Can giving nature more room help us solve major crises? Liesbeth Bakker, who is to be inaugurated as a professor by special appointment of Rewilding Ecology, focuses on this question in her research. In her new role, she will study how rewilding can contribute to addressing climate change and biodiversity loss. Challenging issues, but Bakker sees ample opportunities. ‘I can only imagine great improvements in the future.’
The sandbank De Beer, near Rotterdam, used to be a bird sanctuary. Over seventy different bird species bred there, among whom the Gull-billed tern. In the sixties, the island had to make way for the construction of Europoort, which caused biodiversity loss, including the loss of the Gull-billed tern, on the island. De Beer became a symbol of nature giving way to human activity. The Gull-billed tern reappeared on the Marker mudflats a few years ago. These are new, artificial islands in the Markermeer. There, nature is given ample room.
Liesbeth Bakker will start her inaugural address on 29 September with the story of the Gull-billed tern. The bird symbolises nature’s resilience. The story also explains her passion for rewilding. The term rewilding often suggests reintroducing wild animals into sizeable nature reserves, but Bakker uses a broader definition: giving natural processes more room. ‘In the Netherlands, rewilding may also mean giving rivers more room.’
Rewilding in action
Bakker was appointed special professor of Rewilding Ecology in February 2020, but her formal inauguration was postponed twice due to the covid pandemic. Her professorship is funded by NIOO-KNAW and Rewilding Europe. This organisation manages nine areas of over 100,000 hectares across Europe in which rewilding is applied. Moreover, there is a European rewilding network which includes Dutch areas such as the Millingerwaard and the Kennemerduinen.
In these “wild” areas, researchers can precisely measure the effects of rewilding. ‘How fast does the forest grow if grassland is rewilded? What effect do large herbivores have on the vegetation? The knowledge these researchers acquire enables policymakers to make the best decisions’, Bakker says. Before, she focused on the ecological aspects of nature management, but colleagues from the domain of social sciences are increasingly involved. ‘Ultimately, rewilding is about people, about the choices we make.’
Wild nature against major crises
In her position as a special professor, Bakker aims to focus on major crises, such as how rewilding could contribute to addressing climate change and biodiversity loss and their consequences. She wants to study contemporary issues through an integrated approach. ‘The government may consider buffer zones to reduce the impact of wildfires. But introducing large herbivores that keep the vegetation short and reduce the amount of flammable material in a forest is also an option. Perhaps we can combine fire prevention and wild nature?’
All in all, Bakker is hopeful, despite all the threats the world faces. ‘There are wolves in the Netherlands! I could never have imagined. And look at the Marker mudflats: a colony of common terns settled there during the construction of the first island, a sight to behold! Make some room, and nature will follow.’
Liesbeth Bakker’s inauguration is to take place on 29 September 2022 in Omnia, the most recently added building on Wageningen Campus. The Rewilding Symposium will also take place there around the inauguration.