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Rewilding for dummies

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By Elise Maris

· 14 min read

Our society today is confronted with complex challenges that cross national borders, such as climate change, biodiversity decline, economic crises, mass tourism etc. In this regard, countries share a growing attention for the preservation of their natural and cultural heritage. Current conservation strategies are not sufficient, the 60% decline in vertebrate animals since 1970 is alarming (Perino et al., 2019). In this so-called ‘decade of ecosystem restoration’, we need to go beyond nature protection towards ecosystem restoration and thus start thinking about how our landscapes can look in the future. Rewilding has recently been put forward as an innovative way to face these challenges. It offers a way to move away from the ecological fear narrative that portrays our society as inevitably nature-destroying, which discourages people from making efforts to improve our climate conditions. Rewilding empowers people and emphasizes that there is still so much we can do to regreen our planet (Schepers, 2020). Rewilding publications are worldwide skyrocketing but are often opinionated. Some of the controversies will be set out in this paper.

The vision of rewilding is to go back in history and reconstruct past ecosystems by engaging stakeholders through nature-based economies, and by convincing policy makers in terms of economic returns (Schepers, 2020).

What is rewilding, and what is not?

Where does the concept come from?

The term rewilding originated in the USA and originally referred to 3Cs: Cores, Corridors and Carnivores. The term evolved in recent years towards the reintroduction of large animals with a main goal: “restoring natural processes to promote ecosystems that maintain biodiversity with little or no need for ongoing human management” (Svenning et al., 2016; Bakker, 2020). Schepers (2020) adds to this definition “‘as natural as possible within the physical and social limits”.

For a clear overview of the history of the rewilding concept:

Why did the concept arise? Is rewilding an ‘evolutionary’ perspective on biodiversity restoration?

Today 4 out of 5 Europeans live in urban areas. This goes hand in hand with land abandonment, socio-economic impacts for these so turned ‘marginal’ areas and biodiversity loss. Moreover, patchy mosaic landscapes that harbor large amounts of biodiversity (e.g. birds, insects) are disappearing and making way for polarized landscapes with either monocultures or closed canopy forests. Can we turn around the degradation of European landscapes? Rewilding as a new conservation narrative starts from the realization that biodiversity is not derived from us humans controlling nature within a cultivated landscape but from natural processes that occur(ed) in wild nature with minimal human interference. Such landscapes are characterized by habitat heterogeneity (e.g., gradients, mosaics), structural diversity, increased species richness and abundance.However, the question is whether there is enough land to "let nature take its course" while meeting human needs such as food production.

Rewilding as a fairytale of wolves, mammoths and mastodons?

Rewilding is a wide spectrum of activities and landscape change where the introduction of wolves, bears and lynches is the ultimate goal. However, this is not the only rewilding approach and not the only representation of rewilding success. Rewilding is a spectrum based on 5 main principles; First, strive for (1) wilder nature by restoring natural conditions and thus enabling natural processes. Think for example about river restoration, re-flooding, dam removal, natural grazing, re-wetting of peatlands, forest regeneration. Secondly (2) enabling the return of species and the restoration of trophic networks. Which usually happens by itself because of more wilderness, or through species reintroductions. This is accompanied by a (3) local nature-based economy with new business models, access to markets and financing opportunities for local entrepreneurs and businesses. A fourth premise is (4)raising awareness about the importance of rewilding and inspiring all people, from citizens to European policy makers. As rewilding has many social benefits like giving marginal, degraded regions a new identity and empowering communities. Lastly (5), thescaling up of rewilding, which is also one of its main challenges. Not all principles need to be fulfilled for rewilding to be called a success. Moving up the scale depends on the physical environment as well as the social acceptance of how wild we want a place to be (Schepers, 2020). Other academics oppose this view and state that rewilding is a clearly fauna-centered approach (Hayward et al., 2019).

Does ‘wild’ mean no humans?

The relationship between rewilding and humans is characterized by many paradoxes. To begin with, concerns have been raised that "rewilding" means excluding people from landscapes (Perino et al., 2019). With current population growth, urban sprawl, and lack of (agricultural) land, this would make rewilding a futile attempt. Some academics therefore call for focusing on other conservation methods. On the other hand, promotors of rewilding argue that rewilding means to revive degraded, marginal lands by allowing people to work in and with rewilding landscapes for example by doing sustainable agriculture and ecotourism (King,2021). In addition, there is growing evidence that people's exposure to green and natural spaces reduces stress levels, increases positive emotions, cognitive functioning, physical activity and so on. In contrast, there is the perception of rewilding as a threat to people through natural disturbances, competition for land or by animals damaging crops and killing livestock (Perino et al., 2019). So, is wild nature a threat to human life and livelihood, or is it a potentially peaceful refuge?

A trade-off between letting nature lead and human intervention for restoring natural processes

Reintroducing animals in nature can be considered an extreme form of human intervention and control of landscapes ecosystems. It is a contradictory vision that might cause confusion. How far can we go in intervening natural processes? The important thing here is to first understand the functioning of the current system, to assess which parts of the trophic cascade will restore on its own in time and which will always be missing (e.g. apex predators) and hence where human intervention is indispensable (Schepers, 2020). The IUCN has reintroduction guidelines to clarify which ecological processes are so key that replacements of certain species by analogues are accepted.

Is it crucial to engage people in the rewilding discourse or should we focus on laws and regulations based on quantitative data (e.g. Natura 2000) that tell us how and what nature we should protect? Opinions are divided. Since we live on a human planet, we cannot ignore the role of humans in nature restoration. Instead of turning away from humans, Paul Jepson (2020) emphasizes on the importance of involving people in nature restoration. He talks about the creation of a new environmental story as part of our cultural DNA that gives us purpose and meaning, drives us to action, and influences science and policy responses. ‘We need to find new ways to live in coexistence with wild species to enable them to make a comeback’ (Jepson, 2020).

Is ‘rewilding’ just another term for restoration?

Is rewilding a rebranding of restoration or is it really a new phenomenon? Opinions are divided. Critics like Hayward et al. (2019) argue that the fuzziness of nature conservation, restoration and rewilding terms prevents effective scientific action and policymaking. Moreover, overlapping definitions like: Pleistocene rewilding, island rewilding, trophic rewilding, functional rewilding, passive rewilding, ecological rewilding, biotic rewilding and abiotic rewilding are counter productive as they lead to inefficient and fragmented resource allocation that should be directed toward restoration projects and missed opportunities for joint efforts. In addition, the ambiguity makes the concepts prone to ‘greenwashing’, allowing ‘poor conservation decisions to sit under the umbrella of a popular term’ (Hayward et al, 2019). On the other hand, broad and inclusive definitions would cause confusion in actions and intended outcomes. For example, restoration focuses on the creation of socio-ecological systems whereas rewilding tries to limit human interference. So, we are left with the question for discussion: should we adopt a new term but ensure clarity and widespread adoption or should we invest time and resources in a concept like nature restoration that is already widely accepted and gaining momentum?

For a detailed argumentation of this debate see
An interesting framework to categorize rewilding initiatives and to link it to other conservation methods:​

Does rewilding require large areas? Is rewilding in competition with agricultural land?

Some academics argue that "rewilding" is unrealistic given the current shortage of agricultural land and the population growth. Others argue that rewilding focuses on marginal land that would not produce food anyways. The problem here is that these marginal, low-production areas are heavily subsidized by the EU Green Deal (CAP) which encourages people to adopt unsustainable, economy-based agricultural practices (Perino et al., 2019; Schepers, 2020). Ter illustration: A farmer receives money from the EU to put a fence around his land, remove stones from the field, plow the cropland or remove all shrubs. Consequently, farmers engage in these practices even without growing a crop on their land. They will follow where the money leads. In this way, the CAP encourages over-intensification of agriculture to meet an artificial demand created by subsidies. Increasing the intensity of crops and livestock has led to deforestation and further land degradation while promoting systems that are not economically viable and make it an uneven battle between land uses. In other words, if people would not get these subsidies, the land would (in some cases) become available for rewilding projects. (Schepers, 2020). Hall (2018) concludes that the current cap makes the green deal work, but for nature's sake, we need to repeal the CAP. This debate touches on the controversies around scale. ‘Rewilding needs scale’ argues Sara King (2021), ‘we need to move away from islands of hope in a sea of misery’, in other words rewilding needs to scale up and therefore rewilding must become a competitive land use. On the other hand, scholars state that it is a misperception that rewilding needs huge space: ‘You can rewild your garden, cities, landscapes and even oceans states Schepers (2020) and Pedersen et al. (2019). However, creating wild and natural processes within a city context is debatable. We can conclude that rewilding is not a yes or no story, it is rather a scale. The idea is to move up that scale towards a rewilding or rewilded landscape (King, 2021; Hayward et al., 2019)

Interesting article about different scales of rewilding, their conservation goals, conflicts and (societal) benefits: Pedersen et al. & Svenning 2019 AMBIO,

Rewilding and (international) policy making

Is rewilding politically recognized?

Rewilding areas often get indirect legal protection trough the European Habitat and Birds Directive, thus nominated as Natura 2000 areas. However, there is a growing need to link the European biodiversity and climate agenda to rewilding, as simply protecting and conserving Europe’s nature is not enough to halt biodiversity decline or slow down climate change. Currently protected areas are already degraded and ‘unable to support thriving wildlife population, complex food webs or fully functioning ecosystems. This means they are unable to provide the benefits upon which Europeans rely, such as clean air, fresh water, and the locking up of atmospheric carbon.’ (RewildingEurope, 2021). As of now, there is no specific enabling rewilding policy. We need a lobby group (additional to the WILD foundation) that pushes for rewilding principles by formulating ‘an ambitious positive target of increasing wilderness across the globe by 2030’ (Perino et al., 2019, p. 6). We need to recognize rewilding as a major approach of ecological restoration and acknowledge its contributions to achieving the SDG’s, mainly those related to climate change, poverty eradication, food security and biodiversity conservation (Schepers, 2020, Perino et al., 2019).

What do we need from policy makers to achieve effective, efficient rewilding?

We need "commitment from national, continental and local levels" (King, 2021). "Current landscape management and conservation policies do not provide sufficient opportunities to implement rewilding on a broader scale" (Perino et al., 2019). Here, they emphasize the need for an institutional transformation. In addition, politicians must recognize the potential of "rewilding" and its financial needs. For example, in the post-COVID19 era, a lot of EU money goes to member states. Some of those funds could also be used for nature restoration.

Rewilding and economics

“For too long, conservation has been depending on public funds, donors we need the financial markets to be involved” – Frans Schepers (2020)

Reforestation projects need to bring about a change in the local economy by capitalizing on the natural heritage without depleting natural resources. New business models are needed that allow companies to benefit from nature extension and encourage nature-based market initiatives and investments (Jepson, 2020; Perino et al., 2019). Furthermore, to convince policymakers, an economic calculus must be presented; the cost-effectiveness of "rewilding" is greater compared to other conservation or restoration efforts. Rewilding offers the opportunity to continue supporting nature without increasing governmental debts.

How does rewilding work? What can be done?

Do we need to rewild in a certain order?

Do we start rewilding from the bottom of the Trophic Pyramid? Starting with pollinators and key insects, while moving up the chain towards herbivores and large predators with an ultimate goal keystone mammals like the European bison? Research and practical experiences are contradictive.

Frank Schepers’ (2020) view holds that it is not the predator that controls the prey, but the other way around, so the introduction of gees, chicks, etc. will lure wolves to an area. On the other hand, if predators are not being introduced into an area, there is a chance that herbivore populations will not be controlled, as has happened in the Oostvaardersplassen where lack of predators like wolves led to overabundance of deer, horses and cattle which eventually led to degradation of the landscape and starvation of these animals (Barkham, 2018). Thus, reintroduction of hoofed animals requires adequate top predators to keep the ecosystem in balance. Questions can be asked about accessibility of top predators and ethical aspects of replacing extinct keystone species with ecological analogues?

Is it scientifically and ethically acceptable to replace extinct keystone species with ecological analogies?

Scientists claim that we do not have enough knowledge about the possible outcomes of rewilding and that therefore rewilding is a big ecological experiment. Patrick Jansen disagrees and argues that measuring wildness is in development. Measuring ecological processes rather than just the presence of species is the way forward. To do this, four aspects of rewilding should be monitored: first, the progress of rewilding actions should be examined using rewilding scores. Second, three main processes should be considered: natural disturbances, animal dispersal, and trophic complexity, which are indicative of ecological integrity and can lead to ecosystem reorganization, reconfiguration and increased ecosystem complexity. The third important aspect that defines rewilding success is habitat heterogeneity, characterized by landscape mosaics, structural diversity and microhabitats. Finally, we need to monitor biological diversity (identified by the increase in species richness and abundance) using the living planet index, the mean species abundance metric (Alkemade et al. 2009) or by using before-after control impact (BACI) (Jansen, 2020).

Conclusion: can we rewild the world?

Rewilding is an interdisciplinary approach with biologic, political, economic and social aspects. This makes for an integrative, encompassing method that can draw support from many angles, but this is also its limiting factor.

The first limiting factors for rewilding lie in finance and politics; As mentioned above, perverse EU subsidies - in context of the CAP - encourage people to choose unsustainable, economy-based agricultural practices and prevent rewilding from becoming a competitive form of land use (Schepers, 2020). "The current cap makes the green deal work, but for nature we have to repeal the cap." argues Frans Schepers. This view is shared by Patrick Hall (2018): “The CAP encourages over-intensification of agriculture to meet an artificial demand created by subsidies.” Increasing the intensity of crops and livestock has led to deforestation and to further land degradation. EU policymakers should consider eliminating the income support component in the CAP in the interest of better environmental management and more innovation. Furthermore, involvement from investors, banks, financial institutions in rewilding projects – such as trough the development of smart financial mechanisms (e.g. Rewilding credits, commercial financing, green bonds) - is needed to scale up.

Secondly, our society needs a paradigm shift in thinking about what nature is and what it could or should be; What would wild nature be in Europe in the 21st Century? Most criticism is based on rewilding actions that do not consider societal acceptability and benefits, but nature conservation can be linked with modern economy and society. To get the necessary support and acceptance, it needs to be clearly showed how rewilding benefits people, how it does not hinder economic development, and how it restores biodiversity.


Bakker, L. (2020). Connecting Rewilding Science and Practice | 07 Connecting rewilding science and practice. [symposium]. Rewilding Europe. From: YlU1Fcs

Barkham, P. (2018). Dutch rewilding experiment sparks backlash as thousands of animals starve. The guardian. From: nment /2018/apr/27/dutch- rewilding-experiment- backfires-as- thousands-of-animals-starve​

Hall, P. (2018). CAP subsidies harm the environment. Epicenter. From: g/cap- subsidies-harm-the- environment/​

Hayward, M. W., Scanlon, R. J., Callen, A., Howell, L. G., Klop-Toker, K. L., Di Blanco, Y., ... & Weise, F. J. (2019). Reintroducing rewilding to restoration–Rejecting the search for novelty. Biological conservation, 233, 255-259.

Jansen, P. (2020). Connecting Rewilding Science and Practice | 06 How to measure rewilding success? [Symposium]. Rewilding Europe. From: Ow9 ZYvrnu8&t=1044s

Jepson, P. (2020). Connecting Rewilding Science and Practice | 01 Rewilding, A new narrative in conservation [symposium]. Rewilding Europe. From: 8zhx 72_fxM&t=4s​

King, S. (2021). Upscaling rewilding and nature recovery through the Rewilding Network. [Webinar]. CIWEM. Rewilding Britain. From: UqgO _wPvuYo​

N.g. (n.g.). The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). From: 113/4/8 98.full.pdf​

Pedersen et al. & Svenning (2019). Trophic Rewilding Advancement in Anthropogenically Impacted Landscapes (TRAAIL): A framework to link conventional conservation management and rewilding. SpringerLink. From: 01192- z​

Perino et al. (2019). Rewilding Complex Ecosystems. From https://www-science- org.kuleuven.e- 570

Rewilding Europe (2021). Wilder parks: protected areas can spearhead nature recovery in Europe. [blog]. From: der- parks-protected-areas-can- spearhead- nature-recovery-in- europe/​

Schepers F. (2020). Connecting Rewilding Science and Practice | 02 Rewilding European Landscapes. [Symposium]. Rewilding Europe. From: 5ePb FDEZHE&t=2043s​

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Elise Maris is a Masters student at the Catholic Universtiy Leuven (KULeuven) in Sustainable Development with a strong interest in nature conservation and restoration. After her internship at the Knowledge Center of the Flemish Cities, she conducted a field work in Rwanda, focusing on agroforestry.

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