Rewilding Abandoned Landscapes
Laetitia M. Navarro
and Henrique M. Pereira
Centro de Biologia Ambiental, Faculdade de Cie
ˆncias da Universidade de Lisboa, 1749-016 Lisbon, Portugal;
Engenharia Civil, Arquitectura e Georrecursos, Instituto Superior Te
´cnico, 1049-001 Lisbon, Portugal
For millennia, mankind has shaped landscapes,
particularly through agriculture. In Europe, the
age-old interaction between humans and ecosys-
tems strongly inﬂuenced the cultural heritage. Yet
European farmland is now being abandoned,
especially in remote areas. The loss of the tradi-
tional agricultural landscapes and its consequences
for biodiversity and ecosystem services is generat-
ing 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 percep-
tions of traditional agriculture in Europe and their
inﬂuence in land management policies. We argue
that, contrary to the common perception, tradi-
tional agriculture practices were not environmen-
tally friendly and that the standards of living of
rural populations were low. We suggest that cur-
rent policies to maintain extensive farming land-
scapes 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 aban-
donment and forest regeneration and the ecosys-
tem 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.
Key words: farmland abandonment; land-use
change; passive management; ecosystem services;
land sharing; land sparing.
Deforestation and the loss of natural habitats re-
main major global concerns. Nonetheless, although
scenarios for the next decades project the contin-
uation of these dynamics in tropical ecosystems,
the projections made for much of the Northern
Hemisphere are quite the opposite (Pereira and
others 2010). In fact, most deforestation in Europe
occurred before the industrial revolution (Kaplan
and others 2009), and the amount of forests and
scrubland is now increasing following the land
abandonment that began in the mid-twentieth
century (FAO 2011), a trend that is expected to
continue over the next few decades (van Vuuren
and others 2006).
Natural vegetation recovery is a complex process
that occurs during the progressive alleviation of
Received 6 October 2011; accepted 15 April 2012;
published online 30 June 2012
Electronic supplementary material: The online version of this article
(doi:10.1007/s10021-012-9558-7) contains supplementary material,
which is available to authorized users.
Author Contributions: HMP developed the ideas for the paper. LMN
conducted the research and wrote the initial draft, which was then edited
*Corresponding author; e-mail: email@example.com
Ecosystems (2012) 15: 900–912
Ó2012 The Author(s). This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com
agricultural use (Hobbs and Cramer 2007; Stoate
and others 2009). This reduction in land-use
intensity, including abandonment at the extreme, is,
at the local scale, explained by a combination of
socio-ecological drivers (MacDonald and others
2000; Rey Benayas and others 2007)suchaslow
productivity and aging of the population. These
factors interact between them and with the ecolog-
ical dynamics of succession, creating positive feed-
back loops, which increase the irreversibility of
farmland abandonment in marginal areas, and
reduce the effectiveness of subsidies awarded to
farmers to halt abandonment (Figueiredo and
Pereira 2011; Gellrich and others 2007). In Europe,
there has been a decline of 17% of the rural popu-
lation since 1961 (FAOSTAT 2010). Some parishes
of Mediterranean mountain areas have lost more
than half of their population in a similar period
´zar and others 2000; Pereira and others 2005).
At the regional scale, the current farmland con-
traction is best explained by an increase in agricul-
tural productivity and the slowing of population
growth in Europe (Keenleyside and Tucker 2010).
Landowners and managers facing increased
agricultural market competition have resorted
mostly to one of three active management strate-
gies (Figure 1): intensiﬁcation, extensiﬁcation, and
afforestation. Intensiﬁcation is often chosen on the
most productive soils and where good conditions
exist for mechanization (Pinto-Correia and Mas-
carenhas 1999). Extensiﬁcation consists of obtain-
ing higher productivity by expanding the area of
the farm through land consolidation or in devel-
oping multiple uses of the land. This has happened
in the Montado and Dehesa areas of Portugal and
Spain, an agroforestry system that integrates
animal production, cork harvesting and cereal
cultivation, while hosting high biodiversity and
providing recreational and aesthetical beneﬁts
(Bugalho and others 2011). Finally, in some areas
with poor farmland soils, the option has been to
plant forests, often of fast growing species (Young
and others 2005).
In this article, we discuss a fourth option: rewil-
ding abandoned landscapes, by assisting natural
regeneration of forests and other natural habitats
through passive management approaches. Rewil-
ding has seldom been considered as a land man-
agement policy, as often it faces resistance from
both the public (Enserink and Vogel 2006; Bauer
and others 2009) and the scientiﬁc communities
(Conti and Fagarazzi 2005; Moreira and Russo
2007). Arguments against rewilding include the
loss of the traditional agricultural landscape and
negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem
services (for example, Conti and Fagarazzi 2005).
This situation has given rise to a pattern of double
standards: developing countries are asked to halt
deforestation while some developed countries are
actively ﬁghting forest regeneration on their own
land (Meijaard and Sheil 2011).
Here, we critically examine some of the argu-
ments used in support of the maintenance of the
traditional landscapes and contrast those argu-
ments with the potential beneﬁts for ecosystem
services and biodiversity that could accrue from
rewilding. We conclude with an analysis of the
main challenges associated with rewilding aban-
The cultural importance of traditional agriculture
landscapes has been widely recognized in Europe
and the world. As of 2011, 76 of the 936 UNESCO
world heritage sites are in the ‘‘cultural landscapes’’
category (http://whc.unesco.org), and 29 of those
because of traditional or symbolical agricultural
practices. Examples include the ‘‘Causses and
Cevennes Mediterranean agro-pastoral cultural
landscape’’ in France or the ‘‘Mont Perdu’’ in the
´es. As much as 15 to 25% of the European
farmland can be classiﬁed as High Nature Value
farmland (EEA 2004). Of the 231 habitat types
listed in the European Habitats Directive, 41 are
associated with low-intensity agricultural manage-
ment, including semi-natural grasslands and hay
meadows (Halada and others 2011).
This has lead to a generalized push towards pol-
icies embracing the protection of extensive farming
Figure 1. Landscape management strategies plotted
against agricultural use intensity and level of manage-
ment (from active to passive): agricultural intensiﬁcation,
agricultural extensiﬁcation, afforestation, and rewilding.
Rewilding Abandoned Landscapes in Europe 901
systems with the dual-role of protecting biodiver-
sity and ecosystem services. Here we argue that not
all socio-ecological aspects of the maintenance of
these landscapes have been taken into account
because our perceptions of these landscapes have
been biased by our own cultural experiences. We
question three ideas associated with current poli-
cies: (1) the idea that traditional agriculture prac-
tices were environmentally friendly; (2) the idea
that traditional rural populations lived well; (3) the
idea that traditional landscapes can be kept despite
the context of recent rural exodus and future socio-
Were Traditional Agriculture Practices
In Europe, pre-Neolithic Holocene landscapes can
most likely be described as a mosaic of old-growth
forest, scrubland, and grasslands, maintained by
the grazing of large herbivores and by ﬁre (Sven-
ning 2002; Vera 2000, Vera 2009), although the
relative amount of open area is debated (for
example, Hodder and others 2009). Later on, and
much before the onset of modern agriculture,
European inhabitants destroyed most of Europe’s
forests on usable land. Europe is now the continent
with the least original forest cover (Kaplan and
The process of forest clearing might be as old as
human’s making of tools (Williams 2000). It started
in the Neolithic with the use of ﬁre to open areas
for grazing and hunting (Pereira and others in
press). Forest loss was accelerated during Antiquity,
when the rise of classical civilizations led to large-
scale deforestation (Williams 2000; Kaplan and
others 2009). After a brief interruption caused by
the breakdown of the Roman society, the defores-
tation trend continued in the Middle Ages (inter-
rupted only by the Black Death), with an estimated
loss of 50–70% of the European forest during this
Hence humans ampliﬁed the disturbance regime
of European ecosystems and expanded the open
area considerably (Pereira and others in press),
creating and maintaining ‘‘traditional’’ landscapes
such as the alpine grasslands (Laiolo and others
2004), and the agro-silvo-pastoral systems of
Mediterranean regions (Blondel 2006). These
extensive farming systems have higher species
diversity than intensive farming systems (Bata
and others 2012; Tscharntke and others 2005), and,
at the local scale, often have higher species diver-
sity than non-managed ecosystems and natural
forests (Blondel 2006;Ho
¨chtl and others 2005;
Lindborg and others 2008). Therefore, it has been
suggested that biodiversity peaks for low levels of
land use associated with these extensive farming
systems (Figure 2), following the intermediate dis-
turbance principle (Wilkinson, 1999).
This pattern has been used as an argument to
maintain the active management of extensive
farmland and halt ecological succession. However
at regional scales, this relationship is likely to
exhibit a different pattern (Figure 2). The habitat
turnover of wild landscapes can be a mosaic of
closed forest and open areas, which should accom-
modate many of the species that can usually be
found in extensive farmland habitats. In the early
Holocene, the regional diversity of wild landscapes
would have been even higher (Figure 2). Several
species have now disappeared due to the expansion
of human activities, including the auroch (Bos pri-
meginius), the Tarpan (Equus ferus ferus), or became
extinct in most of their former ranges (for example,
wisent, Bison bonasus).
Deforestation also had important impacts on
ecosystem services. In the Mediterranean basin,
deforestation is thought to have caused desiccation
and soil erosion (McNeely 1994; Blondel 2006). In
the Middle Ages, timber shortage is likely to have
played a role on the impulse to conquer new ter-
ritories (Farrell and others 2000). To build naval
ﬂeets, countries such as Portugal and Spain had to
resort to importing wood from colonies from the
sixteenth century on (Devy-Vareta and Alves
2007). By the end of the nineteenth century, the
dimension of the erosion problems in mountain
slopes and associated silting in rivers and ﬂoods
Historical - Regional scale
Current - Regional scale
Current - Local scale
Extensive Agriculture Wilderness
Figure 2. Conceptual representation of the response of
current species diversity to land-use intensity at the local
and regional scales, and of the hypothetical regional
response if Holocene extinctions had not occurred. The
response at the local scale is adapted from EEA (2004),
whereas the current and historical responses at the
regional scale are discussed in the text.
902 L. M. Navarro and H. M. Pereira
downstream led to large state sponsored afforesta-
tion programs in Portugal and Spain.
Did Traditional Rural Populations Live
For centuries, populations inhabiting marginal agri-
cultural areas organized their lives in a self-sufﬁcient
manner (Blondel 2006). The industrial revolution
and the globalization of the food and labor markets
brought many of these regions to an economic dis-
advantage with urban and peri-urban areas:
increasing wages associated with economic growth
and the low food prices in global markets rendered the
low-productivity farmland uncompetitive.
Nowadays, marginal agricultural areas through-
out the globe are classiﬁed as ‘‘poverty traps’’ where
households suffer from scarcity of resources, low
return on investment, lack of opportunities, and
reduced social services (Conti and Fagarazzi 2005;
Ruben and Pender 2004). For example, in moun-
tains of Southern Europe, rural populations are
constrained by the low productivity of small-scale
parcels and the limited opportunities for mechani-
zation and intensiﬁcation (MacDonald and others
2000). On average, across European mountain
areas, the income per hectare is about 40% lower
than in other, non-disadvantaged, areas (809 e/ha
vs. 1370 e/ha in EC 2009). The young have limited
access to education and employment while the
elders experience isolation and difﬁculties to access
services (EC 2008a). This results in out-migration
and aging of the population, leading to an inverted
population pyramid. This rural exodus is driven by a
‘‘circle of decline’’ where low population density
limits business creation, causing fewer jobs and more
out-migrations which, in turn, accentuates the
decrease in population density (EC 2008a).
Rural populations still value the quality of their
environment and its scenic beauty (Bell and others
2009; Pereira and others 2005), but the working
conditions in many of these regions have always
been difﬁcult. Terraces are some of the most
admired cultural landscapes in Mediterranean
areas, but locals often use the expression ‘‘slavery
land’’ to describe the harshness of the working
conditions (Pereira and others 2005).
Are Current Efforts to Maintain
Traditional Landscapes Likely
Traditional agricultural practices were character-
ized by being labor intensive for relatively low
agricultural yields (MacDonald and others 2000;
Gellrish and others 2007). These characteristics
played a key role in the demise of many of the
traditional practices when labor costs rose due to
economic growth, an effect that contributed to and
was exacerbated by rural exodus. Large numbers of
livestock kept vegetation succession on hold for
centuries, but in the past few decades livestock
numbers have declined in many of these regions
(Cooper and others 2006). In Europe, the number
of livestock (cattle, goats and sheep) declined by
25% between 1990 and 2010 (FAOSTAT 2010).
Still, recognizing the role of European farmers in
maintaining these landscapes (Daugstad and others
2006), several measures have been implemented to
limit farmland depopulation. As part of the Euro-
pean Common Agriculture Policy, Less Favored
Areas (LFAs-Regulation 1257/1999) were desig-
nated mainly to prevent rural abandonment and
maintain cultural landscapes (Dax 2005; Stoate and
others 2009). LFAs went from representing a third
of the European Utilized Agricultural Area (UAA)
in 1975 to more than half in 2005 (Dax 2005;
MacDonald and others 2000). Though the LFA
classiﬁcation often happens to match High Nature
Value farming systems and extensive agriculture, it
poses no limit to intensiﬁcation and overgrazing
In the Rural Development Plan for 2007–2013,
the payments to farmers in LFAs totaled e12.6
billion (DG Agriculture 2011). Though the sum of
these subsidies is substantial at the European scale,
at the individual level they might not be enough to
maintain young farmers or attract new residents
(Cooper and others 2006), especially in areas
where the farm size is small. For example, when
considering an average farm size of 23 ha in
mountain areas (MacDonald and others 2000) and
an average LFA subsidy of e100/ha (Dax 2005),
the average payment is of e2,300 per farm/year.
This value can be higher if farmers also adhere to
agri-environmental schemes, but overall LFA
farmers still have lower incomes (Cooper and oth-
ers 2006): the Farm Net Value Added is 13,056 e/
Annual Work Unit in mountain LFAs, 14,174 e/
AWU in other LFAs, and 18,923 e/AWU in non-
LFAs (average for the EU25 countries between
2004 and 2005 in EC 2008b).
Hence the decrease in rural populations that
started in the 1960s is projected to continue into
the next few decades (Figure 3). Future scenarios
predict that the contribution of agriculture in
regards to GDP and employment in Europe will
continue decreasing (Eickhout and others 2007;
Nowicki and others 2006) and the young genera-
tions will keep migrating to the cities, as long as
Rewilding Abandoned Landscapes in Europe 903
their life quality and income prospects are higher
there (EC 2008a; Keenleyside and Tucker 2010)
resulting in the non-replacement of the aging
population of European farmers.
Following the decrease in the rural population,
agricultural area in Europe is also expected to keep
contracting (Figure 3), despite an expected increase
in the global demand for agricultural goods,
because enough food is obtained either directly by
production on competitive land in Europe or else-
where in the world (Keenleyside and Tucker 2010).
Regionally labeled and organic products could help
maintain certain forms of extensive agriculture but
this market remains restricted (Strijker 2005).
Projections also take into account an increasing
demand in biocrops (Rounsevell and others 2006;
¨ter and others 2005; Verburg and Overmars
2009), which can explain a moderate increase in
the predicted agricultural area in some scenarios.
The dimension of the agricultural area abandoned
or converted into production forest varies widely
between scenarios (Table 1). If we use the interme-
diate scenarios in Verburg and Overmars (2009),
between 10 and 29 million ha of land will be released
from agriculture between 2000 and 2030. Areas
particularly susceptible to the decline of agro-
pastoral use include semi-natural grasslands and
remote or mountainous areas with poor soil quality
(Keenleyside and Tucker 2010; Pointereau and
others 2008; Stoate and others 2009). Some of these
areas are located in Northern Portugal, Northwest-
ern France, the Alps, the Apennines and Central
Europe (Figure 4).
THE BENEFITS OF REWILDING
Rewilding is the passive management of ecological
succession with the goal of restoring natural eco-
system processes and reducing human control of
landscapes (Gillson and others 2011). Note that
although passive management emphasizes no
management or low levels of management (for
example, Vera 2009), intervention may be required
in the early restoration stages.
In contrast, much of the biodiversity conserva-
tion efforts in Europe emphasize active manage-
ment, by maintaining low-level agricultural
practices (Figure 1). Active management also dif-
fers in goals, targeting the increase of the abun-
dance of speciﬁc taxa or the maintenance of
particular habitats, using approaches such as veg-
etation clearing and construction of artiﬁcial habi-
tats, often working against successional processes.
Natural succession on abandoned farmland and
pastures often leads to scrubland and sometimes at a
later stage, to forest (Conti and Fagarazzi 2005).
Figure 3. Past and future trends of European agricultural area and rural population. Agricultural area (lines): land-use
change predicted in the four scenarios of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (van Vuuren and others 2006). The
projections are based on the area of food crops, grass and fodder, and biofuels crops, between 1970 and 2030. OS order
from strength, AM adapting mosaic, GO global orchestration, TG techno-garden. Rural population size (bars): historical
values (dark gray) and future projections (light gray) (FAOSTAT 2010; past data for the Baltic countries from http://
904 L. M. Navarro and H. M. Pereira
Passive forest regeneration restores almost as much
forested areas globally as active tree plantation (Rey
Benayas and Bullock 2012). Nonetheless, ‘‘wilder-
ness’’ is not a synonym of ‘‘contin-
uous forest’’ (Sutherland 2002). The European
megafauna played a role in maintaining open land-
Table 1. Projections of Future Change in the Agricultural Area (Arable Land and Pasture) from Different
Region Variation in the
EU15 + Norway
-6%/-10% for cropland
-1%/-10% for grassland
142.5 2000–2080 Rounsevell and others (2006)
+5.5%/-15% 82.5 2000–2030 Eickhout and others (2007)
EU27 -5%/-15% 198 2000–2030 Verburg and Overmars (2009)
Europe -5%/-24% 235 1970–2050 MA (2005)
+8%/-20% 183 2000–2050 Balmford and others (2005)
Initial agricultural area estimate obtained from FAOSTAT (2010).
These values are only for arable land.
This study looked at the 23 most important food crops worldwide, corresponding to 44% of the cropland area in developed countries.
Figure 4. Localization of the hotspots of abandonment and rewilding in Europe. Those hotspots are areas categorized as
‘‘agriculture’’ in 2000 that are projected to become rewilded or afforested in 2030 and that are common to all four
scenarios of the CLUE model (Verburg and Overmars 2009). Hotspots are expressed as a percentage of each 10-km
cell. Agricultural areas correspond to ‘‘arable land (non-irrigated)’’, ‘‘pasture’’, ‘‘irrigated arable land’’ and ‘‘permanent
crops’’. Rewilded and afforested areas correspond to ‘‘(semi)-natural vegetation’’, ‘‘forest’’, ‘‘recently abandoned arable
land’’ and ‘‘recently abandoned pasture land’’. Countries in grey have no data.
Rewilding Abandoned Landscapes in Europe 905
scapes, before being brought to global or local
extinction by humans and replaced by domesticated
grazers (Johnson 2009; Vera 2000; Bullock 2009).
This does not mean that rewilding should aim at
rebuilding Pleistocene ecosystems, an approach
which has been proposed elsewhere (Donlan and
others 2006), but that faces many difﬁculties (Caro
2007), including the lack of many of the original
keystone species, a different climate, and ecosys-
tems modiﬁed locally (for example, changes in soil
caused by agriculture) and regionally by humans
(for example, the global nitrogen cycle). Instead,
the emphasis is on the development of self-sus-
taining ecosystems, protecting native biodiversity
and natural ecological processes and providing a
range of ecosystem services (Cramer and others
2008). These novel ecosystems may be designed to
be as similar as possible to some historical baseline
in the recent or distant past, but they will often
involve the introduction of new biotic elements
(Hobbs and others 2009).
Beneﬁts of Rewilding for Biodiversity
Rewilding will cause biodiversity changes with
some species declining in abundance, that is, loser
species, and other species increasing in abundance,
that is, winner species (Russo 2006; Sirami and
others 2008). We reviewed 23 studies identifying a
positive response of species to decreasing human
pressure or to restoration of their habitat following
land abandonment (Supplementary Information).
In total, we identiﬁed 60 species of birds, 24 species
of mammals, and 26 species of invertebrates that
could beneﬁt from farmland abandonment (Sup-
plementary Table 1). We also identiﬁed 101 species
negatively affected by land abandonment (Sup-
plementary Table 2), but 13 of those species can be
classiﬁed as both ‘‘winner’’ and ‘‘looser’’ depending
on the study and the region. Much of the agrobi-
odiversity associated with High Nature Value
Farmland will be in the ‘‘loosing’’ category. In
contrast, many of the winner species have declined
or became functionally extinct in traditional agri-
cultural landscapes, such as large carnivores. These
species will beneﬁt from forest regeneration and
the connection of fragmented natural habitats
(Keenleyside and Tucker 2010; Russo 2006).
Revegetation promotes the increase of the or-
ganic matter content and the water holding
capacity of soils (Arbelo and others 2006). This can
lead to higher biomasses and densities of earth-
worms (Russo 2006) and other invertebrate fami-
lies (Supplementary Table 1A).
Some forest birds beneﬁt from forest regrowth
after farmland abandonment (Pointereau and oth-
ers 2008), such as woodpeckers, treecreepers, and
tits (Supplementary Table 1B). Some birds of prey
have beneﬁted from increases in rodent popula-
tions (Pointereau and others 2008). Perhaps more
surprisingly, populations of several bird species of
the Eastern European steppe have increased after
agricultural activity decline (Ho
¨lzel and others
2002). Some, such as the Little Bustard (Tetrax tet-
rax), have beneﬁted from the tall and dense grass-
land of the regrown steppes. This contrasts with the
concerns that the decrease of open areas in Wes-
tern Europe is contributing to the decline of steppe
Figure 5. Qualitative
assessment of the
provided by rewilding,
agriculture and intensive
agriculture in Europe.
The relative values given
to the provision of each
service by the different
strategies are discussed in
906 L. M. Navarro and H. M. Pereira
species. Therefore the biodiversity consequences of
rewilding depend on the geographical context.
Likewise, rural abandonment makes the land
suitable for a comeback of large mammals (Sup-
plementary Table 1C). Large grazers are beneﬁting
from the lower hunting pressures that usually
accompany abandonment (Breitenmoser 1998;
´zar and others 2000). European carnivore
species have been increasing since the 1960s in
abundance and distribution, as stable populations
of Eastern Europe are naturally recolonizing
abandoned landscapes of Scandinavia, the Medi-
terranean, and the Alps (Enserink and Vogel 2006;
Boitani 2000; Stoate and others 2009).
It is also important to consider the trophic
interactions between species and the cascading ef-
fects driven by rewilding. For example, amphibians
and otter (Lutra lutra) populations are known to
beneﬁt from the restoration of ditches by beavers
(Castor ﬁber) in abandoned areas of Eastern Europe
(Kull and others 2004). The presence of lynx in
some parts of Switzerland reduced the roe deer and
chamois browsing impact by regulating both pop-
ulations (Breitenmoser 1998).
Beneﬁts of Rewilding for People:
Abandoned farmland is often perceived negatively
as it is associated with the perception of unkept
land and with the decrease on the economic
usability of the land, particularly by the rural
populations (Hochtl and others 2005; Bauer and
others 2009). However there are many ecosystems
services that are provided by this type of land-
scapes, particularly indirect and non-use services,
which are often disregarded in the process of pol-
icy-making (TEEB 2010).
Rewilded areas can, at the regional scale, provide
habitat for biodiversity with conservation results as
high or higher than other land management options
(Figures 2,5). This supporting service can lay the
foundations for some cultural services (Figure 5),
because some of the species beneﬁting from aban-
donment are linked with recreation through hunting
and tourism (Gorta
´zar and others 2000;Kaczennsly
and others 2004). For instance, in the Abbruze region
of Italy, tourism has beneﬁtedfrom the advertisement
of the presence of bears and wolves (Enserink and
Vogel 2006). In addition to these direct and indirect
use values, the large mammalspecies brought back by
rewilding are amongst the species with highest exis-
tence values (Proenc¸ a and others 2008).
Forest regrowth promotes carbon sequestration
(Kuemmerle and others 2008). The carbon stock in
European forests has grown from 5.3 to 7.7 PgC
between 1950 and 1999 (Nabuurs and others 2003).
Nonetheless, active afforestation can potentially
yield higher carbon sequestration rates than rewil-
ding by using fast growing species (Figure 5). Nat-
ural regeneration allows soil recovery and nutrient
availability, though erosion can increase in the ﬁrst
years following abandonment (Pointereau and
others 2008; Rey Benayas and others 2007). Forests
regulate hydrological cycles, particularly in moun-
tain areas (Ko
¨rner and others 2005) and water
quality is expected to locally improve in abandoned
ﬁelds (Stoate and others 2009). Nonetheless, the
transition from grassland to forest, a higher water-
use system, can reduce the quantity of water
(Brauman and others 2007). Afforested areas
managed for timber provisioning are disturbed both
for plantation and management, thus providing
qualitatively less water and soil related services than
rewilded areas (Figure 5).
Intensive agriculture areas and planted forests
are designed to focus on speciﬁc provisioning ser-
vices. Extensive agriculture offers a tradeoff be-
tween food provisioning, cultural services, and
habitat for biodiversity, whereas rewilding provides
a wide range of supporting, regulating and cultural
services (Figure 5).
The passive management associated with rewil-
ding has much lower maintenance costs than other
management options, and therefore signiﬁcant re-
turns of regulating and cultural services are ob-
tained for limited levels of investment. Still, these
services have characteristics of common goods
(TEEB 2010), and therefore are rarely advanta-
geous for the individual land-owner. Nonetheless,
wilderness is linked to amenity-based growth and
attracts urban individuals seeking different envi-
ronments to both visit and work (Rasker and
Hackman 1996): North American counties favoring
wilderness showed faster growth in their employ-
ment and income level than counties in which the
economy is mainly based on resource extraction.
THE CHALLENGES OF REWILDING
Rewilding as a landscape management option does
involve several challenges. Our understanding of
those challenges and how they can be overcome
depends on the relationship between humans, the
landscape and the biodiversity that it sustains.
Conﬂicts with Wildlife
Conﬂicts occur when wildlife overlaps with human
activities such as hunting and farming (Gorta
Rewilding Abandoned Landscapes in Europe 907
and others 2000; Linnell and others 2000; Schley
and Roper 2003). Those conﬂicts are age-old in
Europe and negative perceptions were transmitted
through generations via folklore and tales (Wilson
2004; Boitani 2000). Hunting wild species, and
particularly carnivores, was socially enforced (En-
serink and Vogel 2006), which led in many cases to
their local extinction by the nineteenth century.
Though many European countries have imple-
mented regulations to protect large carnivores,
such legislation is not understood and accepted by
all (Breitenmoser 1998). In particular, they accen-
tuate a cleavage in opinions amongst countries and
between rural and urban populations (Bauer and
others 2009; Wilson 2004) the latter being usually
more favorable to a wildlife comeback.
The conﬂicts with carnivores are largely ex-
plained by the fact that they prey on domestic
animals due to the scarcity of wild prey (Russo
2006) but also by the loss of traditional livestock-
guarding knowledge in several countries (Fourli
1999; Kaczensky and others 2004). Nonetheless,
the level of depredation of livestock by carnivores is
generally low, often less than 10% of their diet
(Wilson 2004). Still, the impact at the level of the
livestock owner can be high (Wilson 2004). To
compensate for these impacts, several countries pay
for damages caused by wildlife. For bear and wolf
damages, an average of e2 million/year were
compensated in Europe between 1992 and 1998 in
France, Greece, Italy, Austria, Spain and Portugal
(Fourli 1999) while e2.15 million were spent in
Large grazers such as deer and wild boars can
also cause signiﬁcant damage to crops, pastures and
forest plantations (Goulding and Roper 2002;
Kamler and others 2010). As for the carnivores, a
combination of preventive measures such as elec-
tric fencing (Honda and others 2009) with com-
pensation payments can contribute to decrease the
levels of conﬂict.
Fear of attacks on people also play a factor in this
conﬂict, but this often can be improved with better
information to the public as there is a correlation
between the fear of an animal and a lack of
knowledge of its behavior (Decker and others 2010;
Kaczensky and others 2004).
Limits to Ecological Resilience
In many regions of Europe, the transition from
abandoned to semi-natural land takes less than
15 years, followed by another 15–30 years before
reforestation (Cramer and others 2008; Verburg
and Overmars 2009). Passive regeneration can
therefore be a slow process, particularly in a dry
environment such as the Mediterranean (Rey
Benayas and others 2008), or when the soils have
been modiﬁed by past agriculture, that is, the
‘‘cultivation legacy’’ (Cramer and others 2008), or
the ‘‘grazing history’’ (Chauchard and others
2007). The revegetation also depends on the
availability and quality of the native seed bank
(Rey Benayas and others 2008).
If the abandoned land is too degraded assisted
regeneration may be needed (Cramer and others
2008). Active restoration would involve large-scale
native trees plantation and tree growth manage-
ment (Rey Benayas and others 2008). An inter-
mediate level of intervention involves the creation
and management of forest regeneration sources or
‘‘woodland islets’’ (Rey Benayas and Bullock
2012). Another problem often requiring interven-
tion is the vulnerability of intermediate stages of
natural succession to natural perturbations, such as
invasive species (Kull and others 2004; Stoate and
others 2009) and ﬁre (Pausas and others 2008). Fire
is a particularly acute problem as it has impacts not
only on biodiversity but also on human health
(Proenc¸a and Pereira 2010b). If ﬁre regime is not
appropriately managed, frequent ﬁres will favor
ﬁre-prone scrubland and halt succession towards
forest, in a self-reinforcing feedback loop (Proenc¸a
and Pereira 2010a).
One of the strategies to manage ﬁre regimes is to
maintain open spaces in the landscape, minimizing
also the impacts of revegetation on species that
prefer open areas (Figure 2). This strategy can be
implemented by increasing the populations of large
herbivores (Hodder and Bullock 2009; Sutherland
2002), including reintroduction of extinct species
(Svenning 2002). In the case of species regionally
extinct, it is possible to use individuals from other
populations. For instance, seven European bison
were recently reintroduced in northern Spain,
1,000 years after their extinction (Burton 2011). A
more complex situation occurs with species that are
globally extinct, such as wild relatives of some
domesticated species. A possible solution is to re-
lease into the wild individuals of breeds that are
most likely to be successful in replacing the eco-
logical role of their wild ancestors. For instance,
Iceland ponies have been released in the former
arable ﬁelds of the Dutch-Belgian border (Kuiters
and Slim 2003): their grazing favored a dense grass
sward and after 27 years open grassland still rep-
resented 98% of the area.
Natural colonization of abandoned land by car-
nivores can also be limited by the availability of
prey, as is the case for the Iberian lynx (Lynx
908 L. M. Navarro and H. M. Pereira
pardinus) currently negatively affected by the
scarcity of rabbits, decimated by diseases (Delibes-
Mateos and others 2008), or as can be expected for
some populations of wolves and bears currently
preying on livestock (Russo 2006).
Rewilding may be a future option in areas that
are undergoing agricultural development or
intensiﬁcation today. There is currently a debate
between land sharing and land sparing approaches
to reconcile food production with biodiversity
(Phalan and others 2011). In land sharing, biodi-
versity conservation and food production goals are
met on the same land, with biodiversity friendly
agricultural practices and extensive agriculture,
whereas in land sparing, land is divided between
areas of intensiﬁcation and of exclusion of agri-
culture. In practice, it is difﬁcult to determine
which is the best option because species respond
differently to the alteration of their habitat (Phalan
and others 2011). To maintain future options for
rewilding, both land sparing and land sharing are
needed. On the one hand, land sharing is essential
to limit land degradation and to maintain the
appropriate seed bank for future passive revegeta-
tion. On the other hand, land sparing would allow
for the conservation of populations of species that
are currently in conﬂict with human activities,
making ‘‘cohabitation’’ very difﬁcult.
Most landscapes are evaluated and protected
according to emotional and aesthetic values that
societies attribute to them (Antrop 2005; Gobster
and others 2007) and conservation programs are
determined by people’s perceptions of what should
be preserved (Gillson and others 2011) and depend
on shifting baselines of what nature should be like
(Vera 2009). Thus, the values that Europeans give
to farmland and wilderness landscapes are based on
tradition and history but also on socio-economic
backgrounds (Van den Berg and Koole 2006). Yet,
considering that landscapes result from the dy-
namic interaction of natural and cultural drivers
(Antrop 2005), they cannot be perceived as an-
chored in time and we should anticipate occasional
changes that will force us to reevaluate their deﬁ-
Rewilding appears to be a viable management
option for some of these transitions with important
beneﬁts for biodiversity and ecosystem services. At
the local scale, some species will decline and other
increase, eventually leading to local species diver-
sity decreases in some taxa (Figure 2). We lack
research studies looking at the regional scale
dynamics, but we hypothesize that no signiﬁcant
loss in species diversity is expected as long as
mosaics of open spaces and forest are maintained,
and that some dimensions of biodiversity may even
improve, such as the average size of populations of
wild species. At the global scale, many species have
already gone extinct and it will be impossible to get
them back, but the release into the wild of breeds of
some domesticated species may allow recovery of
some historical losses (Figure 2). In terms of eco-
system services, rewilding allows for a wide range
of regulating and cultural services (Figure 5).
The extent and outcome of rewilding will be
heterogeneous across Europe (Figure 4) as different
regions will have different departing points of post-
farmland abandonment and varying limitations to
natural forest regrowth. For example, on some
abandoned areas of Southern Europe, the avail-
ability of forest tree seed banks can be a limiting
factor due to little natural forest left and the fre-
quent ﬁre regime may delay ecological succession.
In contrast, the relative scarcity of open areas in
much of Northern Europe may render the inten-
siﬁcation or reestablishment of natural perturba-
tions, such as grazing by large wild herbivores and
ﬁre (for example, prescribed burns), priority goals
for management. Rewilding can also be considered
on available land that does not necessarily result
from farmland abandonment, such as national
forests previously managed for timber production,
decommissioned military areas, salt ponds and
other wetlands, thus increasing the level of heter-
ogeneity of European wild landscapes.
From a conservation standpoint, the option be-
tween rewilding and active management will de-
pend on the goals and the local context. Active
management is likely to be preferred when the goal
is to restore speciﬁc species or maintain early suc-
cessional habitats and other habitats associated
with human activities. Passive management
emphasizes dynamic ecological processes over static
patterns of species or habitat occurrence and can be
more sustainable in the long term or at large spatial
Despite many beneﬁts, rewilding has been dis-
regarded as a management option until recently.
Initiatives such as Rewilding Europe (http://
www.rewildingeurope.com) and the PAN Parks
Network (http://www.panparks.org) are now
bringing rewilding to the forefront of the discussion
of European conservation policies. Rewilding poses
many challenges, but those are inherent to the
implementation of any restoration plan. In a world
wounded by biodiversity loss, farmland abandon-
ment is an opportunity to improve biodiversity in
Rewilding Abandoned Landscapes in Europe 909
Europe, to study the regeneration of vegetation,
and even to test ecological theories (Hobbs and
Cramer 2007). In the end, the question is not
whether we prefer a domesticated or a wild Euro-
pean landscape but rather which management
options (Figure 1) at each place will be more
achievable and sustainable.
We thank P. Verburg for sharing data from the
CLUE model and commenting on the manuscript.
We also thank V. Proenc¸a, R. Beilin, J. Bullock and
S. Ceausu for comments. This research was funded
by the Fundac¸a
˜o para a Cie
ˆncia e a Tecnologia
(FCT)-ABAFOBIO (PTDC/AMB/73901/2006) and
by FORMAS-Project LUPA. L.N. is supported by a
grant from FCT (SFRH/BD/62547/2009).
This article is distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License which
permits any use, distribution, and reproduction in
any medium, provided the original author(s) and
the source are credited.
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