Regeneration literally means ‘making wildlife again’. The pristine wilderness without human influences would no longer exist. This has consequences for our climate, for our biodiversity, for our plants and for our animals. Can we solve major crises by giving nature more space? How can rebuilding contribute to addressing climate change and biodiversity loss? Liesbeth Bakker is investigating this in her role as a professor with a special assignment in Environmental Reconstruction. Her chair was made possible in part by NIOO-KNAW and Rewilding Europe, an organization that manages nine regions across Europe of more than 100,000 hectares to put the rebuilding into action.
Giving more space to natural processes
Reconstructing ecology, what exactly is it? Liesbeth Bakker: “I always describe it as giving more room for natural processes.” This starts with something small. If you lift a slab from the garden and watch the plants that appear, you already have a small rewinding project.
Reconstruction looks to the future and focuses on what is possible. So do not wait for existing nature to deteriorate, but do something. Packer cites the river room project as an example. More river space was created in this project. For example, embankments are not raised, but moved inland. This widens the floodplain and gives the river more surface area. There is also more surface area for higher water absorption. This reduces the risk of flooding. For example, resettlement can contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change. “These kinds of initiatives fit very well with the rebuilding mindset. But also water as climate dampeners, of course. How do you conserve water in times of drought?”
Wild cat and big herding
Allowing animals to return to nature is another example of this natural process. According to Becker, the Netherlands is very small and densely populated for wild animals. “You see him now with the wild cat in southern Limburg. There is only room for that. The animals often find their way to live with us.” The wild cat makes high demands on its habitat. The presence of feral cats shows that the area operates ecologically. There is food, shelter, nature, space, peace and brutality. And if the area is good enough for wild cats, then so are many other species.
Introducing large grazing animals somewhere, yes or no? Before the responsible people make a decision about this, they first want to know: What’s the point? This is where Liesbeth Bakker and her research team came to the rescue. “Right now we do a lot of measurements in all kinds of nature reserves. Because only then can you prove the consequences of a particular choice.”
The presence of large grazing animals can reduce the risk of wildfires. “Big shepherds can tend everything a little more, so that there is less combustible material in the forest. This way we can combine wild nature and fire prevention well.” This also makes natural areas more climate-resistant, because drier summers often cause wildfires.
Come and fly by yourself
Sometimes a guide is not necessary. Packer mentions the sea eagle as an example. There has been a lot of debate: Should we reintroduce this bird or not? “While the discussion was going on, they themselves traveled to breed at Oostvaardersplassen.”
According to Packer, recreation is still possible in the world of rewinding. “People are flock animals, so they usually stay on the trails. Rebuilding is also about trusting that nature can take care of itself. Of course you can take some action if too many people come somewhere or if they disturb the nesting birds. Sometimes you want to protect Animals are humans. But it’s important that we really get the chance to enjoy nature and the animals that live there.”
Nature restoration at Marker Wadden
Giving space to natural processes sometimes means an entirely new ecosystem. A good example is the natural Marker Wadden Islands. These five islands were established in Markermere from 2016 to 2021.
Because of the basalt embankments along the Markermeer, necessary for flood protection, the gradual transitions between land and water have disappeared. This means that the variation in plants and animals has decreased. As islands are built, there are more transitions between land and water and variation in water depths, with shallow waters and deep waters. These shallow, wet riverine areas are important for bird and fish species. For example, shallow waters between islands provide many swamp vegetation. This creates a good spawning area for different fish species.
Laughing tern and pair of ice ducks cuddling
Contrary to all expectations, new varieties were also introduced, says Bakker enthusiastically. Like the 2020 breeding Laughing Tern, a species that last raised chicks in the Netherlands in 1958. And two long-tailed ducks. “This is very special. Because the name says it all: Usually this duck goes north to breed. But the long-tailed duck stayed on Marker Waden.”
“You often see surprises when you let nature take its course,” says Liesbeth Bakker. “Rebuilding is really promising. We should not go back to the nature of the past, but above all look forward. And make way for nature!”
Text: Myriam Cruz, Atlas of the Living Environment
Photo: Eve Adams. Hans Decker, Saxifraga; Perro de Jong, NIOO-KNAW; Bart Fastinho, Saxifraga
Map: Atlas of the Holocene