The EU Nature Restoration Law is Adopted: What are the implications for rewilding?

On Monday, 17 June, months of deliberations culminated in the adoption of the new EU Nature Restoration Law by the Council of the European Union. The first-of-its-kind regulation aims to put measures in place to restore at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030, and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050.

What role will rewilding play in the implementation of the new legislation? We posed this and other questions to Gert-Jan Nabuurs, project partner in WILDCARD and Professor of European Forest Resources at Wageningen University and Research. Check out his answers below!

What is your first reaction to the approval of the legislation?

It is extremely good news that the law has passed, even though the text is much weaker than the original, presented two years ago. The first version said 30% of the degraded habitats types shall be in good condition by 2030, while the approved text says countries shall start measures to improve the state of these habitats. So we went from a target to an intention to execute, which is a big difference. But it is still very important that this intention is written down formally as a law.

What is the potential importance of rewilding for the legislation as a nature restoration strategy? 

The rewilding of abandoned lands and proforestation are important strategies in achieving the law, which contains an article with clear assessment criteria for forest restoration (Article 12), such as standing and lying deadwood, share of forests with uneven-aged structure, forest connectivity, carbon stock, among others. From now on, EU Member Countries will be tasked with finding areas whose conditions they can improve and restore, with the responsibility of locating their own funding and resources for these activities. Rewilding can gain relevance as a restoration approach because its implementation costs are relatively low compared to other approaches.

What will be some of the law’s main implementation challenges?

Member States that voted against the law will not be keen to start very quickly, and there is no penalty if they don’t achieve targets which have become a bit more vague. Additionally, we still lack knowledge on how to monitor certain indicators that need to be assessed to determine if restoration was successful, and to do it cost-efficiently.

What knowledge will be provided by WILDCARD to support the law’s implementation?

The project will provide assessments on how biodiversity responds to rewilding measures, such as which species and functional groups most benefit from it. Carbon sequestration and socioeconomic aspects will also be assessed, helping to devise recommendations on future rewilding hotspots that are ecologically important and socially acceptable.

Rewilding: navigating below the tip of the iceberg

By Davide Pettenella and Mauro Masiero (University of Padova, Italy)

In recent times, the tip of a large iceberg called rewilding has been spotted in the vast ocean of nature management and ecological restoration. Profound global and local changes have shaken this iceberg from its glacial platform, sparking ample interest in rewilding approaches. Although most attention is directed to the iceberg’s visible tip, rewilding conceals deeper complexities below the surface. Unveiling hidden depths would help a better understanding of rewilding as an emerging, wicked topic.

What are different pathways to rewilding and how do these approaches build on various ideas of human-nature relationships? We will embark on a journey to navigate these depths onboard a “socioeconomic and policy” submarine. Join our crew to gain a perspective different from – or, at least, complementary to – more ordinary periscopes.

Italy as a case study

We will explore just a part of such a vast ocean, as, for simplicity and concreteness, we will refer to Italy as a case study. Though building on a specific example and acknowledging it does not allow us to grasp the full complexity of rewilding, we will try to draw some general considerations and conclusions.

Why Italy?

With the highest biodiversity rates in Europe, vast mountainous ranges, and extensive forest coverage, Italy presents an intriguing landscape for rewilding efforts. Approximately two-thirds of the country consist of marginal areas, which are predominantly home to national forests. Moreover, Italy boasts a significant percentage of protected areas, encompassing about one-fourth of its territory. Finally, nearly half of the population resides in urbanized areas, occupying only a fraction of the national landmass. All these factors play a crucial role in shaping rewilding dynamics and trends across the country.

The Val Grande National Park, one of the many mountainous protected areas covered by lush deciduous forests in Italy. Credit: Priscila Jordão

Three pathways to rewilding

Within the targeted context three main pathways to rewilding emerge: (i) passive rewilding, (ii) rewilding as a green marketing strategy and (iii) active rewilding.    

Passive rewilding can be described as rewilding unintentionally deriving from the abandonment of managed natural areas. A good example is provided by the natural reforestation of pastures and farmlands in Italian mountainous areas, which has been the main driver behind the doubling of the national forest cover in the last 70 years. Today forests cover about 37% of the country and since 2021 semi-natural areas have exceeded intensively and semi-intensively farmed lands at the national scale. This process, however, has not been envisioned by a long-term strategy, nor planned or supported through actions and investments. It is also poorly perceived by society at large. Furthermore, it does not come without risks as it might result in the spread of invasive alien species and increasing exposure to hazards associated with climate change, such as wildfires, windstorms, pest attacks etc. It might also lead to social issues, such as in the case of the spread of ticks and tick-borne diseases in the Dolomites, as well as human-wildlife conflicts (e.g. involving bears, wolves, wild boars etc.).

Rewilding as a green marketing strategy links to the emergence of a specific market segment consisting of the so-called Lifestyle Of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) consumers that are very sensitive to multiple sustainability aspects rather than price, and show high brand fidelity. Their purchase behaviour is driven by values like “greening”, local products, fairness etc. and they are very much attracted by wild products such as wild meat, herbs, sap water, etc. It is not by chance, therefore, that many products bear names and brands linking to their wild and natural origins, such as for example “wild” (e.g. wild asparagus, wild mint, etc.), “mountain” (e.g. mountain milk and cheese, such as mountain parmesan) or “forest”.  A variety of standards, certification systems and labels have been created to ensure these products meet a range of environmental, quality, health, and socioeconomic requirements. Examples include (among others) forest certification standards like those set by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and even specific standards for wild products, such as FairWild.

Finally, active rewilding refers to actions taken to restore and conserve natural resources consistently with several policy initiatives aiming to mitigate climate change effects and protect biodiversity, such as the Kumming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework and policies within the EU Green Deal (e.g. the EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030, EU Nature Restoration Law, etc.). Within this framework, a strong emphasis has been given to nature-based solutions (NBS), defined by the European Commission (2015) as “solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience.” The NBS concept builds on the ecosystem approach to incorporate different forms of green interventions. Possible NBS-related actions and strategies might include active rewilding by recovering natural processes that would have occurred without human intervention (e.g., setting and maintaining strictly protected areas), proforestation, i.e. stopping forest management practices to leave forests to natural evolution dynamics (e.g., old coppice stands converted into high forests), and active and purposive land restoration to recover human-degraded areas, for example with reference to Natura 2000 sites (e.g., species enrichment, ecological connections, wetland building etc.). 

Framing values behind rewilding policies

In a recent review, Himes et al. (2024) framed nature values from existing research into three main blocks: instrumental, intrinsic and relational. These blocks combine with non-mutually exclusive life frames introduced by the IPBES in 2022 to describe people-nature relationships. The “Living from nature” frame builds on the idea of nature as contributing to human needs and wants: this anthropocentric life frame mainly refers to instrumental values and links well to provisioning and regulating ecosystem services. For example, it might refer to the expected contributions of forests and natural areas in offsetting carbon emissions towards carbon neutrality. This frame mainly links to rewilding as a green marketing strategy.

The categories of intrinsic, instrumental, and relational values by Himes et al. (2024)

The “Living in nature” frame focuses on nature as a place with which people develop physical and symbolic relationships. This strongly links to relational values and cultural ecosystem services as well as to the social dimension of biodiversity conservation in terms of recognizing and respecting the worldviews, values and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities.

The third frame, “Living with nature”, implicitly implies intrinsic values i.e., the right of each species to exist and live for their own sake and regardless of any instrumental value and utility. Such a frame reflects ongoing debates and initiatives on nature rights, and it might be associated with passive rewilding.

Finally, the “Living as nature” frame sees nature as a physical, mental and spiritual constituent of self, thus rejecting the people-nature dichotomy and, rather, seeing humans and nature as part of a broader community. This last frame, as well as the second one, seems to be more connected to the idea of active rewilding.

Concluding remarks

Like most wicked problems, rewilding is a complex and not univocal topic – so are possible approaches to it. Passive rewilding may look like an easy and low-cost option, but it may carry direct and indirect risks as well as hidden costs. On the other hand, active rewilding demands solid scientific foundations confirming positive environmental spillovers, while at the same time considering possible socioeconomic trade-offs.

Wicked problems cannot be addressed via simplistic approaches and one-size-fits-all solutions. Given the deeper complexities beneath the surface, we should keep exploring and observing from different angles. Navigating these depths requires acknowledging the intricate dynamics and embracing diverse approaches, considering multifaceted, complementary, and harmonised solutions towards rewilding.

Banner illustration: Gabriela Rueda

We’re hiring! New PhD and Postdoc positions within WILDCARD

Are you looking for a PhD or Postdoc position on the topic of rewilding? If so, check out our two new open positions:

  • One Post-doc position at the University of Udine (two years with possible extension). The specific focus of the post-doc will be on quantifying carbon trajectories and biodiversity implications (above- and belowground) of the rewilding of managed forests in Italy. The research fellow/post-doc will be in charge of field sampling, also requiring the use of TLS and/or USL. Gross monthly salary: ca. 2291 euro (ca. 2000 net salary). Deadline for application: June, 3rd. More info available here.
  • One PhD position (three years) at the University of Udine (joint PhD program in Environmental Life Science between the University of Trieste and the University of Udine). Title: “Soil microbial ecology in forest ecosystems.” Supervisor: Prof. Guido Incerti Project. Deadline for application: June, 13th. More information here and here.

New paper: Comparing carbon monitoring approaches in old-growth forests of the Dinaric Alps

Carbon storage is one of the most important ecosystem services provided by forests to society. However, methods to monitor and report forest carbon stocks are still poorly understood. A new paper by WILDCARD researchers of the Universities of Turin and Udine, in Italy, compares different methods to estimate carbon stocks in old-growth forests of the Dinaric Alps in the Balkans, finding that direct and indirect methods result in significantly different carbon estimates.

The paper compares direct carbon assessment methods, such as field measurements, with indirect approaches, such as IPCC standard methods, finding that the latter tend to underestimate and overestimate carbon stocks, depending on the site considered. It also revealed that a few large trees (5%) concentrate a high amount of carbon stock (36% of carbon) in the study areas, which store a total of 507 Mg C ha−1. The results indicate that old-growth forests in the Dinaric Alps are the largest forest carbon sinks in Europe.

The paper “The largest European forest carbon sinks are in the Dinaric Alps old-growth forests: comparison of direct measurements and standardised approaches” was co-authored by researchers from the Universities of Montenegro and Banja.

Old-growth forests in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro harbour highest continental carbon sink in Europe, finds new paper

Old-growth forests continue to disappear in Europe, with many being logged before their identification and protection. To help map these important ecosystems for conservation and research, a new paper by WILDCARD researchers uses rigorous criteria to identify old-growth mountain forest stands in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro that have reached their last stage of ecosystem dynamics.

Co-authored by WILDCARD researchers Renzo Motta (University of Turin), Giorgio Alberti (University of Udine) and Davide Ascoli (University of Turin), the paper looks into a network of four mixed montane old-growth forests in the Dinaric Alps of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, one of the few regions in temperate Europe that still holds old-growth forests. Strict indicators were applied to investigate forests characterised by structure, disturbance history and processes typical and exclusive of the last stage of the forest dynamic.

The researchers found that the studied old-growth sites harbour a high amount of living biomass, including ample presence of trees larger than 1 meter at breast height and older than 400 years. The sites were also found to have a high biomass of wood from dead trees. This results in the highest forest carbon sink at the continental level in Europe, totalling 398-484 Mg C ha-1. The Dinaric old-growth forest network presents robust indicators of old-growthness, similar structure, and dynamic processes across all four investigated sites, representing high-priority sites for forest protection.

Although the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 provides a broad definition of old-growth forests, using strict indicators to map specific old-growth forest areas is important for both forest conservation and research, as it contributes to the establishment of conservation priorities, offers reliable reference sites for ecosystem restoration, and helps to further ongoing research on the structural differences between managed and unmanaged forests.

In most EU countries, very few old-growth forests remain and they are typically small and isolated. While the EU Biodiversity Strategy mandates their legal protection, old-growth forest loss continues unabated, with less than 1.5 million hectares of old-growth forests remaining in Europe.

Download the open-access paper: “Old-growth forests in the Dinaric Alps of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro: a continental hot-spot for research and biodiversity”.

Reflections at the XIX “Fragile Areas” Conference “Going wild again: Socio-spatial trends in fragile rural areas”

The XIX “Aree Fragili (Fragile Areas)” Conference “Going wild again: Socio-spatial trends in fragile rural areas” took place on 22 and 23 March in Rovigo, Italy. Organised by the Università degli Studi di Trieste and the Department of Land, Environment, Agriculture and Forestry (TESAF) of the Università degli Studi di Padova (UNIPD), the conference was designed to present and discuss rewilding initiatives from different angles.

UNIPD staff delivered four presentations and contributed to the debate as well as to the coordination of two parallel sessions and a round table. Davide Pettenella and Mauro Masiero, involved as researchers in WILDCARD, were the keynote speakers at the conference, addressing the topic “Rewilding between growing wild and renaturalisation: an economic perspective“.

In a dedicated presentation, Laura Secco, also involved in WILDCARD, explored the current state of European forests and the trends of transformative change represented by global initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and their echoes in Europe such as the European New Green Deal and the European Union Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. In this context, she presented two both WILDCARD and the OptFORESTS project, focused on forest genetic resources.

By building on the two projects, she reflected on different though complementary perspectives – i.e., spontaneous rewilding and human-driven processes. From a policy and socioeconomic point of view she discussed how to support forest management practices in order to turn forest socio-ecological systems more resilient.

Karst ecosystems from 2022 to 2024: what changed after the big fires

A new investigation by the Universities of Udine and Trieste shows the effects of rewilding on Karst ecosystems between Italy and Slovenia after the large 2022 fires. The research results were shared in a conference organised by Italy’s National Biodiversity Centre, funded by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, and WILDCARD.

The 2022 Karst fires between Italy and Slovenia led to the loss, on average, of almost 50% of the biomass present in the area affected by the fire, with considerable differences depending on the composition of the forest. The fires were also favoured by the dry plant biomass accumulated following repeated dry summers. The forest, however, is already regenerating massively.

As far as animals are concerned, since the spring following the fire, burnt areas have been used intensively for food by some species of herbivores such as roe deer and hares, and less so by deer and wild boar, which are, however, increasing strongly in the non-fire areas. The various bird communities in the burnt areas also show changes compared to those in the non-affected areas.

These are some of the main results of the surveys carried out by the Universities of Udine and Trieste, with the support of Legambiente volunteers, on the territory affected by the fires that almost two years ago incinerated about 4,100 hectares of forest area between Italy and Slovenia. A balance of the situation was made on the 1st of March in the Italian town of Gorizia with the conference “Rising from the ashes? Ecological and management consequences and prospects of the 2022 Karst fire“. Speakers included scholars from various disciplines of the two universities and technicians from the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region’s Forestry Corps.

Credit: Sara Pischedda
Credit: Domen Stanič
Credit: Domen Stanič
Credit: Sara Pischedda
Credit: Domen Stanič
Credit: Domen Stanič

The forest and biodiversity – By combining ground measurements with satellite surveys, it was possible to quantify the extent of damage to the forest and the post-event reaction. The greatest damage was found in areas dominated by scotanus and manna ash, while downy oak showed greater resistance to fire. However, the forest is already vigorously reproducing through stump regrowth and seed regeneration, particularly where the fire intensity was lower. The specific post-fire composition is closely linked to the intensity of the event. The data, presented by Giorgio Alberti and Francesco Boscutti of the University of Udine, ‘show that species richness increases linearly with the latter, regardless of whether native or allochthonous (exotic) species are taken into account’. In addition, thanks to the surveys carried out, it was possible to investigate in detail the adaptive strategies implemented by the different species in regaining space after the event, highlighting functional traits that are profoundly different depending on the species and the characteristics of the environment after the fire.

Mammals – Specific research is currently underway to assess the presence and use of burnt and unburnt areas by medium and large mammals and their behaviour. Initial results show very dynamic and specific processes in different areas and for different species. In the spring following the fire, the burnt areas were used with great intensity by some herbivore species such as roe deer and hares for food, and less so by deer and wild boar, which nonetheless show a strong increase especially in the non-fire-affected areas. The golden jackal, a typical species of this area, where it shows very high densities, appears to be more present in the non-fire areas, although a few months after the fire it had shown an apparent increase in the frequentation of the area affected by the fires. For this species it seems interesting to understand the phenomenon that has affected the Gorizia karst, where there was a sharp increase in mortality from road and rail accidents in 2023, and whether or not this can be directly or indirectly linked to the large fires of 2022 and/or other factors The different areas compared in terms of the structure and composition of tree species, type of undergrowth and intensity of the fire they have suffered, show their own specific dynamics in terms of the presence of animals, as well as the behaviour of the animals detected with the phototraps.

The Friulian University’s Fauna Management and Conservation research group has been carrying out research on mammals in the area of the Gorizia and Trieste Karst for over ten years. “In this context,” explains the group’s coordinator, Stefano Filacorda, “the great fire of 2022 provided, in the dramatic nature of the event, an opportunity to study and compare the dynamics of the presence and behaviour of many mammal species present on the Karst”.

Habitats – Through the processes of ecological succession, fire-affected habitats can reconstitute themselves spontaneously, but climate change and the expansion of exotic and invasive species can lead to a change in the floristic composition, characteristics and dynamism of habitats. This is what emerged from the first monitoring results developed to analyse the consequences of fires on the species composition and dynamic processes of the main Karst habitats presented by Miris Castello from the University of Trieste.

Water in vegetation – The possibility of estimating the water content of vegetation remotely is fundamental for monitoring the risk of fire propagation on a large scale. In the Karst region, the NDWI index obtained from satellite images – which uses infrared wavelengths to monitor changes in the water content of leaves – was found to be correlated with water content measurements taken in experimental areas. Thus, Francesco Petruzzellis, from the University of Trieste, pointed out that ‘the development of a model for predicting the water content of vegetation specific to the Karst area could be a relevant tool for determining fire risk during dry periods’.

Woody species and fire risk – The fires of 2022 were favoured by dry vegetation biomass accumulated following repeated dry summers. The analysis of the water stress tolerance of the different native and invasive woody species present on the Karst, combined with the characterisation of the flammability of their biomass at different water contents, makes it possible, explained Andrea Nardini, of the University of Trieste, “to identify the level of fire risk associated with the presence and abundance of each species in future climate scenarios”.

The consequences on ornithological communities – Almost two years after the fires, the ornithological communities of the Italian and Slovenian Karst show changes compared to those present in non-affected areas. Davide Scridel from the University of Trieste explored which biological and ecological characteristics of each species may determine their position as ‘winners’ or ‘losers’. “Although burnt areas host fewer species and individuals,” Scridel said, “the effects vary between different species and habitats.

The contribution of the Forestry Department – The Regional Forestry Department of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region operates at various levels in the regional system of forest fire protection. Dario Cancian, of the Regional Forestry Service and Corps of Foresters, explained that its operations “are not limited to the so-called ‘active fight’ against fires, but include forecasting and prevention activities, implemented through surveillance, land management, the granting of contributions and investigative actions. The survey of areas covered by fire and the collection of numerous data related to the events that occurred also contribute to research and statistical processing of the phenomenon’.

This text was originally published in Italian by the University of Udine

New Horizon project WILDCARD to reveal contribution of rewilding to EU’s climate and biodiversity goals

All over Europe, nature is making a comeback. As more people move to cities and other land use changes occur, the EU’s forest area is increasing, having grown by almost 10% (+14 million hectares) between 1990 and 2020. On top of that, a total of 10-29 million hectares of agricultural land are likely to be abandoned between 2000 and 2030. This leaves potential for native flora, fauna and complex ecosystems to reclaim space, bringing natural ‘rewilding’ to the center of Europe’s environmental policy discussions.

Understanding how rewilding can contribute to solving the climate and biodiversity crises is crucial for the successful implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, the EU Nature Restoration Law, and the EU Green Deal – a mission to be tackled by the new Horizon Europe project WILDCARD. Starting in January 2024, the project is, for the first time, systematically assessing the impacts of two major rewilding approaches on carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation at the European scale. Currently, a lack of comprehensive research on the topic prevents rewilding from being fully integrated into Europe’s strategy to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Running until 2027 with an EU budget of €8,9 million and a Swiss contribution of €1,2 million, WILDCARD combines field observations, remote sensing (e.g. Lidar data) and computer simulations of shifts in vegetation cover with economic, societal, and political analyses. The goal is to identify hotspots of rewilding in future climate and land use scenarios, as well as their overall impact at multiple time scales. WILDCARD mainly focuses on two aspects of rewilding: proforestation (halting forest management to allow for spontaneous forest development) and natural rewilding following agricultural land abandonment. Both are low-cost approaches that let nature do the job of restoring ecosystems.

With an interdisciplinary approach and cross-country collaboration between 16 partners, the project will investigate regulatory, cultural and economic barriers to rewilding, while also identifying social innovation mechanisms, models and incentives to foster its adoption and social acceptability. The research will not be limited to the bright side of rewilding but also seek to identify trade-offs, such as the possibility of increased forest fires due to the abandonment of forest management in dry regions of Europe. Locations with the highest rewilding potential and relatively small trade-offs will be prioritised for policy recommendations.

Some of the main results expected from WILDCARD are a set of recommendations for policy-makers, a ‘Rewilding Forum’ bringing together interested stakeholders all over Europe, a podcast series, as well as an ample variety of open-access scientific outputs allowing further research on the topic. These include refined datasets on carbon stock and biodiversity changes following rewilding; an assessment of rewilding benefits and trade-offs (open-access models for scenario simulation); European-wide maps on locations of potential rewilding and its impacts, and much more.

Funded by the European Union’s Horizon Europe programme under Grant Agreement No. 101081177, the project is coordinated by the University of Udine, in Italy, and implemented in collaboration with the following partners: