ecology.

1. How did the rewilding project come about and what were its aims?

Rewilding Europe was started in 2011 with the aim of bringing a new vision for nature in Europe, with more space for natural processes, a wildlife comeback and people earning a fair living from the wild. To demonstrate this new vision, ten large landscapes across Europe were selected and it’s in these vastly different landscapes that we first got to work.

The four founders – from the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK – believed that there had been little innovation in nature conservation for many years and wanted to set up an initiative to provide an entirely new conservation paradigm based on rewilding: an alternative and more impactful approach to nature restoration, letting nature lead instead of every square metre being managed, thus benefitting not only nature but also people. While giving more space to nature, restoring natural processes and supporting wildlife’s gradual return, Rewilding Europe is building a nature-based economy by linking nature with human society.

The organisation’s mission is to demonstrate the benefits of wilder nature in practice across diverse European landscapes and to inspire, motivate and enable others by providing tools and know-how from experience on the ground. So, there is both a demonstration and a catalyst function for the organisation. Frans Schepers, one of the original founders, is still the Managing Director.

2. What have been rewilding’s biggest success stories over the last ten years?

We have created and connected nine diverse pan-European rewilding areas to the organisation that showcase rewilding in action. We are building momentum and helping to reconnect people with nature at its wildest and most authentic. Back in 2011, when Rewilding Europe was founded, rewilding was a little-known concept, practised in a few select European locations. Interest in rewilding, which has shaken up the conservation sector, is now at an all-time high, with an ever-growing number of initiatives generating positive impacts across Europe. The latest area was just formally added on 23 September: Affric Highlands in Scotland. We have also established the European Rewilding Network: a platform that enables rewilding initiatives across Europe to exchange insights and information and to share practical experiences. The network now boasts 72 members in 27 countries across the continent.

We are supporting a wildlife comeback through actively boosting existing wildlife populations and are using reintroductions to bring back keystone species, combined with building an increasing coexistence with wildlife. Species in which we have seen positive trends include Marsican bears, Iberian wolves, elk, European bison, deer, vultures and Iberian lynx. Wild horses and cattle play an important role in restoring grazing lands and have successfully been reintroduced in several landscapes. Many other species have had the attention of the organisation but these are some of the key successes to mention.

In this way, rewilding provides an approach that addresses three of the biggest challenges of our lifetime in a holistic and action-oriented way. With its focus on nature recovery, climate change and social issues, rewilding recognises that all three of these issues are interrelated and seeks to address them in an integrated manner. This is becoming ever more important as we seek solutions for carbon removal. So many carbon-credit schemes are not currently taking nature-based solutions into account and are thereby creating bigger problems. Rewilding provides a genuine solution here. It is still early days, but we believe that a scheme such as ‘rewilding credits’ will be an important development and we are actively working on this concept.

3. How can the biodiversity need of rewilding be balanced with the need for people to interact with nature?

People are central to rewilding, which is one of the attractive aspects of the approach. Rewilding Europe’s efforts have seen a growing number of people benefiting from the wilder nature on their doorstep, with nature-based economies developing in all the rewilding areas we first started work in. Rewilding Europe Capital, Europe’s first rewilding enterprise funding facility that provides financial loans to new and existing businesses that catalyse, support and achieve positive environmental and socio-economic outcomes to support rewilding in Europe, has disbursed loans totalling more than 2.3 million euros to nature-based enterprise over the past ten years. In many parts of Europe, people are moving away from rural areas because of declining economic productivity connected to historic agrarian use. Rewilding can provide new and exciting nature- and wildlife-based businesses that work to support and enhance natural capital, while providing benefits to people living in and around the areas.

Large rewilding projects have failed in the past because of a breakdown in communication between groups with different interests. For initiatives to be successful, the inclusion of people and a sensitive and tailored approach to involving communities is crucial. We’re unlikely to be successful using just a science-based ‘convincing’ approach to stakeholder engagement: it has to be about genuine connection, listening and inclusion.

4. Are there any lessons from the rural experience that can be applied to the urban setting?

Rewilding is about taking steps towards a wilder outcome, and that is all about how far people are willing to go and what they are willing to accept. As they see benefits developing, greater acceptance and enthusiasm sets in and scaling up becomes possible. As explained above, people are crucial to successful rewilding. This applies even more so to rewilding in an urban setting. As the benefits to people, from cleaner and cooler air to improved mental health, also becoming clear, we will see more and more initiatives around urban rewilding. While this isn’t in Rewilding Europe’s remit, rewilding efforts in cities can only help to provide the scale of biodiversity increase that is urgently needed.

5. Where else in the world can we look to for good examples of rewilding and increasing biodiversity?

There are good examples in many places; for example, Rewilding Argentina, Rewilding Chile, American Prairie Reserve and other initiatives to restore and rewild large areas of land across Latin and North America. It is a global project that requires a global effort if we are to reverse habitat and biodiversity loss.

“Can we rewild land in our inner cities?” webinar

Join us on 7 October for the last in our Green Dialogues series of webinars on rewilding the city, in which we will seek the opinions and expertise of leaders in the rewilding movement. Sabine Hoefnagel will be joined in the discussion by Stephanie Wray, Managing Director of RSK Wilding, Dusty Gedge, President of the European Federation of Green Roof Associations and Elliot McCandless, Communications Manager at Beaver Trust.

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