Wolves and brown bears among wildlife making ‘exciting’ comeback in Europe

Exclusive: report on species recovery shows how effective legal protection, habitat restoration and reintroductions can be

Back from the brink: how bison, bears and beavers returned to Europe

Wolves, brown bears and white-tailed eagles are among the top predators making a comeback across Europe, according to a major report that looks at how some wildlife is rebounding.

Researchers analysed data on 50 wildlife species whose population size and geographical distribution have expanded over the past 40 years to show how effective legal protection, habitat restoration and reintroductions can drive species recovery.

“The vast majority have recovered thanks to human efforts,” said Louise McRae from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who was one of the authors of the European Wildlife Comeback report, commissioned by Rewilding Europe. “As a researcher working on global biodiversity and looking at global trends, it can be quite depressing hearing the latest statistics, but this report is really exciting, encouraging and inspires people like me to keep doing what we’re doing.”

The grey wolf has been the fastest to return among carnivores. For centuries they were killed by humans, until a low-point during the 1970s when there were only a few populations hanging on in pockets of south and north-eastern Europe. Since the introduction of legislation to protect them, and more public tolerance of living alongside them, numbers have increased by 1,800%. There are 17,000 individuals roaming almost all of continental Europe, with calls to reintroduce them to Britain too.

What is rewilding?

Rewilding is the restoration of nature in places altered by human activity. From releasing apex predators such as jaguars and wolves to making space for native grasslands in urban areas, rewilding can happen on a big or small scale.
While there are competing definitions, most have the rebuilding of sustainable ecological health at their core, be it the return of kelp forests on the Sussex coast in England or the reintroduction of mockingbirds on the Galápagos Islands.

Why has the term become so popular?

Rewilding has captured the public's imagination by being an environmental movement and a science-based process at the same time. With visions of a wilder planet, high-profile environmentalists such as David Attenborough and George Monbiot inspired millions with paths to a more biodiverse, ecologically healthy future. The success of rewilding pioneers around the world has shown what is possible: from the restoration of Gorongosa national park in Mozambique after the civil war to the Knepp estate in the south of England. 

Does rewilding have universal support?

No. Critics of rewilding fear that the term is being used to justify the removal of humans from the landscape, especially farmers and indigenous communities. In the UK, some have dismissed the concept as a fad for 'toffs' and landowners with vast incomes, while others fear it is being used to attack agricultural communities who have farmed areas for hundreds of years. 

Can you rewild?

While the boldest rewilding initiatives take place at a landscape scale, small changes can have a big impact. Millions of people changing how they mow their grass or let nature into their gardens, balconies and window sills can add up, providing more space for biodiversity to recover. 

There are 12,500 pairs of white-tailed eagles soaring over much of Europe, with growing populations on the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Wight. Across Europe, there has been a 445% increase in numbers between 1970 and 2018, mainly thanks to legal protection and the banning of damaging pesticides.

Since 1960, populations of brown bears have increased by 44%, driven by better legal protection, although persecution is still a big risk and human-bear conflicts continue. “Coexistence with species like carnivores is still a challenge, but attitudes are changing – we’re still learning about ways to live alongside these species,” said McRae.

Compiled by ZSL, BirdLife International and the European Bird Census Council, the report looked at data on 24 mammals, 25 birds and one reptile. The main data sources were the Living Planet Index Database, the EU Birds Directive and the IUCN red list, which measures extinction risk.

No insects or plants were included in the report, in part because there is much less data available on longterm trends. “We chose those species because they are doing so well – both with monitoring and conservation there can sometimes be a bias towards larger, or more charismatic species,” said McRae.

Previous analysis has shown brown bears, wolves, bitterns and Eurasian lynxes receive almost the same amount of funding under the EU’s habitats directive as all invertebrates put together. Sometimes, protecting “umbrella species” such as beavers or wolves benefits habitats generally, but this is not always the case, as certain insects can have very specific ecological needs.

Despite the positive findings, wildlife is still being lost at record speed across the planet, with 1 million species at risk of extinction and the vast majority of protected landscapes in Europe in poor or bad condition. Although many of these species have shown recovery in the past 40 or so years, it follows centuries of decline, so none of them have reached the numbers they would have been at historically.

The Eurasian beaver has had one of the most significant returns among herbivores, increasing its range by 835% since 1955, with a 16,000% increase in species abundance since 1960. By the 20th century there were just 1,200 left due to hunting for their fur, meat and castoreum (secretions used in food and perfume).

Since the 1950s they have bounced back thanks to legal protection and species reintroductions, with significant increases in central and western Europe. In the UK, beavers were officially reintroduced in Kent in 2002, 400 years after the last one was killed.

Barnacle goose, griffon vulture and great white egret are among the most successful bird comebacks. There are about 800 pairs of bearded vulture, with a population increase of 120% since 1991. They are thriving in France, Spain and Germany, thanks to reintroduction programmes and bans on killing them, although certain populations in eastern Europe are still under threat. These birds specialise in high-altitude mountain habitats where they feed mainly on bones that other scavengers leave behind.

Legal protection by EU laws, such as the birds and habitats directives, changes in land use and better species management are among the most effective tools for saving species. Enlarging and connecting protected areas, reintroducing species and improving the quality of habitats also work. Frans Schepers, executive director of Rewilding Europe, said: “This new report not only sheds light on which European wildlife species are recovering well, but why they are recovering well too.”

Since the last Wildlife Comeback in Europe report, released nearly a decade ago, most of the species analysed have continued to recover. But it is important to be cautious when assuming recoveries will continue, researchers said.

“By learning from the success stories, we can maximise wildlife comeback across the board. The report also shows that we must work hard on many fronts to keep the recovery happening and to allow more species to benefit from this,” said Schepers.

The newly proposed EU nature restoration law, if adopted, would strengthen efforts to tackle biodiversity loss and climate breakdown, researchers say. Included in the proposals are targets to reverse the decline of pollinator populations by 2030 and cut the use of chemical pesticides in half by the same date.

At a global level, the main policy is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The next decade of UN targets on nature restoration are set to be agreed in Montreal in December at Cop15.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


Phoebe Weston

The GuardianTramp

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