Letting nature do the work no walk in the park
The chirp of cicadas ripples through the pine forest, carried along on the same breeze as the scent of lavender and wild thymewith nearly no trace of man.
The Grand Barry nature reserve in France's southeastern corner is undertaking one of Europe's largest experiments in rewilding.
At a time when reforestation projects-planting new trees-are growing in popularity, rewilding aims to let nature do the work by simply leaving ecosystems alone to recover, free from human influence.
According to the United Nation's biodiversity panel IPBES, at least three-quarters of all land on Earth has been degraded by human activity.
As humankind's insatiable demand for food and materials expands, more than one million species of wild animals and plants are at risk of extinction, many within decades, the UN says.
Inspired by similar movements in the United States, the Grand Barry project is overseen by the Association for the Protection of Wild Animals (ASPAS) and aims to give the forest some breathing space.
"On Earth, there are hardly any places which have not been influenced by humans, one way or the other," says Zoltan Kun, from the Frankfurt Zoological Society.
The situation is particularly acute in Europe, where a relative lack of space and large population centres mean areas of untouched nature are increasingly hard to find.
Kun says that the goal of rewilding is to create "ecosystems that can work without human intervention". This means no treeplanting, no forestry clearance, and no or very little species reintroduction. Just standing back, and letting nature do its thing.
The process starts from the bottom of the food chain: allowing the populations of insects and small creatures to grow again will, in turn, increase the numbers of herbivores, carnivores and birds of prey within the forest.
"In most cases you just need to allow these species to extend naturally," says Henrique Miguel Pereira, IPBES's head of biodiversity conservation.
"(It's about) promoting the connectivity of ecosystems-if you have populations of wolves in different areas, for example, they can expand if they are connected." This involves everything from removing small dams on rivers, to identifying and creating safe passages for wildlife to cross over or under roads.
The wooded massif of Grand Barry, spread across 100 hectares (247 acres) of France's Drome region, is shot through with a kilometres-long rocky ridge.
The forest floor all around rustles to the sound of chamois-think deer crossed with antelope-red deer, stoats, badgers, reptiles, not to mention countless species of plants and flowers.
In the sky above, a golden eagle darts through the air like a fighter jet, sharing flight paths with the peregrine falcon and the European hawk.
"It's just an area of pretty normal nature, but there are some nuggets," says Clement Roche, coordinator of ASPAS reserve.
Golden eagles-once abundant in Europe-now number only a few thousand pairs across the continent. The area is highly protected-banned activities include fishing, hunting, logging, farming, large gatherings and the use of motor vehicles.
Such safeguards put the reserve on a par with the highest protected status granted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) criteriahigher than that of national park. "We let people hike here on the marked paths," says Roche, gesturing to signposts marked discreetly among the trees.
"People can pass through without leaving a trace." In reality, just a few dozen hikers visit the reserve annually, a figure kept down thanks to its deliberately low-key communication strategy.
Flora here is left to its own devices. "When a tree falls, we leave it," says Roche, pointing to a toppled trunk that itself will become teeming with plant, animal life as it decomposes.