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European Wilderness in a Time of Farmland Abandonment

Silvia Ceaușu, Steve Carver, Peter H. Verburg, Helga U. Kuechly, Franz Hölker, Lluis Brotons and Henrique M. Pereira

Abstract Wilderness is a multidimensional concept that has evolved from an aesthetic idea to a science-based conservation approach. We analyze here several subjective and ecological dimensions of wilderness in Europe: human access from roads and settlements, impact of artificial night light, deviation from potential natural vegetation and proportion of harvested primary productivity. As expected, high wilderness in Europe is concentrated mainly in low primary productivity areas at high latitudes and in mountainous regions. The use of various wilderness metrics also reveals additional aspects, allowing the identification of regional differences in the types of human impact and a better understanding of future modifications of wilderness values in the context of land-use change. This is because farmland abandonment in the next decades is projected to occur especially at intermediate wilderness values in marginal agricultural landscapes, and thus can release additional areas for wild ecosystems. Although the subjective wilderness experience will likely improve at a slower pace due to the long-term persistence of infrastructures, the ecological effects of higher resource availability and landscape connectivity will have direct positive impacts on wildlife. Positive correlation between megafauna species richness and wilderness indicate that they spatially coincide and for abandoned areas close to high wilderness areas, these species can provide source populations for the recovery of the European biota. Challenges remain in bringing together different views on rewilding and in deciding the best management approach for expanding wilderness on the continent. However the prospects are positive for the growth of self-regulating ecosystems, natural ecological processes and the wilderness experience in Europe.

Keywords Wilderness • Human footprint • Artificial light • Potential natural vegetation • Harvested primary productivity • Megafauna • Farmland abandonment

The History and Value of Wilderness

Wilderness is a comprehensive measure of conservation value capturing both the subjective human experience, and the ecological dimension of minimally impacted ecosystems (Cole and Landres 1996; Hochtl et al. 2005). But the concept of wilderness has gone through dramatic historical changes in terms of both the context and connotation in which the term was used. During the centuries of exploration and colonization of new territories, wilderness was perceived negatively as a land that is unfavourable for human habitation and should be altered and tamed (Nash 2001). “Wilderness” gradually entered the North American language of conservation in the nineteenth century after the end of the frontier exploration, especially promoted by the hunting community. It developed as an aesthetic and ethical concept related to the protection of pristine nature in the face of galloping technological progress and rapid disappearance of natural environments. Thus wilderness became synonymous with freedom, natural beauty, sanctuary and retreat from everything that was perceived as overwhelming in the modern lifestyle (Nash 2001).

Some have argued that past landscape modifications by human populations and pervasive human impacts across scales make the idea of wilderness inconsequential (Heckenberger et al. 2003). Wilderness also attracted considerable controversy in North America, particularly raising questions relating to equity and the rights of humans living in, or next to, areas allocated to wilderness protection (Nash 2001). The same issues were raised on all other continents that were colonized by European settlers. The establishment of protected parks and hunting reserves in South Africa was accompanied by the relocation of native populations and social strife (Carruthers 1995). Australia has also experienced some controversy surrounding the definition of wilderness and its disconnection from the culture and lifestyle of aboriginal populations (Mackey et al. 1998).

Such developments gave “wilderness” the impetus to evolve towards a more relevant concept for the twenty-first century, incorporating both human dimensions and needs as well as new research results from areas such as paleoecology or climate science (Gillson and Willis 2004). A science-based understanding of the human influence on ecosystems informs presently one of the main current conservation approaches (Brooks et al. 2006; Kalamandeen and Gillson 2007). In this context, wilderness represents one extreme of the gradient of human presence and impact across the landscape. While still retaining an aesthetical element and an existence value among growing numbers of enthusiasts in the Western industrialized countries, wilderness also refers to the biophysical reality of natural processes, ecological communities, and the resulting ecosystems that develop in the absence of human management. Therefore, wilderness is of major importance both for research and management in the areas of ecosystem services (ES) (Naidoo et al. 2008, see Chap. 3), biodiversity conservation (Watson et al. 2009), and the establishment of ecosystem baselines (Vitousek et al. 2000).

Appreciation of European wilderness has had a different path from that on other continents due to the long history of human occupation, agriculture and landscape management. Many of the species that used to dominate the landscape in the distant past have been hunted to extinction or have been driven away from the most favourable habitats (Barnosky 2008, see Chaps. 4, 8) and natural vegetation cover has been cut or burnt down to make space for farmland. Thus both laymen and naturalists have come to regard and appreciate this new state as the natural biodiversity of the continent. As a result of a shifting baseline syndrome, traditional agricultural landscapes have become the benchmark against which biodiversity change was measured (Papworth et al. 2009). However, a growing movement in Europe advocates now for wilderness protection and recognition, and policy steps have been taken in this direction, including a resolution of the European Parliament on wilderness in Europe (Martin et al. 2008; European Parliament 2009). Research has also been undertaken in order to identify and map wilderness on the continent (Fritz et al. 2000; Carver 2010). In this favourable context, rewilding of abandoned farmland can gain momentum as a way of expanding the areas that provide both increased opportunities for wilderness experience and more extensive self-regulating and self-sustaining ecosystems (Rey Benayas et al. 2007; Munroe et al. 2013, see Chaps. 1, 11).

Considering the diversity of possible definitions, we approach wilderness in this chapter from several points of view. In the next section we review the literature on wilderness mapping and to identify some of the most important ecological and aesthetical aspects of wilderness in Europe. We then map and discuss the spatial agreement between wilderness based on (a) human access from roads and settlements, (b) impact of artificial light, (c) deviation from potential natural vegetation, and (d) proportion of primary productivity harvested by humans, as metrics of wilderness value over space. We further explore the health of trophic chains by looking at megafauna species and their spatial concurrence with wilderness. Megafauna such as the large herbivores, apex predators and birds of prey have an important role in maintaining and returning ecosystems to a higher naturalness state through establishment of natural trophic cascades (see Chaps. 4, 5, and 8). As such we also map the distribution of high body mass species across Europe and discuss the overlaps with high-wilderness quality and farmland abandonment areas. We then explore the possible spatial and temporal dynamics of wilderness in Europe over the next few decades in the context of farmland abandonment and rewilding. We examine how aspects of wilderness could increase due to agricultural abandonment and we suggest means to maximize the potential success of rewilding efforts.

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