Today is the UN International Day for Biological Diversity, and protecting biodiversity is the beating heart of the Endangered Landscapes Programme. The biodiversity crisis – caused by increasingly unsustainable use of natural landscapes over recent centuries – provides a common driver for projects. ‘Crisis’ is no understatement. Human-induced changes to ecosystems have never accelerated faster than during the past half-century. Worldwide, a quarter of plants and animals are threatened with extinction, with habitat loss endangering 70% of species within the EU.
Protecting important places and vulnerable species has value, but defensive strategies cannot reverse the loss of nature and ecosystem processes that underpin human economy and wellbeing. Envisioning a long-term future that works for nature and people demands an exciting new approach: landscape-scale ecological restoration. Contributing to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity ‘Aichi target’ to “restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems”, ELP projects aim to reverse biodiversity loss by creating extensive, connected and resilient landscapes.
Projects aim to get natural processes working again – including re-establishing functional ecological communities. In Western Iberia’s Greater Côa Valley, landscape and nature have been substantially altered over centuries. Woodlands have been cleared for agriculture, grey wolf has been shot to near-extinction to protect livestock, roe deer (wolves’ natural prey) has almost disappeared due to habitat loss and hunting, and insufficient natural carcasses force scavengers, including griffon vulture that nest in the valley, to rely forage for carrion further afield.
Fortunately, the area also presents opportunities on which Rewilding Europe and local partners are capitalising. In the 1980s, the declining rural economy caused local communities to abandon land and relocate to cities. This, says Rewilding Portugal’s Pedro Prata, “releases large tracts to restore”. Across 120,000 ha, Pedro adds, the project hopes for “viable populations of complete trophic chains with natural densities and capacity to move over the landscape”. The strategy is to create conditions that allow wildlife to return naturally – in this case a habitat mosaic less threatened by wildfires which enables herbivore populations to recover.
In some cases, however, where species were lost long ago, reintroductions are needed to catalyse landscape recovery. In Romania’s Făgăraș Mountains, Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) envisages returning what FCC’s Daniel Bucur calls “ecosystem architects” – European bison and Eurasian beaver. “When talking about intact ecosystems,” he explains, “we always need to ask: ‘What is missing?’”
In the Côa Valley, Rewilding Portugal has commissioned surveys to help decide whether to artificially bolster deer numbers. “If prey density is high enough,” Pedro says, “predators will establish themselves”. At this point, the whole ecosystem will benefit. “Under pressure from wolves, herbivores will forage differently and transform vegetation into a dynamic mosaic,” Pedro explains. Moreover, deer carcasses will feed vultures, so their random distribution “will make scavenger foraging behaviour more complex than today’s simple movement from nesting site to feeding station”.
Pedro acknowledges that simply reintroducing the top carnivores would be quicker. But, he argues, reviving the ‘circle of life’ is cheaper, improves prospects of predators’ sustained re-establishment and “is more likely to result in acceptance by local people and public authorities”. In Western Iberia, at least, a future featuring intact ecological communities is in sight.
This article first appeared in our ELP Annual Review 2019.