Science & Environment

Europe's key animals 'making a comeback'

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Media captionFrans Schepers and Davor Krmpotic from Rewilding Europe explain why bears are doing well in Croatia

Some of Europe's key animals have made a comeback over the past 50 years, a report suggests.

Conservationists say species such as bears, wolves, lynx, eagles and vultures have increased in numbers.

They believe that protection, curbs on hunting and people moving away from rural areas and into cities have helped Europe's wildlife to recover.

The analysis was carried out by the Zoological Society of London, Birdlife and the European Bird Census Council.

The report was commissioned by the conservation group Rewilding Europe.

Frans Schepers, the organisation's director, said: "People have this general picture of Europe that we've lost all our nature and our wildlife.

"And I think what the rest of the world can learn from this is that conservation actually works. If we have the resources, a proper strategy, if we use our efforts, it actually works."

Image copyright Staffan Widstrand
Image caption The researchers looked at 18 mammals and 19 birds, such as the white-tailed eagle
Image copyright Staffan Widstrand/Wild Wonders of Europe
Image caption For top predators such as the brown bear, numbers have doubled
Image copyright Jari Peltomaki/Wild Wonders of Europe
Image caption The Dalmatian pelican is a globally threatened species, which suffered large declines in past centuries
Image copyright Laszlo Novak
Image caption The average range of birds has remained stable
Image copyright Staffan Widstrand/Rewilding Europe
Image caption The grey wolf populations have climbed by 30%
Image copyright Staffan Widstrand/Wild Wonders of Europe
Image caption Bears are doing extremely well in Croatia though numbers remain low in Latvia
Image copyright Staffan Widstrand
Image caption The white stork declined until the mid-1980s due to poor feeding conditions

Over the past few centuries, animals in Europe have not fared well. Hunting, habitat loss, and pollution have sent animals into decline.

But this report marks a reversal in fortunes.

The researchers looked at 18 mammals and 19 bird species found across Europe.

They found that all, apart from the Iberian lynx, had increased in abundance from the 1960s.

The largest increases were for the European bison, the Eurasian beaver, the white-headed duck, some populations of the pink-footed goose and the barnacle goose. These had all increased by more than 3,000% during the past five decades.

For top predators such as the brown bear, numbers have doubled. And for the grey wolf, which saw serious losses in the past, populations have climbed by 30%.

For mammals, the comeback was largest in the south and west of Europe, and their range had increased on average by about 30%. The average range of the birds remained stable.

Image copyright Staffan Widstrand
Image caption Wolves have fared well in Europe after many centuries of decline

Mr Schepers said: "The wildlife comeback actually started after World War II in the 1950s and 1960s. Compared to the numbers in the 1600s and 1700s, it's still at a very low level, but it's coming back."

Global view

The researchers believe a combination of factors have been driving this return.

Legal protection in the European Union, such as the birds directive and habitats directive, had helped to revive the fortunes of species, as had dedicated conservation schemes, said Mr Schepers.

And while some animals are still hunted in parts of Europe, there are often limits on the number that can be killed.

"It is also because people are leaving the countryside, which leaves more space for wildlife," said Mr Schepers.

The recovery of some species, particularly large predators, has raised concerns. In France, for example, where wolves have recently returned, farmers are concerned that their livestock is at risk.

Image copyright Erlend Haarberg
Image caption The northern chamois has increased in abundance and distribution

The report warns that this could be a growing problem, but suggests that governments should put in place compensation schemes to offset any losses for farmers. It also says that rural communities could benefit from more animals, as ecotourism could offer a boost to local economies.

The finding is surprising when seen in the global context, where biodiversity is in continuing decline.

Prof Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, said: "We're trying to find success stories so we can learn from them, so we can see what works and scale that up across the conservation movement globally.

"And it is really important that we focus on success and where we are winning.

"But there are massive challenges out there globally. And we have to realise that the threats that Europe creates are not just within our borders, it's internationally, and that we are having an impact on the 60% decline we're seeing in low income countries around the world."

He also warned that Europe's wildlife was at a pivotal moment.

"We just have to be aware that into the future there will be increasing pressure for food production and so on within Europe," he said.

"And for a lot of these species, where we have seen the gains, we might lose them again if we are not careful. So it's our job to keep our eye on the ball."

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