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Maintaining Disturbance-Dependent Habitats

Wild Herbivores: Natural (Re)colonization or (Re)introduction?

Today, only 16 % of the Palearctic region, including Europe, contains areas occupied by relatively undisturbed large mammal faunas, i.e., species that have not undergone major changes in range between AD 1500 and the present (Morrison et al. 2007). This figure does not even consider the number of species that went extinct early in the Holocene (Table 8.1). There is also a clear regional difference when looking at

Fig. 8.4  Species richness for extant large herbivores of Europe—See Table 8.1 for the list of species. Map obtained using Inverse Distance Weighting (weight= 2) on the atlas data. (Source: Atlas of European Mammals, Mitchell-Jones et al. 1999)

the current species richness of large herbivores in Europe (Fig. 8.4): countries of central Europe present the highest diversity, while the Westernmost countries have low richness. Species rich areas, with lower human densities and less pressure on the land, could become “sources” for natural re-colonization. This has already been documented for some species of large herbivores that show substantial increases in their populations since the 1960s (Table 8.2). Though legislation and conservation measures largely contributed to it (Deinet et al. 2013), rural depopulation and the associated reduced human pressure, both direct (e.g. less hunting) and indirect (e.g. more land available), can also explain the phenomena (Table 8.2). Wild populations can also benefit from the absence of competitor and predator species (Bradshaw et al. 2003), though unregulated population growth could become an issue, e.g. if their pressure on the land is too high.

In cases where the local richness of wild herbivores is low, as for example in Western European countries (Fig. 8.4), species can be introduced to restore ecosystem functioning (Sandom et al. 2013b). That is, provided that their functional role is left unattended (Lipsey and Child 2007), and that the abandoned land meets their requirement in natural resources. A study on fenced populations of wild boar showed that their rooting behavior can create germination niches (Sandom et al. 2013a) and contribute to forest regeneration. However, they can also be detrimental to the established trees when bark stripping and uprooting (Sandom et al. 2013b). Reintroducing ecosystem engineers to restore and/or maintain disturbance dependent habitats can also be more time and cost effective than man-made restoration (Byers et al. 2006; Sandom et al. 2013a). Moreover, provided that the re-introduced species present charismatic values, their presence could facilitate the acceptation of a rewilding project by the public (Lipsey and Child 2007; Kuemmerle et al. 2012). The reintroduction of wild grazers can also be assessed positively from the standpoint of ecosystem services, based on the existence value of the megafauna (Proença et al. 2008) and associated cultural services (e.g. tourism, hunting, and see Chap. 3).

Nonetheless, a balance must be maintained when considering the (re)introduction of herbivores and many potential challenges should be raised and discussed (Seddon et al. 2007; Corlett 2012; IUCN 2013). First, which species should be reintroduced? When taxon substitutions are needed for ecological replacement (IUCN 2013), researchers' opinions are divided, ranging from releasing breeds of domesticated animals, to the reintroduction of extant relatives of long gone species (e.g. Donlan et al. 2006). Releasing animals also raises the question of increasing the risk of conflicts between local human populations and “wildlife” (e.g. Enserink and Vogel 2006; Goulding and Roper 2002), which could be more easily accepted if the species was progressively, and naturally, recolonizing an area. For reintroduced domestic species (e.g. horses), a legal framework on the liability of the organization that performed the reintroduction is also missing, for instance in cases of damages or accidents. Finally, an overabundance of certain species can have detrimental effects, especially when the natural predator guild is absent and cannot regulate the populations (see Chap. 4), yet no specific guidelines are designed for the natural control of reintroduced populations (IUCN 2013). For instance, the large populations of browsers in the Scottish Highlands, where large carnivores have been extinct for centuries, currently limit the natural forest regeneration (Sandom et al. 2013b).

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