Rewilding Iberia: A new perspective for conservation in the Spanish geographic context

by Dec 16, 2020Ecosystem Restoration, Rewilding0 comments

Rewilding represents a new viewpoint on nature conservation, reaching beyond to bring a more functional vision and moving into notions of rural development and reconnecting people with nature and wildness. The concept originated in North America in the nineties and has been growing and developing in Europe since 2010.

In his book Rewilding Iberia, author Jordi Palau presents an ambitious and pragmatic vision of rewilding. This new trend can be viewed as a desirable optimum, but also as a process that allows to improve the environment, although the theoretical maximum is never reached. Rewilding opens up new opportunities for nature and people. “Rewilding Iberia” confirms this situation, and tries to shed light on where, when and how rewilding may be possible.

The book  “Rewilding Iberia aims to assist rewilding in its development from theory to practice in Spain and to help extend its application to the whole of the north Mediterranean basin. The book combines academic rigour with readability, offering a complete survey of the implications of rewilding as a tool to complement the current paradigm for nature conservation, improving also its contribution to rural development.

An interview with the author.

Arend de Haas: Congrats on your fantastic new book, “Rewilding Iberia“! How did you become involved in conservation and national park management?

Jordi Palau: I am a Forest Engineer. Even before studying at university, I had a long-term interest in nature and the rural world, both from the point of view of biodiversity  conservation and local development. This led me to work in protected areas in the Pyrenees, both in Andorra and in Catalonia. I contributed to the creation of the only three protected areas that exist in Andorra, and for ten years I directed the Alt Pirineu Natural Park. I was able to enrich this experience by taking the Europarc interuniversity Master in Protected Natural Areas. Subsequently, I have worked in other nature areas that have allowed me to understand different realities and reflect on the practice of conservation and the needs and expectations of the inhabitants that live around them.

ADH: What would you say are the biggest threats to biodiversity in Spain? Does climate change affect your work and reserves?

JP: The main threats to biodiversity in Spain, I believe, come from what is called “global change”, which is the main environmental consequence of the Anthropocene. This global change includes the effects of climate change and changes in land use. The latter seem very decisive to me, either due to agrarian intensification (including the use of chemical products that affect invertebrates and the entire trophic chain), the growth of urban and industrial land, and the abandonment of traditional activities. All these scenarios suppose a substantial modification of the biodiversity that we have known. In particular, the loss of traditional uses, without functional substitutes for the missing elements, represents a change that has never occurred in history: for example, large extinct wild herbivores were replaced by domestic herbivores (livestock). But when the latter disappear and are not replaced, the ecosystem loses some key components that had always existed, and a path of homogenization begins that can explain the increased risk of large forest fires. Climate change is only making this situation worse.

ADH: Does ecological restoration play a role in your work?

JP: Ecological restoration is a part of my job, although protected area management includes many other issues. In the different areas where I have worked, I have had the opportunity to participate in projects for the restoration of degraded land, replacement of exotic tree plantations, elimination of invasive flora species, reintroduction of extinct animals (such as the cinereous vulture in Boumort Reserve), recovery of the ecological function of herbivores, or management of human-wildlife conflict (such as the brown bear in Alt Pirineu). All these projects are very interesting, but often they lack to be part of a larger objective, which puts them in context.

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ADH: What was the reason for you to write the book Rewilding Iberia?

JP: The book “Rewilding Iberia” had its origin, precisely, in my Master thesis, presented in January 2014. For me it arises from a personal concern to address the causes of the loss of biodiversity, not so much through the recovery of one species or another, but rather by recovering the functionality of the natural processes that have been shaping current biodiversity during its evolution. I think this is the underlying idea in the concept of “rewilding”, but this concept needs to be explained, especially in Spain. Here many people have met him indirectly, without reading anything that describes or analyzes the concept in relation to the local reality, and the result is that they have been left with a “caricature”. Many people think that rewilding consists of releasing large animals for tourists to come to see them, when it has nothing to do with this; it is something much more complex. The book “Rewilding Iberia” aims to help fill this knowledge gap, so that rewilding can be understood better and valued as a land management option worth considering.

ADH: In the book you describe a set of scenarios that can be explored, from state to municipal and private land, to bioregional rewilding complexes. Are there any specific areas and corridors that would benefit ecologically from rewilding?

JP: There are certainly many areas that could benefit from rewilding from an ecological point of view. The book “Rewilding Iberia” describes the main factors that can make an area more or less suitable for rewilding. The set of factors described can be applied to different areas, which allow us to visualize what type of spaces are more favorable to use this approach. All the main Iberian mountain ranges, already protected to a great extent by the Natura 2000 Network, are ideal scenarios for ecological restoration, but also many spaces located in flat areas, moorlands or flood plains. The book tries to avoid an approach based exclusively on species and tries to emphasize natural processes, among which the role of fire, forest maturity (succession leading to old-growth forests) and hydrological and coastal dynamics also stand out. Recovering these processes in a controlled way, wherever possible and within socially acceptable limits, can bring heterogeneity to the local ecosystem, promoting the ecological mosaics that are the basis of biodiversity.

ADH: What are the economic benefits of rewilding for rural and urban communities? Can wild nature be linked to sustainable business and local livelihoods?

JP: Rewilding has to bring benefits to people, especially those who live around areas dedicated to nature conservation. There are a number of social benefits that can be derived from using this approach, which are described in Chapter 4 of the book. For example, rewilding can generate new economic opportunities related to the restoration of nature and ecological processes. One of the most intuitive is economic activity related to ecotourism (local accommodation companies, outdoor activities, nature guides, etc.), but also better opportunities for the direct sale of local products from the primary sector. Other less intuitive opportunities may derive from the creation of employment related to the management of the areas itself, or from the generation of income for compensation of ecological impacts, payment for environmental services, mitigation of environmental risks (such as floods) or carbon storage, to give some examples related to the new green economy. All of these options can directly connect the recovery of a wilder nature with the creation of employment and economic opportunities for the inhabitants of rural areas. Finally, rewilding also provides ideal spaces for health, inspiration or disconnection from modern life, something positive for city dwellers, but also for rural communities.

vulture iberia

ADH: Are there any species that are currently extinct and/or lacking in Iberia’s ecosystems but are important to achieve ecological restoration?

JP: Fortunately, the Iberian Peninsula maintains a very rich biodiversity, in which, in one way or another, most of the key species for the health of our ecosystems subsist, although they not always survive locally. The species that constitute the ecological guilds of herbivores, carnivores and scavengers are important for the functioning of the ecosystem. One of the main challenges in this regard is to review the role played by some livestock species that keep alive the ecological function of their wild ancestors, such as cows, horses and donkeys (ecological equivalents of aurochs, tarpans and wild asses). In areas suitable for rewilding, their presence should be maintained or recovered, depending on the case, and their management adapted so that they could better imitate the ecological benefits derived from the combined action of the different species that make up the Iberian herbivorous mammal guild. On many occasions, it is a magnificent opportunity to collaborate with the livestock sector, renewing and improving its contribution to the conservation of nature.

Another challenge exists in the functional replacement of key species when their comeback is not possible: for example, where it is not feasible to recover large predators, it will be necessary to use management tools, such as hunting or livestock exploitation, or the live capture of individuals, to limit herbivore numbers and behaviour. Nevertheless, it will be necessary to modify its practice so that they imitate in the best possible way the functional role of absent predators.

ADHAre people’s ideas about nature and rewilding changing in Spain?

JP: I think so. Both scientific knowledge and people’s ideas evolve over time, incorporate new discoveries, and can be enriched by seeing experiences that take place in other contexts. Although the changes are slow, little by little they make their way and allow new experiences to be addressed. In the case of rewilding, scientific research on natural processes and the ecological functionality of species has advanced a lot in recent years, and as this knowledge is disseminated, ideas about nature conservation are also adapting. A fundamental concept in this sense is that of the “shifting baseline syndrome”, which is opening the minds of many people regarding the state of our ecosystems and the challenges for their restoration.

ADH: Can you describe your strategic proposals to promote rewilding in Spain?

JP: Rewilding is not the solution to all environmental problems, nor is it applicable to the entire territory. In fact, it should not be perceived as a new approach in conservation that should replace what we have done so far, but as a complement to reach a broader scenario in nature conservation. In this sense, chapter 7 of the book raises different proposals at different levels. One of the most important proposals is to make the concept of rewilding better known and move away from the simplified idea that many people have formed of it. A better understanding of the natural processes that are key to the functioning of ecosystems will allow us to better identify problems and priorities, and see what can be improved in each case. Based on this recognition, rewilding can be promoted through its progressive consideration in nature conservation, rural development and land planning policies, both by administrations and by associations or entities that work in these subjects.

Jordi Palau is a Forestry Engineer and Master in Protected Natural Areas. It has actively contributed to the creation of the only three protected areas in Andorra. In 1996 he was co-author of the book Nature and ecotourism in Andorra: an option for the future. He has advised private reserves and directed several natural parks and national game reserves, among which the Alt Pirineu, the largest natural park in Catalonia (80,000 ha), and the Boumort reserve, where rewilding actions have been tested. He has traveled all over the world visiting and getting to know different areas of Africa, Eurasia and America first-hand, in some of which rewilding projects have been carried out.

Order a copy of the book here:

Rewilding Iberia book