The Wilding of Europe

By Dave Armstrong - 27 Sep 2013 10:48:24 GMT
The Wilding of Europe

The Eurasian lynx is a lot better off than its cousin, the Iberian species. With more space to wander and many populations, it is now being allowed to recover from those bad old days of near-extinction, like all of these animals; Image Credit: © Staffan Widstrand

Throughout the continent of Europe, the cities and the wars have taken a toll on wildlife, Compared to the east of the continent, few wildernesses or forests have been left in the west, while even mountains have been occupied for agriculturalists and sport.

Vertebrates on earth generally have taken a hit, declining by 30% as humans doubled their numbers (over the last half-century). However, the Palaearctic region that includes Eurasia has gained 6% in numbers. Mammals and birds are recorded thoroughly and well known in Europe, so it is rewarding for people to note a revival, following their historic losses.

Originating after the last Ice Age from Asia and Africa the 219 European mammals are most diverse in the east with endemic European species mainly found in the Pyrenees and the Alps. These animals have speciated at these isolated altitudes because of the distance from west Asia where their ancestors lived

Birds comprise 530 species without the vagrants and non-native species. 30 are endemic, mainly on the islands around Europe. Species (and families) are very much shared with Asia and North America, but the diversity is poor. With 740 million humans in a small continent, the crowded-out animals are in trouble, especially the Amphibia, followed by the Reptilia, then the mammalian residents.

Mammals and birds and others have been harvested, persecuted, driven out and forced into change over thousands of years. This could have resulted in the lack of bird diversity overall and that of mammals in the west.

The source for all this information is a great addition to Europe's many descriptive texts on fauna and flora. There are 37 conserved species studied here, in an extensive set of data, including many historic distributions, drawn up by Stefanie Deinet and her co-workers of the European Bird Census Council in Nijmegen, Birdlife international in Cambridge, ZSL (London) and the Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research at University College, London. The Swedish Postcode Lottery, the Liberty Wildlife Fund and ARK Nature granted the resources to enable this giant project to be completed.

The group have chosen to describe the details of 18 species of mammal and 19 prominent birds. They used the Living Planet Database and need to be updated already, but their graphs and descriptive genius portray a rosy picture. That reminds me that their photographs alone, from some of the most prominent nature photographers are worth reading this document for !

The mammals begin with large species and don't descend to the small brown jobs, while the birds also follow popular taste, as is correct in a document that should and does attract.

Ursus arctos is the brown bear, an icon in several continents. As large herbivores such as bison and carnivores like the European lion became extinct, bears, too, disappeared - from as early as the 12th century in Britain. They are now stabilised in the populations living nowadays in northern and eastern mountains and forests, far from human interference. Four of the ten European populations are small and localised. The most widespread bear in the world, bruin has been driven out of most of Europe for centuries. At present, here are 17,000 wandering in reserves mainly, or in distant wilderness areas, where their populations are less fragmented. The Siberian population in Asia is of course connected to the Russian and hence the Baltic and Karelian populations

The world's second largest rodent is the beaver, Castor fiber. It too has a new lease of life, living currently from Scotland right across the north of the continent to Russia. From a low of 1,200, the population now numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

The Bison bonasus became extinct as late as the 20th century. In captivity, 54 specimens remained in eastern Europe, so there was the opportunity to plan a recovery from Poland and several other sources of the remnants

In comparison, one ibex species, Capra ibex, has recovered now for 45 years, with 36,500 now occupying Italian Swiss and more easterly montane areas. It was in the same position as the bison in the 19th century, so there is hope that we can follow the same path to recovery for many mammals.

The white-tailed or sea eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, was lost to many countries from the 10th century till the 1970s. North Africa and SE Europe were part of its domain, as well as the ocean, rivers and lakes of the Palearctic region. Gamekeepers put paid to the predators on their land and hunting simply decimated them. Luckily, the Norwegian birds in particular avoided pesticide residues more and proved a good basic stock for recolonisation, as well as expansion.

Cranes around the world are valued and revered creatures, but western Europeans hunted them, as with other species, and huge wetland habitat losses weighed against them, until only 45,000 remained in 1985. They have much more protection now, 300, 000 in the west and larger populations across Eurasia, where they are common.

Wilding Europe is the theme of this paper and a conference in October. The resurgence of these species, not forgetting the decline in others, affects the biodiversity loss by proving the value of conservation efforts Europe is very much an urban continent, with no very large green spaces between the conurbations. Serious decline in all of these species was countered, so perhaps the terrible decline in Europe's greenness can be reversed.

The clue is in the ways in which these numerous species have been conserved and made their comeback. Only the Iberian lynx, and to some extent, the other large carnivores, is slow to recover and its situation is fraught with difficulties. Complex pictures of eastern European sources for many mammalian comebacks and SW Europe exhibiting the most increases are difficult to explain.

Success has been achieved despite multiple difficulties, leaving us to assume that public support and political desire can get us through the barriers for other smaller species of animal and plant.

The reasons for some habitat recovery are simpler. People are leaving the land, hunting is being reduced and conservation has worked well in many countries. There is a novel attraction of wildlife as a touristic element in rural economies. GDP is already featuring tourism as the prime driver in a nation's future service industries, so we can assume that those in power will act in a positive way.

We'll look at more of this valuable report in October as "Wildlife Comeback in Europe" is used by those decision-makers whose strategy should be guided by such detailed accounts of their heritage and its fate. The findings of the report will be presented during Wild 10, the 10th World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca, Spain, in October 2013.