Red deer in Swiss National Park Picture: Hansueli Krapf CC-BY-SA-3.0

Populations of red deer in the Swiss National Park have recovered because wildlife is protected from human activities  Picture: Hansueli Krapf CC-BY-SA-3.0 

Better planning and implementation of ‘rewilding’ projects would benefit ecosystems and humans, scientists have said.

Researchers from several European institutions, including the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, have drawn up a blueprint suggesting how to plan and carry out rewilding, a concept that describes the attempt to restore large areas of land to become as natural as possible.

In their paper, published in the journal Science, the scientists say the construction of cities, roads and factories plus intensive farming practices around the world have destroyed entire ecosystems. This has resulted in a continuous decline in biodiversity and in the ability of ecosystems to support human life.

The paper, led by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, outlines a three-step approach:

  1. Analyse the ecological status of an area by identifying the biodiversity and natural processes that have been lost.
  2. Assess the viability of different management options and the potential benefits and disadvantages.
  3. Implement rewilding actions but regularly monitor their success and make adaptations if necessary.

The ultimate aim is to enable ecosystems to regenerate and sustain themselves with little or no ongoing human management, say the authors.

More ‘passive’ interventions could include the creation of no-hunting areas, low-intervention forestry management, setting aside agricultural land, the removal of dispersal barriers, and the restoration of natural flood regimes. In a floodplain landscape, for example, rewilding could be achieved by removing dams that are no longer needed, submerging part of the landscape and creating a habitat for animals and plants that were previously displaced.

More active interventions could include re-introduce species into an area, to either boost biodiversity, for grazing or to spread seeds.

Interventions need to be planned carefully and in a way that is sympathetic not just to the environment, but also to humans - Professor James Bullock

The scientists say not every region is suitable for a complete set of rewilding measures and that their framework addresses criticisms of rewilding - that the definition of the term is unclear, projects can do more ecological harm than good, and that they exclude people from landscapes.

Professor James Bullock, an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who is one of the co-authors of the paper, says: “Many people think we can simply abandon land and there will naturally be a beautiful wilderness, but without planning it is likely that these areas could just become, for example, a mess of brambles and nettles. Therefore, some targeted human intervention is required to ensure a successful ‘rewilding‘ .

“Interventions need to be planned carefully and in a way that is sympathetic not just to the environment, but also to humans. Rewilding is not about excluding people.“

Professor Bullock and his fellow authors stress that rewilding projects must always involve local people, otherwise they have little chance of success, and point to the benefits of natural spaces to humans, which include reducing stress levels, increasing brain function, encouraging physical activity, facilitating social cohesion and establishing local pride.

They highlight the opportunity to generate nature tourism, citing the example of a rewilding project in the Swiss National Park, where wildlife is protected from human activities such as hunting, agriculture and forestry. Many animals have recovered in the area, such as red deer, chamois and roe deer, while ibex and bearded vultures have been reintroduced.

However, the authors of the paper recommend care over some proactive actions such as introducing large mammals into rewilded areas, which can sometimes have unintended detrimental impacts for ecosystems and humans, through predation, the destruction of habitats or the spread of disease. This can include damage to crops and killing of livestock.

Paper information

Andrea Perino, Henrique M. Pereira, Laetitia M. Navarro, Néstor Fernández, James M. Bullock, Silvia Ceaușu, Ainara Cortés-Avizanda, Roel van Klink, Tobias Kuemmerle, Angela Lomba, Guy Pe'er, Tobias Plieninger, José M. Rey Benayas, Christopher Sandom, Jens-Christian Svenning, Helen Wheeler. (2019). Rewilding complex ecosystems. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5570

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