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Europe's wilder side is revealed thanks to detailed mapping

The first comprehensive survey of Europe’s remaining wilderness areas has been unveiled as part of a major project involving academics at the University of Leeds.

The resulting map and Wilderness Register for Europe, which sets out the quality of each area as well as existing levels of protection afforded to them, will shape European Union policy on these ecologically important sites for years to come. 

Wilderness map

Dr Steve Carver, Director of the Wildland Research Institute (WRi) at the University of Leeds, said:

“This is the first comprehensive survey and mapping of the remaining wilderness areas in Europe. It will drive developing EU policy on wilderness and influence our thinking on areas as diverse as ecosystem services, human health and wellbeing, climate change, biodiversity, protected areas and the concept of re-wilding – the return of habitats to their natural state.”

He said the very concept of wilderness had prompted debate over the years.

“Wilderness was an idea exported from Europe in the Age of Discovery from the early 15th century, and as such has been criticised as a colonial concept. But now Europe is re-importing the idea, looking inward and recognising its own wilderness – as well as the potential to create more through re-wilding.”

Today, just 1-2% of the EU’s land area is formally protected. Conservationists hope to increase this to 5% within the next 10-15 years.

Scandinavian countries and Iceland come out top when it comes to having the biggest proportions of Europe’s wildest areas – based on the project’s criteria – which include naturalness of vegetation, remoteness from settlement and other human infrastructure, and remoteness from roads (mechanised access). Mountain areas further south – the Pyrenees, Alps, Carpathians – are also well represented.

England and Wales have no qualifying wildernesses according to the register, while north-west Scotland possesses some key areas.

The register was unveiled by Dr Steve Carver at WILD10 – the tenth World Wilderness Congress. The congress is the world’s longest-running international conservation forum, held this year in Salamanca, Spain.

Project leader, Dr Loek Kuiters, from the research group Alterra, part of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said: “The willing cooperation and assistance of numerous site managers, national data managers and local NGOs all over Europe was indispensable for the collation and quality checking of available data for compilation of a European Wilderness Register. We look forward to further cooperation in the near future to keep the register up to date.”

Dr Carver and his colleagues at the WRi in Leeds have previously employed the latest data and Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping tools for Scottish Natural Heritage to detail Scotland’s wild areas and guide planning authorities making development decisions.

Scotland was the first country in Europe to produce a national wilderness map at this level of detail.

* This press release was updated on 2 June 2014 to reflect a change in the partners involved in the project. The European Wilderness Society is now responsible for work previously undertaken by PAN Parks. 

Further information

The project is funded by the European Commission and European Environment Agency. The register is a work in progress, with a final report to the EC and EEA due to be published next spring. All European Union states have cooperated.

Dr Steve Carver is available for interview. To arrange, please contact Sarah Reed, Press Officer, University of Leeds, on +44 (0)113 343 34196 or email s.j.reed@leeds.ac.uk

Find out more about the University of Leeds’ Wildland Research InstituteWILD10, Alterra and the European Wilderness Society.

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