Governing abandoned land: Storylines on natural forest regrowth in France and Spain

A new paper led by EFI junior researcher Theresa Frei examines policy making related to natural forest regrowth in France and Spain, two countries where land abandonment and natural forest regrowth occur on significant scales.

Landscape in Parque Natural Alto Tajo, Castilla-la Mancha, Spain. Photo: Theresa Frei

We highlight three out of five different stories we identified in our study about natural forest regrowth on abandoned land in France and Spain. In our research, we interviewed policy actors and stakeholders from agriculture, forestry, conservation and rural development. We wanted to know: what do they consider as problems and as opportunities connected to natural forest regrowth on abandoned land, and what are their preferred policy solutions to deal with this land use change?

Story 1: Extensive agriculture: extensive agriculture is keeping landscapes alive – we need to sustain it!

The loss of extensive agricultural practices destroys rural economies. This decline of rural livelihood is a scare scenario, which needs to be prevented. But large-scale farming and the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) cause land abandonment and disadvantages for small-scale farming. Additionally, the lack of integration across policy fields makes it difficult to address land abandonment. However, rural economies should be defended at any costs. It is key to keep landscapes alive through extensive agricultural practices and to tackle natural forest regrowth at abandoned land. CAP measures can support here, but innovative agricultural practices can also play a role.

Extensive farming in the Iberian Peninsula. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Story 2: Forestry: the land is getting shrubbed – active forest policy and management is needed!

The lack of forest management on abandoned land makes natural forest regrowth economically uninteresting and even increase the fire risk. The difficult financial situation of forestry plays in here as well, leading even more to unstructured forests with little use. The lack of active policymaking on natural forest regrowth is problematic as well as the fragmentation of policy fields across sectors, making policy actions more difficult. Therefore, active forest policymaking addressing natural forest regrowth is needed, for instance through enhanced support for sustainable forest management through the CAP measures and like this supporting a rural economy through forestry. For doing so, agriculture and forest-related policies should be better integrated in future.

Abandoned forest area with scrubland in Languedoc-Roussillon, France. Photo: PxHere

Story 3: Wilderness: feral areas are missing – natural forest regrowth brings them back to us!

Europe’s landscapes are artificial and lack feral areas. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed. Additionally, the cultural landscapes are often very costly to sustain. At the same time, policy making does not recognise the potential of natural forest regrowth on abandoned land for creating more wilderness in Europe. Governmental actors often do not feel responsible, as natural forest regrowth does not fall under their usual focus. There is also to little funding for wilderness projects in general. Instead, rewilding through natural forest regrowth could be an important and cheap opportunity for rural development in some regions of Europe, putting back the missing pieces in ecosystems. Policy making should actively support rewilding through natural forest regrowth. Also, there is a need to jointly develop a more positive framing of this often negatively viewed land use change.

The Picos de Europa in Spain are an example of the few remaining wilderness areas in densely populated areas of southern Europe. Photo: PxHere

Read the full stories!

Take advantage of free access to the article until June 26, 2022, by clicking on this link:

Full reference

Frei, T., Edou, K., Rodríguez Fernández-Blanco, C., & Winkel, G. 2022. Governing abandoned land: Storylines on natural forest regrowth in France and Spain. Environmental Science & Policy, 135, 58–66.

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Theresa Frei
Theresa Frei joined EFI in 2017 as a Junior Researcher. She works on natural forest expansion in South-West Europe, focusing on societal perceptions and policy narratives related to the phenomenon. Theresa holds a Master of Science in Environmental Governance of the University of Freiburg in Germany.