The Importance of Practical Definitions

A new definition of wilderness and wild areas has now been developed by Wild Europe’s Wilderness Working Group. It builds on the existing IUCN Category 1B classification, adapting it to a European context.

One of the main reasons for the absence of a coordinated strategy on wilderness and large natural habitat areas in Europe was the lack of a common working definition.

There are many different words for ‘wilderness’ and ‘wild’ and it is impossible to adequately promote, protect or restore an area if the qualities one is focusing on remain unclear, or are understood differently according to geographic location, individual perception or local culture.

Equally, if inappropriate definitions are employed, this can itself create an obstacle to achieving conservation objectives. Whilst the words ‘wilderness’ or ‘wild’ can evoke strong support in some quarters, they can lead to confusion among traditional conservationists and provoke negative reaction from landholding or farming interests whose resource has produced a well tended landscape which they do not wish to see ‘reverting to scrub’.

Wildness - what's in a word?

Swiss Alpine forest: wild area or wilderness? The devil’s in the detailSwiss Alpine forest: wild area or wilderness? The devil’s in the detail

There are a few areas in Europe where wilderness can currently be found in the sense of the IUCN Classification, referring to very substantial regions that are largely untouched by the hand of man. It occurs in parts of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Ukraine and Western Russia together with bordering states. There are also elements in Central and Southern Europe.

By contrast “wild areas” can be said to cover a range of intermediate landscapes – from near wilderness where natural process and habitat is virtually unaltered, to other areas where the condition of natural processes and habitats is more substantially modified by grazing, sporting activity, forestry or general imprint of human artifact. Wild areas are smaller, often fragmented and scattered across the continent.

Attainment of “wilderness” status is the ultimate goal in this process wherever scale, biodiversity needs, geography and landholding interests permit.

The above map of wildness in Europe is derived by amalgamating measures of land cover, population density and remoteness from road or rail access.

Any definition involves a multi-angled consideration of scale, landscape impact, prevalence of natural process and ability to deliver significant ecological services (most notably in addressing climate change) as well as host a range of wild area related recreational or social activities. It is further determined by subjective opinion: the spirit of wild areas that enables solitude, sense of wholeness, belonging, healing, awareness and self-development.

In this latter context, there is also the concept of “urban and neo-urban wildness” where issues of personal perception and values play as much of a role as geography. However, it is important to remain focused on practical objectives, and not get overly enmeshed in academic debate.

A note of caution

There are many interested parties for whom the concept of “wilderness” or “wild areas” carries negative commutations or is relatively unknown. It is thus often most helpful to think in terms of large areas of natural habitat and natural process, with “wild” as a promotional