Ecologists are calling for more research on rewilding, warning that without greater clarity on the term's meaning and desired outcomes, the opportunities that rewilding offers could be jeopardised as the debate becomes increasingly polarised.
More than 1,000 ecologists gather in Edinburgh for the British Ecological Society's annual meeting, where Dr Nathalie Pettorelli of the Zoological Society of London is organising a session on rewilding.
With some 16 rewilding projects underway in the UK, the meeting will hear from those involved in reintroducing beavers to Scotland, rewilding schemes in Wales, as well as lessons we can learn from mainland Europe.
Rewilding stirs strong emotions among the public, landowners, farmers and campaigners, and Pettorelli hopes the session will shed some light on what is becoming an increasingly hot topic. According to Professor Henrique Pereira from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research: "Rewilding is a fascinating topic for the public for two reasons. First, because it is a positive environmental story offering an opportunity to have more nature around us in the near future.
"Second, because it arouses conflicting emotions. Some people worry about loss of cultural landscapes and others see an opportunity for having more space for wildlife."
Pereira's research focuses on grazers in Portugal's Peneda-Gerês National Park and the bird life that has returned to the Oder Delta in Germany following restoration of natural flood plains. Also speaking at the meeting is Dr Calum Brown of the University of Edinburgh, who thinks that while huge public interest represents a major opportunity for rewilding, competing interests must be acknowledged and accommodated.
"Since the last ice age, Scotland has gained and then lost a remarkable variety of species. There is now increasing interest in restoring some of this lost biodiversity and establishing 'rewilded' areas where natural processes can once again occur uninterrupted. However, there are many other interests at play in modern Scotland, and restoration projects must take account of their social, political, economic and environmental contexts if they are to be successful," he says.
Despite the public focus on iconic predators, rewilding is about more than these charismatic, pin-up species. Rewilding is also about restoring ecosystem function, which may depend on far smaller, less glamorous creatures.
According to Pettorelli: "To move forward, we need a scientific framework with agreed definitions. Rewilding is currently used in the context of reintroduction, translocation -- or moving species around -- as well rehabilitation of ecosystem functions. All of these involve very different science."
While ecologists understand more about how to reintroduce species to habitats they disappeared from relatively recently, such as the Red Kite in England and Scotland, we know much less about the consequences of bringing back species that have been absent from an environment for 500 years or more, such as the Lynx.
For large predators like the Lynx, for example, ecologists can estimate how many individual animals need to be reintroduced to create a viable population, but know far less about their potential short- and long-term effects on the recipient ecosystem and surrounding communities.
More research is needed to plug these gaps in knowledge, says Pettorelli: "Rewilding is an opportunity for conservation, but it needs to be informed by science to optimize chances of success. I want ecologists and social scientists to engage with rewilding, rather than letting it thrive in non-scientific arenas. We need to engage to prevent the debate from becoming polarised."
The Rewilding Thematic Session at the British Ecological Society annual meeting in Edinburgh is on 14 December 2015.
Speakers at the session include:
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