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Friday, 5 July 2013

Rewilding abandoned landscapes in Europe

For millennia, mankind has shaped landscapes, particularly through agriculture (Figure 1). In Europe, the age-old interaction between humans and ecosystems strongly influenced the cultural heritage. Yet European farmland is now being abandoned, especially in remote areas. The loss of the traditional agricultural landscapes and its consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services is generating concerns in both the scientific community and the public. Here we ask to what extent farmland abandonment can be considered as an opportunity for rewilding ecosystems. We analyze the perceptions of traditional agriculture in Europe and their influence in land management policies. We argue that, contrary to the common perception, traditional agriculture practices were not environmentally friendly and that the standards of living of rural populations were low. We suggest that current policies to maintain extensive farming landscapes underestimate the human labor needed to sustain these landscapes and the recent and future dynamics of the socio-economic drivers behind abandonment. We examine the potential benefits for ecosystems and people from rewilding. We identify species that could benefit from land abandonment and forest regeneration and the ecosystem services that could be provided such as carbon sequestration and recreation. Finally, we discuss the challenges associated with rewilding, including the need to maintain open areas, the fire risks, and the conflicts between people and wildlife. Despite these challenges, we argue that rewilding should be recognized by policy-makers as one of the possible land management options in Europe, particularly on marginal areas.

Figure 1. Landscape in the Peneda mountain range, Northern Portugal. Over millennia, forests were converted to scrubland, cropland and pastures. With the abandonment of agro-pastoral activities, forest is now expanding from the remnant fragments and megafauna species are increasing.

Navarro, L.M. and Pereira, H.M. (2012) Rewilding abandoned landscapes in Europe. Ecosystems, 15, 900–912.

Contributed by Prof. Henrique Miguel Pereira
Theoretical Ecology and Biodiversity Change Group, Centro de Biologia Ambiental Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal
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