The rewild show: Aurochs 2.0 and other species to make a European comeback

By ‘rewilding’ Europe – assisting the return of species such as bison, deer and wild horses – it is hoped that lost ecosystems will also be restored

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Europe once teemed with wildlife: herds of bison, wild horses, deer, aurochs and even water buffalo. Lions, leopards, hyenas, bears and wolves pursued them.

A modern movement seeks to “rewild” Europe by assisting the return of some lost species. In one instance, old cattle breeds are being crossed to resurrect the extinct aurochs, the wild ancestor of domestic cattle.

Conservation in Europe has mostly been about keeping what we have. Rewilding is different. It seeks to restore ecosystems and boost wildlife numbers to more natural levels.

“Rewilding is about letting nature shape itself, instead of people ‘creating’ it,” says Frans Schepers, a Dutch ecologist and the managing director of Rewilding Europe. His organisation aims to rewild at least one million hectares by 2022 in 10 areas. Boosting tourism, by way of wilderness and wildlife-watching holidays, is seen as essential to securing local buy-in.

Broken food chains

Predators are already rebounding in Europe – there are now an estimated 15,000 wolves and 17,000 brown bears – but food chains remain broken, often down to a lack of herbivores or scavengers.

Rewilding Europe this spring released wild bison close to the Carpathian mountains in Romania. It is also helping local partners build up deer numbers in a Bulgarian rewilding area, where wolves are making a comeback.

“In many parts of Europe there are not enough herbivores like red or roe deer for the carnivores,” Schepers says.

The organisation is also crossing old breeds of horse to release wild horses into Europe once more. This is not for aesthetics. Wild horses once helped shape European ecosystems. They promoted grassland and parkland-type landscapes by eating nutrient-poor and dead grass; this stimulated growth and enabled aurochs and deer to live in high numbers even in nutrient-poor areas.

Perhaps its most ambitious project is to return aurochs-like animals to the wild. Aurochs went extinct in Europe in 1627. Although all cattle stem from aurochs, aurochs bulls were taller, reaching 1.8m at the shoulder, with horns more than a metre long. Domestication downsized the bull’s long-legged, athletic body shape.

Crossing six old cattle breeds to produce a bovine closer to the aurochs is being carried out at breeding sites in Portugal, Croatia, Romania and the Netherlands. The newly bred animal is referred to as tauros, “Aurochs 2.0”, since the true wild aurochs is gone.

The aurochs once dominated European vegetation, Schepers says. Think for a second of the herds of buffalo, zebras and wildebeest in Africa and then imagine similar large herds of aurochs with lots of other wildlife. This is what Europe once looked like.

Rewilding Europe sees an opportunity for land abandoned in rural Europe and left to turn to scrub. The organisation has built hides for bear-watching in Croatia and vulture-watching in Portugal.

Schepers gets irate at comparisons to Jurassic Park, though, and says this is not about turning the clock back. “Some people reduce rewilding to species introduction,” he says. “But it is about letting nature recover.”

Although Ireland never had aurochs – or perhaps even native deer – after the last Ice Age, we can still rewild. Rewilding is also about letting rivers flood more naturally, restoring floodplains. It might mean removing dykes and dams, but it could alleviate some of the flooding seen here in recent years.

Upgrading ecosystems

“This is about rediscovering what nature in Europe could look like,” says Schepers, reviving a wild nature by upgrading ecosystems to a more natural condition. In Mayo, Coillte and National Parks and Wildlife Service are similarly focused, with a rewilding project in the Nephin Beg Range.

Reintroducing large mammals to Ireland would be challenging, since many were predators. A wolf or bear reintroduction is not on the cards.

“I’m not convinced there is the physical space from an ecological point of view for them to even live here,” says Nigel Monaghan, keeper at the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

A charity in the UK is working towards reintroducing the lynx there; lynx is native to Ireland, bones having been discovered in a cave in Waterford in 1934. If the UK did reintroduce lynx, Ireland could consider it, though good habitat would be needed, says Monaghan.

“Rewilding parts of Ireland is perfectly feasible without having to reintroduce any wild animals, such as changing drainage schemes or allowing for more mixed forests,” adds Monaghan. “Rewilding has become part of the conversation about taking care of the environment.”

One flagship site for Rewilding Europe is the Côa valley in Portugal, once marked for a hydroelectric dam. Neolithic rock engravings depicting aurochs, ibexes and wild horses made it a Unesco World Heritage Site. “That is why the dam wasn’t built. And those are the species our local partners want to bring back,” says Schepers.

MAYO MOVEMENT: A RETURN TO THE WILD WEST
A project in Mayo is rewilding thousands of hectares to offer a more authentic wilderness experience.

The Wild Nephin Wilderness Area brings together Ballycroy National Park and adjacent Coillte lands, which is taking out 4,400 hectares out of their commercial forests. The mountains, Atlantic bog and rivers in the Nephin Beg range have always been wild and remote, but changes are being made to rewild the area.

“We are not going to cut down all the conifers, but we will take some stands out where we know this can add to the diversity, and replant with native species like rowan and birch,” says Denis Strong of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who is leading the project. In some areas, fish-spawning in rivers will be improved by planting deciduous trees for shade or taking out conifers.

Wild salmon and sea trout spawn here, and Nephin is home to rare Arctic char and freshwater mussels. Whooper swans overwinter on its lakes, and there are red grouse, peregrine falcons, crossbills and golden plover in the mountains and valleys. Golden eagles could one day return, too.

Rewilding is a decades-long endeavour. For now, visitor facilities are being added to; a new map for the wilderness area has been produced and is available locally. “When I first came out here in 1990, I realised there were so many rivers, streams, crags and valleys that went unexplored and I knew it had huge potential,” says Strong. There is an interpretative centre in Ballycroy village.

Ballycroy National Park and Wild Nephin Wilderness have also been accredited with gold-tier International Dark Sky Park status.

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