Fewer people leads the way to rewilding in Portugal

Depopulation has led to abandonment of less fertile agricultural lands throughout Europe. Portugal, with its declining population, is a prime example. In the Côa Valley, the abandonment of farmland has been turned into an opportunity for rewilding efforts to create new wilderness. Already the valley has seen the return of many endangered species, such as the wolf and Iberian lynx. The Côa Valley in Portugal is our first area of focus in a new series which will highlight the benefits of depopulation for rewilding efforts in Europe.

By Pernilla Hansson

Faia Brava - Frank Vassen
The Faia Brava Reserve in Portugal. Photo: Frank Vassen

Several countries in Europe have achieved stable or declining human populations through accomplishments in health care, education, and changing norms, which have lowered fertility rates. Partly as a result, rural depopulation and farmland abandonment are powerful trends across the continent. Between 1970 and 2010, approximately 15% of European farmlands went out of production1, primarily less productive land such as grazed mountainous areas.

Rural abandonment is often seen as negative, being the product of diminishing livelihoods in the countryside, while continued traditional farming is often believed to play a key role in maintaining an open, highly bio-diverse landscape. These factors have prompted efforts to keep rural populations on an economically unprofitable and often socially declining countryside. The EU provides large environmental subsidies to compensate farmers who are struggling on less productive lands, as well as smaller incentives for farmers to use their lands more sustainably.2 However, the subsidies do not effectively target the reasons for rural land abandonment3, and rural abandonment is projected to continue despite EU subsidies.2

In fact, smaller populations and fewer hectares under agricultural production are good things, at least from the perspective of other species. The underlying assumption that perpetual human intervention is needed to retain high biodiversity is false3; while it is true that some species benefit from semi-open, traditionally managed farmland, the overall biodiversity of many areas can be higher on more natural lands, especially if the areas are large. The benefits of traditional agriculture keeping the landscape open can also be provided through other means, such as restoration through wild grazers. So instead of spending money on ineffective compensation measures keeping people in unprofitable situations on the countryside, rural depopulation should be seen as an opportunity for nature to recover, especially in Europe, which today hosts the least amount of wilderness of any continent.1 This is where the concept of rewilding comes in.

Rewilding aims to restore a dynamic ecological succession in areas that humans have abandoned, by building networks of wild species that together form resilient and self-sustaining ecosystems. This can sometimes be done passively, by allowing nature to recover by its own means, but the process can be slow and assumes that the critical native species still persist in the area or can recolonize from nearby. This is not always the case, especially when landscapes are species-poor or fragmented. The process can therefore be sped up by relocating species into the rewilding area. These species may have previously existed in the area but become locally extinct, or they may have been chosen to fill an ecological role that is currently missing from the ecosystem. The restoration of landscapes has been highlighted as an important goal via the 15th Aichi Biodiversity Target of the Convention on Biological Diversity, in which 123 sovereign states agreed to restore at least 15% of degraded habitats by this year, 2020.4 Abandoned farmland has specifically been identified as contributing significant numbers of restoration sites for rewilding.

In Europe, one of the key players in these endeavours is the umbrella organisation Rewilding Europe.

Rewilding Europe Coa Valley 2
Rewilding Europe’s main project areas, with the Côa Valley in red. Own graphical presentation of information from Rewilding Europe

Rewilding Europe has numerous projects throughout the continent, including a flagship project located in north-eastern Portugal in the Côa Valley. Portugal’s population has been declining since 2009, with fertility rates around 1.37 in 2017.5 The region in which the project is located has experienced some of the highest rural abandonment rates in Europe6, with the population decreasing since the 1990s.7 The decline is likely to continue in the future, with Portugal’s population projected to decline from 10.2 million to 6.9 million by 2100 under a continuation of status quo fertility and net migration level.8 Like many other European countries, population density is high in Portugal, and both ecosystems and people can benefit from a so-called depopulation dividend.

Portugal projection fertility
Portugal’s projected population trends to 2100 under five plausible fertility rates; the middle line graphs a continuation of the status quo. Source: P. Cafaro and P. Dérer, “Policy-based Population Projections for the European Union: A Complementary Approach.” Comparative Population Studies 44 (2019): 172-200

When people move out and domestic animals stop grazing, landscapes can become covered in dense undergrowth or scrub. This not only leads to the loss of many species that require open landscapes, but can also lead to increased fire frequency.7 The north-eastern part of Portugal already faces large wildfires due to its seasonally dry climate and the presence of coniferous production forests which were planted to replace abandoned farmland in the past.9 One of the goals of Rewilding Europe’s Côa Valley project is to reintroduce large wild herbivores to create a mosaic of grasslands between forest patches. Not only do these grasslands act as firebreaks against the frequent fires, but they also create open environments for species threatened by scrub overgrowth. The core area of the rewilding project, the Faia Brava Reserve, is intended to be fully rewilded as a self-regulating ecosystem not dependent on intensive human intervention, while the areas surrounding it may allow for some sustainable use. Reintroduction of wild horses and bovids to the core area has led to the desired mosaic of grasslands in the region, and the success in mitigating wildfires is evident by the Faia Brava Reserve being spared from recent forest fires in north-eastern Portugal.10

Map from Rewilding Portugal test
The Côa Valley rewilding area. Map from Rewilding Portugal

The cattle released into the reserve also play an important role in the Tauros breeding programme, which is trying to recreate a breed of wild cow similar to the extinct Auroch. Aurochs were wild European cattle that were vital for keeping landscapes open11. Due to human expansion and persecution, they were displaced and hunted to extinction centuries ago. Our modern-day cattle were domesticated from the Auroch, which is how the Tauros programme was conceived. Some breeds of cows retain more similarities to the wild Auroch, and an ambitious breeding programme hopes to create a new wild bovine similar to its extinct ancestor. Full success will involve not just recreating the wild cattle, but integrating them into semi-natural landscapes and restoring some of the ecological interactions they took part in centuries ago. Not an easy task, but definitely worthwhile!

Maronesas - Psilvestre
Cows of the Maronesa breed, the type released into the Faia Brava Reserve for the Tauros breeding programme. Photo: P Silvestre

Since the creation of the Côa Valley rewilding area in 2011, the area’s wildlife has started to recover. The populations of rabbit and red-legged partridge have increased, both of which are important prey to the Iberian lynx, an endangered species native to the Iberian Peninsula. A recovery of the lynx population on the peninsula has been facilitated by breeding centres in southern Spain and Portugal. Other endangered animals are also reappearing in the rewilding area, such as the wolf and Iberian imperial eagle, which had almost disappeared due to human activities. Wolves, as top predators, are important to the region. They currently live in highly isolated populations, which is one of the problems that the project is trying to amend. The areas where roe deer and red deer roam have expanded in the Côa Valley, and they are both important prey species for the wolves. Continued human population decrease will open up more land for wilderness. Ultimately, the Côa Valley project’s aim is to recreate core rewilded areas similar to the Faia Brava Reserve along the valley, to provide a stepping stone pattern of smaller wild areas and reduce the isolation of populations of wild animals and plants.

The Côa Valley project also involves people that still live in the area, changing the nature of commerce in the region to centre around sustainable agricultural production and ecotourism. Rewilding Europe aims to show how rewilding can be economically viable, to make it a more readily accepted alternative on less viable agricultural lands, as compared to subsidies and tree plantations, monocultures that reduce biodiversity and are susceptible to pest species.

Rewilding in the Côa Valley has been successful for both humans and animals, boasting a mosaic landscape with many different environments for different species. Its success shows that farmland abandonment is an opportunity for nature to reclaim some of the land humans occupied long ago. With restoration and rewilding efforts, the landscape can, over time, become a self-sustaining ecosystem with high biodiversity values. Although the final report on the Aichi Targets is yet to be completed, it seems as if we are far from reaching the goal of 15% restoration of degraded areas.4,12 If we want the future to allow for more thriving wild nature, depopulation and rewilding will play key roles in ensuring space for other species, as they have in the Côa Valley.



  1. Navarro LM. Rewilding abandoned landscapes in Europe: Biodiversity impact and contribution to human well-being. University of Lisbon, Department of animal biology (Doctorial thesis) 2014.
  2. Merckx T, Pereira HM. Reshaping agri-environmental subsidies: From marginal farming to large-scale rewilding. Basic and Applied Ecology. 2015 Mar;16(2): 95-103.
  3. Navarro LM, Pereira HM. Rewilding abandoned landscapes in Europe. In: Navarro LM, Pereira HM, eds. Rewilding European Landscapes. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2015. p. 3-23.
  4. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Global Biodiversity Outlook 4. Montréal (QC); 2014. 155 p. https://www.cbd.int/gbo/gbo4/publication/gbo4-en.pdf
  5. Family Indicators [Internet]. OECD Social and Welfare Statistics (database). Accessed February 12, 2020. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1787/efd30a09-en
  6. Rewilding Europe. Western Iberia [Internet]. Nijmegen; Rewilding Europe; Accessed February 12, 2020. Available from: https://rewildingeurope.com/areas/western-iberia/.
  7. Almeida AC. Rural abandonment and landscape evolution in the Central Region of Portugal. In: Jones G, Leimgruber W, Nel E, eds. Issues in Geographical marginality: Papers presented during the Commission Meetings 2001-2004. Demographic problems. Grahamstown: Rhodes University; 2007. p. 53-63.
  8. Cafaro P, Dérer P. Policy-based Population Projections for the European Union: A Complementary Approach. Comparative Population Studies. 2019 Oct;44: 171-200.
  9. Benayas JMR, Bullock JM. Vegetation Restoration and Other Actions to Enhance Wildlife in European Agricultural Landscapes. In: Navarro LM, Pereira HM, eds. Rewilding European Landscapes. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2015, p. 127-142
  10. Allen D, Schepers F. Rewilding Europe: Annual Review 2018. Nijmegen (NL): DPN Rikken Print; 2019. p. 64-65. https://www.rewildingeurope.com/wp-content/uploads/publications/rewilding-europe-annual-review-2018/index.html#
  11. van Vuure C. Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology & Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Sofia and Moscow: Pensoft Publishers; 2005. 431 p.
  12. Birdlife International, Conservation International, RSPB, Nature Conservancy, WWF. Convention on Biological Diversity: Progress report towards the Aichi biodiversity targets. Cancun (MX); 2017. 8 p. https://thought-leadership-production.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/12/07/15/33/12/1119cbd0-b781-4c44-b2b6-cc686af6e8f1/CBD-Aichi-Targets-Progress-Dec2016.pdf
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11 thoughts on “Fewer people leads the way to rewilding in Portugal

  1. I totally agree with this: “So instead of spending money on ineffective compensation measures keeping people in unprofitable situations on the countryside, rural depopulation should be seen as an opportunity for nature to recover, especially in Europe, which today hosts the least amount of wilderness of any continent.”
    I’m very doubtful about “the benefits of traditional agriculture keeping the landscape open”. Keeping the landscape open is always seen as something positive, never questioned. I wonder why. What are the benefits of an open landscape? More biodiversity? As far as I know, no: some species or group of species prosper more in an open landscape, like grasses. But there is no reason why grasses deserve more consideration than other groups of organisms. If we consider for example fungi, forests are much richer than whatever grassland. Moreover, there are species that need dense trees to prosper, like woodpeckers. The beneficial effects of open landscapes on biodiversity are at least controversial.

    What is not controversial is that tree coverage contributes to carbon dioxide sequestration mitigating climate change. A recent study published on Science https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/76 indicates an increase in tree coverage as one the most effective and cheapest ways to mitigate climate change. Given the current emergency, reducing carbon emissions should be the priority. Why there are so many efforts to promote open landscape instead of an increase in tree coverage?

    1. There are many species of flowering plants, birds, insects, etc. that need open habitats, or early successional habitats. That’s why in crowded countries that only preserve such habitats on agricultural lands, preserving such lands is seen as essential to preserving those species. There have been lots of articles making this case in the conservation biology literature.

      However, the point is often mis-interpreted, including by conservation biologists, who should know better. There are ways to preserve open or early successional lands besides agriculture, as described in the blog above. Such efforts which make biodiversity preservation of early successional species their primary goal are likely to do a better job than traditional agricultural lands, in which such preservation is an inessential byproduct.

      That doesn’t mean agricultural lands that preserve traditional ag practices and that also preserve some biodiversity are not valuable, for both those reasons and perhaps for others. There is something to be said for production lands that also preserve biodiversity, lessons that we can perhaps learn about living in harmony with nature.

      But again, proponents of harmonious agriculture need to remember that true harmony means leaving (or creating) some places where nature is in charge, where the primary goal is not melding humanity with nature but leaving nature alone to create its own order. It’s exciting to see more and more such areas being created in Europe and elsewhere around the world.

      1. I agree that the primary goal should be “leaving nature alone to create its own order”. I do not understand why there is so much focus on open landscapes even in rewilding projects. Why not leaving trees coming back?
        I know that there are species that need open habitats, but this argument is not convincing because there are also many species that need forests and trees, including many birds. Moreover, as you say, species that prosper in open habitats are typically early successional species, which means they are not especially threatened: they are the first species after a disturbance. Disturbances are frequent, maybe even too frequent nowadays.
        In general, it’s very easy to destroy a forest and to obtain an open landscape, it can require just few days. Getting a forest from an open landscape takes dozens of years. Our efforts should be directed towards protecting trees and forests (even considering their big potential against climate change), not open landscapes. Both ancient forests, and young forests, as the young forests of today are the ancient forests of tomorrow.

  2. https://news.sky.com/story/from-wildcats-to-hedgehogs-the-uks-threatened-species-11713016

    Here is a sad and disturbing report on the increasing plight of the UK’s wild creatures.

    Crowded Britain is still under the spell of growth at all costs, while the likes of ER continue to antagonise the general public with their antics and the magical thinking which prevails throughout the establishment assumes that rewilding and population growth can co- exist.

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