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Rewilding Europe

Today -26th September- a report was published that shows that some species in Europe that are endangered are making a spectacular comeback*. Despite a crisis in biodiversity, some big iconic species are doing quite well thanks to conservation programmes.

Populations of wolves, brown bears, beavers, sea eagles and vultures are recovering and growing. The report was commissioned by the nature conservation organisation ‘Rewilding Europe’. The study was conducted by biologists and ecologists of the Zoological Society of London, BirdLife International and the European Bird Census Council. A total of 37 European species -18 mammals and 19 bird species- were observed and monitored. All these species –and many other- were in decline due to loss of habitat, disturbance, persecution and hunting, and due to environmental damage caused by human activities. But thanks to conservation efforts, legal protection and restoration of habitats many of these species have managed to regain ground, expand their territories and increase their numbers. Other success factors are breeding programmes and reintroduction of species in locations where they were lost; banning or restricting of hunting; and banning the use of pesticides. The depopulation of the countryside (on average 28% since 1961) has aided in giving species more space.

The report shows that conservation efforts have result. Creating and restoring natural habitats aids in recuperation of lost species and in helping their numbers grow. Experience has shown that big continuous habitats are better than smaller fragmented ones but it has also come to light that building corridors and stepping stones between fragmented habitats helps to create networks of connected habitats that aid in migration and dispersal of species thereby expanding their habitat and their chances of reproduction.

The species that the report focuses on are big species that reside in big nature areas. Species that reside in or around agricultural areas are not so lucky and show a negative trend. Historically, agricultural areas were big habitats for all sorts of species. But mechanization of agriculture, land reform, land consolidation and monoculture changed all that and led to the demise of species. Habitats in agricultural areas in the form of hedgerows that were used to delineate and border agricultural land and to keep out large predators disappeared. In their place came barbed wire and the historical agricultural landscape changed forever. Agricultural production soared.

Agriculture and nature conservation often do not go together well. However, many governments, conservation organizations and farmers realize that species have the ‘right to exist’ and form part of the traditional agricultural landscape and of rural culture. Certain species are vital in maintaining ecosystem health and can keep populations of other species in check, preventing plagues. Certain species are often indicator species which tell us something about the overall health of the (cultivated) ecosystems in which they reside.

In countries in Western Europe some farmers have become stewards or custodians of nature. This often entails designating parts of their lands for habitat and nature conservation; to adjust dates of moving in order to protect birds nesting on their land; to reduce the use of agro-chemicals; and to create floral buffer zones in and around their land for the purpose of beauty, natural pest control and pollination. Some farmland that was taken out of production or bought from farmers has been redesignated as nature areas. Farmers that sign up to these programmes receive subsidies to compensate for loss of income due to reduction of agricultural production.

Some farmers do not want to have anything to do with this, believing that agricultural land should only be used for the production of food. But faced with reduced agricultural subsidies and higher costs of farming, other farmers have embraced the concept of nature custodianship and have signed up to these programmes. Some farmers don’t care if their land produces food or nature and see the programmes as another source of income. But some farmers even have become true believers and apply integral farming practices creating ‘closed loops’ using only the resources present on their lands for the production of food and for nature conservation. These developments created new opportunities for farmers to supplement their incomes in the form of rural tourism and the sale of regional and traditional products.

Is it possible to introduce this in Serbia? Should Serbia focus on intensifying agriculture or go the ‘green way’? Is it possible to combine and do a bit of both? Serbia does not designate as much subsidy to agriculture as Western European countries do percentagewise and most of it goes to big agricultural holdings. Is it feasible to use subsidies to support the greening of agriculture and support rural development that way and at the same time conserve nature?

Examples in Western Europe show that it is possible to combine agriculture and nature conservation. It requires dedication, efforts and subsidies and most of all a shift in thinking. Perhaps then iconic species (and not so iconic species that don’t have a high ‘cuddly factor’) in Serbia can profit from that, as well as the farmers.

 

* The report specifically focused on positive development in species recuperation. There are many other species (which are often not so ‘cuddly’) that still show negative trends.

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