Benefits to Conservation

Contribution to Biodiversity

As the failure to meet many of the 2010 targets illustrates, Europe’s biodiversity is under continued threat: from habitat destruction, pollution and climate change as well as the impact of invasive alien species.

In the EU, 60% of the most valuable habitats are in unfavorable conservation status.

With natural habitat and process still largely intact, wilderness areas provide a base point or ‘gold standard’ of natural ecological condition against which other areas can be measured. They still narrate the ongoing story of evolution,

Highly endangered - Marsican brown bear, ItalyHighly endangered - Marsican brown bear, Italy

They support species that are dependent for their survival on large, remote areas, and can harbour extensive gene pools for long-term species sustainability. They also provide opportunity for adaptation and migration in response to climate change, enabling development of more resilient ecosystems.

Their scale can also support income earning and therapeutic activities which could otherwise conflict with conservation interests in smaller areas.

It should be feasible to achieve aims for conservation of wilderness and wild areas where these occur within the Natura 2000 network, by promoting regimes of ‘non-intervention’ management and restoration.

In countries adjacent to the European Union where important areas of wilderness remain, outside Natura 2000 areas, alternative means of protection will be required – but the biodiversity benefits could be just as significant.

The Role of Wild Areas in Halting Biodiversity Loss

It is heartening that opportunities are opening up for a “re-wilding” of at least parts of Europe. These remnants, or reconstructions, of wilderness are critical in conserving biodiversity.

Judging from the ecological principle that larger areas are able to support more species, linking wild lands together to make extensive protected areas will conserve greater biodiversity than the smaller areas could.  They will also enable species to adapt to climate change, by giving them room to move as habitats change along with the climate.

Many other benefits for biodiversity are increasingly cited:

  • Higher ratio of core to margins, with less disturbance of inner area
  • A larger gene pool for species survival
  • Potential to encompass whole ecosystems, including water sources
  • Scale enables significant sustainable nature tourism without the same compromise to biodiversity interest that can occur with smaller reserves
  • Scale also enables appropriate scale for benefits from addressing climate change to be derived by landholders, local communities etc from prospective funding of ecosystem services: eg from carbon sequestration (carbon credits from energy users, polluters etc), flood mitigation (funding from government agencies, sponsorship from utility and insurance companies), pollution alleviation etc.
  • Size can facilitate use of wild land areas for urban social projects (youth development, youth at risk, healthcare) of direct relevance to mainstream political agendas and offering future funding sources from ‘social services’ from currently small but well established budget holders (Interior Ministries, Health Services, Probationary services)
  • The above attributes can enable cost:benefit calculations to promote protection, restoration or general funding of appropriate land use or biodiversity management
Iberian lynx, endangered by habitat fragmentation and loss of prey speciesIberian lynx, endangered by habitat fragmentation and loss of prey species

Restoration of wildland areas, bringing to bear the above arguments, can enable upgrading and enlargement of existing reserves, with linkage into a network – connecting biodiversity islands, enabling longer distance migration and sharing of gene pools.

As the failure to meet many of the 2010 targets illustrates, Europe’s biodiversity is under continued threat: from habitat destruction, pollution and climate change as well as the impact of invasive alien species.

In the EU, 60% of the most valuable habitats are in unfavorable conservation status.“European wilderness is the building block for a greener Europe” Ladislav Miko, Director of Natural Environment at the European Commission. Protecting and restoring the last remaining wilderness can contribution significantly to supporting EU post 2010 biodiversity strategy.

With natural habitat and process still largely intact, wilderness areas still narrate the ongoing story of evolution, providing a base point or ‘gold standard’ of natural ecological condition against which other areas can be measured.

Wilderness and wild area initiatives for connectivity

Jeffrey McNeely, IUCN Chief Scientist, explains the benefits of wild lands to biodiversityJeffrey McNeely, IUCN Chief Scientist, explains the benefits of wild lands to biodiversity

Building on global examples, Europe is now developing some significant landscape-level approaches to wilderness. The connectivity agenda is also gathering momentum.

The European Green Belt is an ecological network from the Barents to the Black Sea, and Spain, Portugal, France, Andorra and Italy are working together to strengthen the Great Ecological Connectivity Corridor, involving the Cantabrian Range, the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, and the Western Alps.

Some are even hoping that the Great Mountain Corridor, already conceived as a 1300-km corridor, can eventually extend into the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe.  While linking the Cantabrians to the Alps may seem a little bit of a stretch, a wolf from the Cantabrians was reportedly seen last year in the Pyrenees, close to a pack of wolves that arrived from the French Alps a decade ago, after having crossed the Rhone Valley.

Other more modest trans-boundary efforts are also notable, such as Bialowieza between Poland and Belarus, the last remaining habitat of the Wisant or European Bison and a World Heritage site.

Europe has many other trans-boundary protected areas, either already functioning or available in potential, for expanding potential wilderness.

Addressing supposed conflict between biodiversity and wilderness principles

The issue of conflict between conservation management and principles of wildness should be addressed, since the area of common ground and benefit is much greater than allowed for in the current debate:

  • Benefits from wildlands cited above generally outweigh concerns over diminution in richness of biodiversity
  • Any concerns that ‘wilding’ an area previously heavily managed for agricultural grazing or other purposes can be substantially mitigated by extensive management techniques, including grazing: by ungulates, beaver – even semi-feral cattle where relevant
  • Allowance can still be made for localized management related to specific species, whilst retaining an overall wildland landscape
  • Smaller scale high intensity biodiversity can be balanced out by much larger scale lower intensity

Impetus behind further re-wilding

Land use in Europe is dynamic, with many areas once devoted to agriculture now being abandoned, especially as young people move to cities, more technology is applied to high-productivity lands, and areas of marginal agriculture often mimic nature.  All of this facilitates a sort of “re-wilding” of at least certain parts of Europe.

In Eastern Europe, especially, much farmland has been abandoned in recent years, especially in the Carpathian Mountains.  Unfortunately, this abandonment of agriculture was compensated by increased harvesting of older forests, leading to forest fragmentation.

Restoration will also involve political and social decisions, as some areas of apparent wilderness are in fact domestic habitats, such as the grouse moors of Scotland.  Returning the grouse moors to the native forests that once covered much of Scotland is a highly controversial topic and will require sensitive handling.  But incorporating wilderness values into the discussion may provide a basis for productive dialogue.

Yet another challenge should be added here, namely the importance to the rest of the world for Europe to reduce its global ecological footprint.

Europe’s impact on wild lands throughout the tropics has significant implications for conservation in those countries.  Therefore, as Europe develops a strategy for conserving biodiversity in the coming decade, a “foreign policy for biodiversity” should be included, and this element should incorporate wild land issues, drawing from the experience of Europe and expressing willingness to exchange expertise and experience with other countries.

The prospects for wilderness will be greatly enhanced if wilderness is broadly accepted as a global value.