Rewilding in Europe

Rewilding is an approach to conservation where we reset ecosystems and trust nature to look after itself. That might mean removing manmade obstacles like dams to restore natural waterways, reviving traditional and less intensive farming practises, and thinning out densely planted forests to make way for native wildflowers. It might also mean reintroducing European species that humans have hunted to extinction – bison, beavers, bears, wolves and birds of prey.
In her book Wilding, Isabella Tree calls England’s crashing bird populations the “canary in the mine”. But thankfully, there are people listening to the warning signals – and they’ve been inspired to start ambitious rewilding projects.
Conservation in Europe has historically been a patchwork of very managed national parks. Conservationists often focus on boosting certain species without giving neighbouring species and the landscapes they rely on equal consideration. Rewilding widens the lens, knowing that when you isolate species you put them at risk of extinction.
And the wilder the landscape becomes, the more species it can support. It becomes more biodiverse. That’s important because all life is reliant on a web of relationships more complicated than The Matrix sequels: plants, animals and people; predators and prey; rainfall and temperatures. And as a general rule, the more species in a habitat, the more hardy and productive it is. That’s good news for humans too, who rely on the world’s rivers and springs for drinking water, its flora and fauna for food, and its landscapes for adventure, amazement and our mental and physical health.
It’s not about booting people out and letting animals in; it’s about setting up an ecosystem where everything and everyone can live – and live really well.
Rewilding Europe and an increasing public interest in rewilding are giving old conservation models in Europe a shake-up. “Rewilding projects are very positive around the world,” says Martin Royle, director and guide at our partner Royle Safaris. “In the UK we have seen success with Eurasian wild pigs, Eurasian beavers, pine martens (although a lot has been natural expansion of their range), white-tailed eagles and red kites. All have positively affected the environment and ecosystem and increased revenue for the local communities, whether through ecotourism or small-scale hunting for food in the case of the wild boar.”
It’s not about booting people out and letting animals in; it’s about setting up a landscape where everything and everyone can live – and live really well. The best rewilding projects aren’t cordoned off in nature reserves, but work to join up our patchwork national parks.
Read on to find out more about rewilding in Europe – and how you can visit some of the best rewilding projects in Europe.

The top 8 rewilding projects in Europe

Although kick-started by wildlife getting into dire straits, our top rewilding projects in Europe are inspiring examples of true ecotourism.

1. Keeping the Carpathians wild in Romania

The southern end of the Carpathian Mountains curves like a sickle through Romania – and it’s on its way to becoming the largest wilderness in Europe outside the Arctic. It’s a great place to start with rewilding, as it’s a huge area with wildlife corridors still intact. Plus, its scenery is as dramatic as the bears, lynx, wolves and newly reintroduced bison who live here.
Although still wild, there are challenges in the Southern Carpathians. Romania’s elite have traditionally used the forests as a hunting ground and the cruel spectacle of training bears to “dance” was legal until 1998; bears were only removed from their owners in 2007, when Romania joined the EU.
But rewilding – and the tourists brought by wildlife-rich landscapes – can help provide an alternative income to hunting and bear circuses. Rewilding increases rural employment by encouraging responsible nature-based tourism, including bear watching and wolf tracking tours, and supporting truly eco-friendly accommodation like wildlife hides and a biodiverse farm run by Foundation Conservation Carpathia.

2. Coexisiting with nature in Sapmi, Lapland

Swedish Lapland has a rare thing in Europe: loads of space. Glaciers, mountains, taiga and tundra make for a challenging place to live, but Sami – the only indigenous people in Europe – have coexisted with nature here for thousands of years. The wildlife has struck an ancient balance, too, with lynx, bears, wolverines, elk and reindeer herds all relying on each other.

With so many natural resources, damaging industries like logging and mining are the real dangers here, as well as the climate crisis that affects traditional reindeer herding. Rewilding projects in Lapland have got Sami communities and conservationists working together to create a more sustainable source of income: responsible tourism. Go to Lapland, and you can track wildlife while watching out for the Northern Lights overhead.

Our top trips: See wolves, moose and beavers and Lapland Northern Lights and wildlife vacation
All our trips: Sweden wildlife vacations
Read more: Sweden wildlife guide

3. Bringing back bison in Poland

Bison were hunted to extinction in Europe by 1919, before being reintroduced in Poland in the 1950s.These days, Bialowieza Forest is the best place in Europe to see bison. Although continually threatened by logging, this rare remnant of primeval forest is still clinging on – and rewilding groups hope to keep it that way.

Wildlife tourism is in its infancy here, but with luck (read: a lot of work) it will become more profitable than logging. Bison watching in Bialowieza Forest is a great way to support rewilding. These beasts are the biggest mammal in Europe – and over 500 roam this national park. Of course, the main principle of rewilding is that it’s not happening in isolation.

Reintroducing bison is rebalancing a forest ecosystem that supports over 11,500 species, from lynx, wolves and elk to tiny tree frogs and bright pink rosefinches. Wildlife tours to Bialowieza Forest will give you a more rounded view of the ancient forest’s other residents, plus its trees – including lime trees as big as oaks and goat willows reaching up to seven storeys.

Our top trips: Bison watching in Bialowieza Forest and wildlife tours to Bialowieza Forest
All our trips: Poland wildlife vacations
Read more: Poland travel guide

4. Protecting the Danube Delta – the biggest wetlands in Europe

The Danube Delta sprawls out over the southern border of Romania, Ukraine and Moldovia. It’s the biggest wetland in Europe and home to the largest number of fish species. As such, it’s a birders’ haven; up to a quarter of a million birds can be seen each day during migration season. Threatened species include Dalmatian pelicans, imperial eagles, red-breasted geese and great snipes. And where birds appear, so do canny predators – golden jackals, marbled polecats and red foxes.
Rewilding the Danube Delta is in its early days, linking established conservation projects across country borders. It’ll work with the flows and tides of the river delta, restarting natural flooding processes and continuing to offer sustainable ways of living. With high levels of unemployment here, it’s vital that local people are offered wildlife-friendly employment that doesn’t rely on the beach resorts threatening the delicate sand dunes.

5. Learning to welcome wolves in Portugal

Land abandonment in Portugal has been a problem for decades, with poor rural communities moving to the cities or other countries for work and better prospects. That’s left areas like the Greater Coa Valley deserted – and the ideal places to reintroduce missing species and start letting nature look after itself.

Over 100,000 hectares have been set aside as Natura 2000 conservation areas – the beginnings of a wildlife corridor that connects the Malcata Mountains with the Douro Valley. It’s a dramatic gorge-cracked land, with steep cliffs, Mediterranean oak woodland and heathland. Iberian wolves are the big story here, but you’ll also find vultures, eagles, wild horses, Iberian ibex and Iberian lynx. Trees and shrubs are springing back, too, adding shade to the dry Mediterranean landscape – essential for preventing wildfires in Portugal’s drying climate.

And it’s not just animals that are getting the chance of a comeback. Olive and almond farmers are increasingly supported by workers and visitors drawn to Greater Coa Valley by the wildlife, hiking and cycling opportunities. The landscape is waking up again – but in ways that work with the environment rather than against it.

Our top trips: Douro River cycling vacation and wolf tracking vacations
Volunteer: Volunteer at a wolf sanctuary in Portugal
Read more: Volunteering with wolves in Portugal guide

6. Connecting the Cairngorms in Scotland

The Cairngorms National Park in the eastern Scottish Highlands has inspired the most ambitious rewilding project in the UK: Cairngorms Connect. It’s a huge challenge, because the UK is a jigsaw of landowners. This project works with them to restore ecological processes across their lands. And by “ecological processes” we mean removing drainage and ditches so rivers can run freely and cleanly, stopping deer from overgrazing so that native Scots pines can grow again, resurrecting bogs that double as powerful carbon stores, and thinning out tree plantations so that capercaillie and wildflowers can thrive.

Our top trips: Cairngorms wildlife vacation and walking vacation in the Cairngorms
All our trips: Scotland wildlife vacations
Read more: Scotland wildlife guide

7. Booming biodiversity in the Velebit Mountains, Croatia

In the 1960s, the Velebit Mountains in Croatia doubled as the Wild West in TV Westerns. These days, local conservationists are going for another type of wild – they’re continuing the trend of local people taking a step back from the mountains and leaving it to its own devices.
The 145km-long Velebit Mountains just north of Zadar are already well-equipped with hiking trails, small accommodations and watersports centers. They’re a great answer to Croatia’s summer overtourism and rural exodus problems, tempting people away from the coast and into the underpopulated mountains in a slow and manageable way.
Rewilding is another ace up the national park’s sleeve, increasing the chance of wildlife watching opportunities as creatures unique to this part of the Balkans – including brown bears, wolves, Eurasian lynx and Balkan chamois – gradually return.

8. Restoring ecosystems at Knepp Wildland, South Downs

We couldn’t leave Knepp Estate out – a farm in West Sussex that’s just down the road from the Responsible Travel HQ. After realising how the family estate had been intensively farming the landscape to death, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell decided to start a rewilding project that was a first in the UK.

It focuses on using grazing animals like oxen to restore failing farmland, kick-starting ecological processes. Rarities like nightingales, turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies have all returned – and a pair of long-legged storks who, in 2020, welcomed the first pair of stork chicks in Britain since 1416. You can read all about it in Isabella’s book Wilding.

Our top trip: South Downs self catering cottage (10-minute drive away)
All our trips: South Downs vacations
Read more: UK travel guide

Our top Europe wildlife Vacation

Poland wildlife vacation, Wolves, Bears & Lynx

Poland wildlife vacation, Wolves, Bears & Lynx

5 days in the Bieszczady Mountains, Eastern Carpathians

From PLZ 4950 5 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2022: 10 Apr, 3 May, 5 Jun, 2 Oct, 6 Nov
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Europe wildlife or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Why do we need rewilding in Europe?

An ecosystem is a tapestry of species and relationships. Chop away a section, isolate that section, and there arises the problem of unravelling.
– David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo
Rewilding in Europe is a reaction to some sobering facts. Over 1,500 species are in danger of extinction, including more than half of Europe’s endemic trees and mammal species – from polar bears and Mediterranean monk seals to North Atlantic right whales. One out of every 10 European bee and butterfly species are near extinction – the creatures that move pollen around the world so that plant species can reproduce.
The stats are sobering stuff (the UK’s State of Nature report will keep you up at night). But species extinction is a sign of an even bigger problem: ecosystems that are failing largely due to our relationship with the environment.

“The biggest threat is ignorance,” says Martin Royle, director and guide at our partner Royle Safaris. “If people do not care and do not know and do not visit the wild areas and see the wildlife, then there is a very real chance the places will be replaced with farmland, housing developments or fisheries.”

The climate crisis warms our seas, threatens migratory routes with droughts and storms, and pushes animals to look further for food. Invasive species elbow out more vulnerable native species like red squirrels. Chemicals, sewage and plastics pollute rivers; in 2020, all of England’s rivers failed quality tests for pollution.

In her book Wilding, Isabella Tree calls England’s massive loss in bird species the “canary in the mine” – an alarm call warning of danger to life. But thankfully, there are people already listening and who have been inspired to start amazing projects to rewild Europe.

“Ecotourism has a proven track record,” says Martin, “whether it is the red kite reintroduction or the white-tailed eagles, tourism has been a boon for the local communities around these sites and the animals are now largely seen in a positive light despite being predators.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: caroline legg] [Beaver: Aivar Ruukel] [Polar bears: Riviera Travel] [Volunteering with bears in Romania: Julien Lavergne] [Finland bear watching: Sabina Sirco] [Bumblebee: Daniel Norin]