Rewilding our landscapes

Connecting modern society with wilder nature


Bescherm, herstel en bevorder het duurzaam gebruik van ecosystemen, beheer bossen duurzaam, bestrijd woestijnvorming en landdegradatie en stop het verlies aan biodiversiteit

The 21st century marks the beginning of the urban era. Within only a few decades, 75{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} of the world population, 85{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} of Europeans, and 95{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} of the Dutch live in urban agglomerations. Even crowded countries such as the Netherlands experience a depopulation of the countryside. On the European level, land abandonment takes place at a pace of almost 1 million hectares/year – a demographic revolution. While 100 years ago 80{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} of the Dutch population worked in areas directly or indirectly related to agriculture, at the moment this is only the case for a few percent of the working population.

The fact that the vast majority of people are no longer farmers or shepherds has significant implications for the relationship between man and nature. Species are no longer seen in the limited context of loss and profit. For a fast-growing group of people, nature is becoming the counter to their urban lives; a source of recreation and relaxation, the decor for unexpected experiences. Even during economic crises ecotourism is a growing economic sector; not in spite of urbanization, but as a logical consequence of it. In a way you could say that, after millions of years of being hunters-gatherers and only 10.000 years of farming, we recently see a growing need to become hunters and gatherers again: hunting with cameras, gathering experiences.

This whole development has a huge impact on our land use. Due to technical innovations and the dynamics of the world food market, agriculture has intensified on the most productive soils. The need to control cycles of energy, water, CO2, and fertilizers most likely urges us to further intensify food production in almost industrial areas. The only structural solution to improving animal welfare is to eat less meat and leave as much space as possible for wild animals outside the agricultural system.

The latter is possible due to other developments in urban society. By being less dependent on large areas for food production, there is a growing opportunity to solve socio-economic issues with nature as an ally. ‘Building with nature’ is the philosophy behind Dutch national programmes around flood protection along the main rivers, coastal protection with sand ‘engines’, new mining strategies using renewable clay sources for brick-production, climate adaptation in wetlands, securing water resources in natural areas, etc.

Giving more space to rivers, instead of time and again raising dikes, increases the resilience of the system, while providing space for nature and ecotourism. A careful excavation of the clay layer in river forelands provides a landscape that not only contributes to flood control, but also forms the basis for side channels, living dunes, and riverine forests grazed by free roaming herds of large herbivores. Storing water at the source in new wetlands not only serves climate adaptation and water companies, but also forms the basis for biodiverse ecosystems like seepage bogs, alluvial forests, and freshwater marshes.

The results are spectacular, with hundreds of thousands of hectares of wilder landscapes, and a massive comeback of species that in some cases have not been seen for centuries: the white-tailed eagle, osprey, the peregrine falcon, beavers, otters, cranes, the greater white egret, greylag geese, eagle owls, wild cats, martens, sturgeons, seals, whales, and wolves. And these are only the most imaginative types. Alongside them, hundreds of other species: flowers and fishes, bats and beetles, mushrooms and dragonflies, all benefit from restored river dynamics, forest regeneration, and natural grazing. Although much is still unknown about the complexity of our ecosystems, the fast recovery of key species and food webs show that we are starting to better understand our natural neighbours. If we act as ‘nature managers’ now, we will have to act less in the future. We are learning how to allow nature to take care of itself, to respect its integrity, and to integrate nature into our modern landscapes and economies. We are working hard to perfect this coexistence model. And let there be no misunderstanding: although the resulting landscapes look pretty wild, these are not wildernesses, but modern cultural landscapes, metre by metre the result of deliberate decisions to give nature more space within the limits that society allows.

This strategy is maturing in the Netherlands and is now spreading all over Europe due to an emerging ‘rewilding’ movement. With hundreds of smaller and bigger initiatives in more than 25 European countries, local organizations and communities are exploring new relationships for recovering wildlife and natural processes. The first promising results indicate that Europe can become a guiding continent in nature based economies.

Wouter Helmer

Wouter Helmer

Co-founder and Rewilding Director of Rewilding Europe
Honorary Professor of Forestry and Nature Management at the Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences (part of Wageningen University)
Founder and Managing Director ARK Nature (until 2015)
Groeneveld Award 2015