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Ireland’s Big Rewilding Project First of its Kind in Western Europe

Wild Nephin project aims to create 27,000 acres of unique wilderness landscape

The Nephin Beg mountain range rises on Ireland's western coast and stretches 20 miles into the sparsely populated northwest of County Mayo. This is a landscape of boglands and heath-covered mountains, battered by Atlantic winds and rain. The only forests here are stands of Lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce, planted in an attempt to wrestle economic gain from the unproductive soil.

Mayo County, IrelandPhoto by Anthony HickeyIreland has designated 27,000 acres of bog, mountain, and forest land in Mayo County as the country's first wilderness area.

On a long coastline of wet, weather-beaten hills, the Nephin Begs aren't unique. But they form one of the few big areas of roadless, uninhabited terrain in Ireland.

Now this range is home to a pioneering re-wilding project. In March, Ireland's National Parks and Wildlife Service, and Coillte, a public forestry company — the region's two big landholders — designated 27,000 acres of bog, mountain, and forest out here as Ireland's first wilderness area, Wild Nephin.

The project has three core aims: to protect a large wild landscape, re-wild the forest, and provide a "primitive" wilderness experience for visitors.

Over the next 15 years the project will aim to "naturalize" the plantations. It will thin the forest cover to let more light into the understory, create more clearings, restore areas of bogland, and plant some native species. Trees will be felled but left in place to mimic natural catastrophes and encourage regeneration. Forest roads will be closed and converted to trails.

While many conservation areas in Ireland are utilized in some way — often for sheep and cattle grazing — Wild Nephin will seek to create a wild, "self-willed" landscape. "What we want to do over the next 15 years is re-engineer the forest, so in 15 years time when we step out of the management of the area, then only wild processes will change the landscape," says Wild Nephin project manager Bill Murphy.

The region is not yet a perfect wilderness. In 2002, Ireland was prosecuted by the European Commission for allowing part of the region to be overgrazed by sheep (stocks have since been reduced). The Nephin forests also bear the scars of past logging. The re-wilding project will not seek to remove the non-native conifers that dominate the forests; instead it will encourage natural regeneration.

The Wild Nephin project is part of a loose but growing movement to create and protect wilderness across Europe, and to re-wild ecologically degraded landscapes. Germany, for instance, is aiming to designate 2 percent of its land area as wilderness by 2020.

The nonprofit Rewilding Europe aims to rewild one million hectares of land by 2020 and create 10 “magnificent” wildlife and wilderness areas. The group hopes its efforts “will serve as inspirational examples of what can also be achieved elsewhere.” Another organization, Pan Parks, also plans to safeguard one million hectares of European wilderness by 2015. Pan Parks oversees a network of wilderness areas, including mountainous regions in Eastern Europe, an island archipelago in Finland, and forests and boglands in Estonia and Lithuania. All these areas are within existing national parks, but must now satisfy the Pan Parks' definition of wilderness, which prohibits logging, hunting, fishing, agriculture, roads or construction in designated areas.

Earlier this month, the World Wilderness Congress was held in Salamanca, Spain — the first time in 20 years Europe hosted the event. Wilderness groups published a document, A Vision for A Wilder Europe, calling for the continent's last wilderness areas to be protected, and for natural processes to be allowed shape more of Europe's land.

"If we can get people behind our cause, then we can say that no more wilderness is going to be lost in Europe," says the Pan Parks' executive director Zoltan Kun.

The term re-wilding is often used to describe the re-introduction of big, locally extinct species — like the gray wolf in the United States’ Yellowstone National Park. But in reality it often means less eye-catching projects like Wild Nephin, which aim to restore landscapes and allow wild processes to take over. And indeed, iconic species of bear, lynx and wolf are all making a comeback across Europe.

"Wilderness probably wasn't even on the European radar in philosophical terms if you go back 20 years," says Toby Aykroyd of the Wild Europe Initiative, an alliance of conservation and wilderness groups. But that has changed. Momentum for rewilding stems from a 2009 motion passed by the European Parliament that called for more wilderness protection, and for wilderness to be defined and mapped. Last year the European Commission published a biodiversity strategy that mentioned wilderness for the first time.

However, most of the wilderness that remains in Europe is in the east of the continent. In densely populated, urbanized Western Europe, little land is truly wild. In Ireland even the most remote mountain valleys provide grazing for sheep, while in the UK national parks protect cultural landscapes as much as wild ones, with villages and farms inside their boundaries.

"Wilderness is not a word you'll find in all European languages, so it's very difficult for there to be a common literature or history [of wilderness preservation]," says Mark Fisher of the Wildland Research Institute at Leeds University, UK.

In this, Europe differs from the United States, where the writing of early wilderness advocates —from John Muir to Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey —seems to have taken root in the national psyche.

"If you look at the history of protected areas in America... there was a movement to protect areas of huge scenic quality," Fisher says. In Europe, however, early conservation movements were science-driven, he says. They aimed to protect landscapes where important species and biological communities thrived. And because of that, an emotional response to wild places never became embedded in European culture, Fisher says.

The idea of rewilding areas in a continent where the human imprint is so large, has set off a debate over best conservation practices. Earlier this year, the British writer and environmentalist George Monbiot provoked heated discussion with his latest book Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, and a series of articles that took a pointed look at the aims of conservationists. Monbiot criticized UK conservationists for their "intensive management of the natural world".

"Nowhere else does conservation look more like a slightly modified version of the farming which trashed the land in the first place," he wrote in a column on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website. Monbiot believes rewilding should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants that were once native to a region, and abandoning “the biblical doctrine of dominion” that assumes it is our duty to “control and corral” nature. "In my view most of our conservation areas aren’t nature reserves at all. They are museums of former farming practices, weeded and tended to prevent the wilds from encroaching," he writes.

Even groups that aren’t pushing as hard for species reintroduction agree that conservation efforts in Europe have been too focused on preserving individual species and habitats rather than whole dynamic ecosystems. "I think traditional conservation has got stuck in a rut around a kind of gardening ethos," says Toby Aykroyd of the Wild Europe Initiative.

But campaigners seem to be chipping away at this thinking. The Wild Europe Initiative includes big conservation groups such as Birdlife International, UNESCO, and the WWF. The European Commission recently commissioned the production of guidelines for "non intervention" management of wild areas, and an official register of wilderness in Europe is in production.

The Wild Nephin project was recently the centerpiece of a major conference, held in Irish town of Westport, on wilderness in modified landscapes. Inherent in this theme was the acceptance that, in Western Europe, wilderness will have to be created by rewilding habitats that have been modified by humans.

"The whole idea of wilderness in Europe is going to be different from the idea of wilderness in North America," says Wild Nephin’s Bill Murphy says. "We have to come up with a context that suits our culture."

Zultan Kun of Pan Parks believes that ultimately, there's a moral obligation —both to the developing world and to future generations — to protect wild land in Europe. "We always talk about protecting the Amazon rainforest, or protecting Borneo. And while we argue for that we destroy our nature here," he says. Kun stresses the difference between rewilding and restoring wilderness — you could rewild your city garden, but you won't get a wilderness.

These are still early days for the wilderness movement in Europe. While Pan Parks might be one of Europe's biggest wildland advocacy groups, Kun told me the group employs just four people who all work from home. He was working from his daughter's bedroom when we spoke.

Kun dreams of turning 5 percent of Europe into protected wilderness. Right now an estimated 1 percent of European land is wilderness, and another 1 percent is near-wilderness that requires restoration.

But environmentalists see the potential to drastically increase this, partly due to high levels of land abandonment across Europe. And Kun believes that as economic recession dries up funding for conservation in Europe, the political environment could favor a more hands-off approach to managing protected areas.

"We have the favorable political environment to take wilderness further, but we need to create massive public support for it," he says.

Lenny Antonelli
Lenny Antonelli is a journalist based in Ireland who covers the environment, science and the great outdoors. He is deputy editor of the green building magazine Passive House Plus, and writes regularly for The Irish Times. He is currently working on a radio documentary about Ireland's ocean ecosystems. His personal website is at lennyantonelli.ie.

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Comments

The notion that humans can ‘re-wild’ anything is fundamentally daft. Just call these projects ‘parks’ and be done with it.

By Audrey Mac Cready on Mon, February 24, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Michael Maunsell,

You are correct that this area of north Mayo is a managed-anthropogenic landscape for thousands of years. Quite a lot of people seem to see the treeless Irish uplands as a natural landscape in contrast to confer plantations. Its actually the converse. Much of this blanket bog area supported pine cover until overgrazing and climate change lead to bog formation. pollen in north Mayo shows this. A mosaic of pine forest is a more natural vegetation cover then open blanket bog. If sheep and rhododendrons can be excluded and birch, willow etc will allow complete naturalisation. What important about wild nephin it setting aside commercial land for this purpose.

By Robert Power on Mon, November 11, 2013 at 7:38 am

Dear Michael, thank you for your detailed reply to my article. You raise something very worthwhile points and I’d like to address them one by one as best as I can.

1. Regarding the project’s stated goal of protecting a large wild landscape, I did acknowledge the anthropogenic nature of this landscape in my article, in reference to sheep grazing, forestry etc. In one sense I was merely stating that the goal of the project was to both create and protect a large wild landscape, I wasn’t necessarily endorsing the wildness of the landscape myself — at least not from an ecological point of view. However, there are some assessment tools that would regard Wild Nephin as a wild landscape, particularly those focused on recreation rather than ecology. For example, the US Recreation Opportunity Spectrum, which was used to assess the landscape of Wild Nephin before the project was launched, ranked much of the area as “primitive” or “semi-primitive” based on factors such as the lack of roads and buildings, and the lack of human artefacts visible from viewpoints etc.

2. Regarding the term re-wilding, you are correct in the sense that this is more of a wilding project than a re-wilding project, as it is not aiming to restore a past landscape. I was probably wrong to just casually use this buzzword.

3. I can understand the argument that huts, trails and signposts etc should not be constructed, but I’m not sure I agree. I would certainly hope that no more than a few huts are built, and that trails are kept natural-looking and minimal. However, in my personal opinion I think there are two good reasons to put in some fairly primitive huts and trails  — one is to control erosion and environmental impact from visitors, and the other is to encourage people to get out and explore and engage with this landscape.

4. I agree to an extent that the project is borrowing from a North American model, though I wouldn’t say the “huts and trails” model is exclusive to that continent — mountainous regions in Europe and Asia do likewise. Can I ask, what might a “North Mayo” equivalent be? I think the reality is that Ireland has little culture or history of wilderness recreation compared to the US, for example, so in a way we’re starting from scratch. But I don’t have too much of an issue of us borrowing a bit from other countries, as long as the work is done sensitively.

That said, I was annoyed at some of the recent upgrade work on the Bangor Trail just north of the Lough Avoher hut, as the trail seems much more obtrusive now. Hopefully it will recede a bit into the landscape with time and wear.

5. Regarding rhododendron, I have been told by Coillte that controlling the species is part of the 15 year plan for Wild Nephin.

6. On the issue of land abandonment, I should have used the term “wilderness campaigners” instead of “environmentalists” — they are not necessarily the same thing, of course.

The question of how or why to conserve a habitat or landscape is obviously a highly fraught one. Is biodiversity the highest goal? What if a landscape is managed with grazing for floral biodiversity at the expensive of allowing woodland to re-establish — woodland that might provide better habitat for larger mammals, bigger birds etc? I’m not asking these questions of you, just trying to raise the complexity that exists in this debate, which I’m sure you’re well aware of.

Nevertheless, I do believe that research exists pointing to non-intervention approaches leading to more biodiversity. I’ve emailed one of my contacts for links to specific papers, but here is one that I know of: http://www.wsl.ch/dienstleistungen/publikationen/pdf/6755.pdf

The return of wolves to Yellowstone would be another example of how a more self willed, unmanaged landscape has knock-on benefits for the entire ecosystem: http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2011/dec/yellowstone-transformed-15-years-after-return-wolves

But it goes without saying that I’m always in favour of more research and study and believe it’s essential for any decision making about the conservation and the environment. 

Kind regards,

Lenny

By Lenny Antonelli on Thu, November 07, 2013 at 10:27 am

Sir,
I read your article on the Wild Nephin project with interest, and wish to make a number of observations. 
As stated in the article, the “Wild Nephin” project has three core aims: to protect a large wild landscape, re-wild the forest, and provide a “primitive” wilderness experience for visitors.

Regarding aim 1 “to protect a large wild landscape”.  The landscape in question is, and has been, a managed-anthropogenic landscape for hundreds, if not thousands of years, it is not a “wild landscape” by any stretch of the imagination.
Aim 2: “re-wild the forest”. The forest was never a “wild” forest, it was planted with non-native tress as a crop by the State, for commercial purposes.  How can the Coillte establish when or how it achieves a “re-wild” status? 
Aim 3: “provide a “primitive” wilderness experience for visitors”.  If the aim is as stated, why are trails and associated infrastructure being constructed on site? Why are recycled plastic posts being erected, Why has a hut been constructed on site? Why are there plans for campsites? as stated at the “Wild Nephin” conference by the project manager.

The management of the area appears to be based on an American National Park model, as presented at the “Wild Nephin” conference. One has to question the appropriateness of such a model being applied in Mayo.
The article failed to mention the serious issues of the spread of Rhododendron ponticum in the wilderness area, and the apparent lack of a management plan for this non-native invasive species by both Coillte or the National Parks and Wildlife Service.  The natural regeneration of R ponticiun currently taking place on site will result in decline and loss of native species.

Regarding the claim in the article that land abandonment is viewed by “environmentalists” a positive move for wilderness. One has to ask who or what is an environmentalist? If one states that he or she is an “environmentalist” does that imbue one with knowledge of environmental science, processes and systems?  If so why bother with research?  Is one to assume, as implied in the article, that land abandonment and a hands off approach in protected area management is a positive move for biodiversity conservation?  Will such an approach protect and enhance biodiversity and the ecosystem services on which society depends? If so, on what research or evidence is this claim based?

Kindest regards
Michael Maunsell
Mountain Research Ireland.

By Michael Maunsell on Fri, October 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm

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