European wilderness in a time of farmland abandonment
Verburg, Peter H.
Kuechly, Helga U.
Pereira, Henrique M.
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Wilderness is a multidimensional concept that has evolved from an aesthetic idea to a science-based conservation approach. We analyze here several subjective and ecological dimensions of wilderness in Europe: human access from roads and settlements, impact of artificial night light, deviation from potential natural vegetation and proportion of harvested primary productivity. As expected, high wilderness in Europe is concentrated mainly in low primary productivity areas at high latitudes and in mountainous regions. The use of various wilderness metrics also reveals additional aspects, allowing the identification of regional differences in the types of human impact and a better understanding of future modifications of wilderness values in the context of land-use change. This is because farmland abandonment in the next decades is projected to occur especially at intermediate wilderness values in marginal agricultural landscapes, and thus can release additional areas for wild ecosystems. Although the subjective wilderness experience will likely improve at a slower pace due to the long-term persistence of infrastructures, the ecological effects of higher resource availability and landscape connectivity will have direct positive impacts on wildlife. Positive correlation between megafauna species richness and wilderness indicate that they spatially coincide and for abandoned areas close to high wilderness areas, these species can provide source populations for the recovery of the European biota. Challenges remain in bringing together different views on rewilding and in deciding the best management approach for expanding wilderness on the continent. However the prospects are positive for the growth of self-regulating ecosystems, natural ecological processes and the wilderness experience in Europe.