By Nigel Stephenson
HAY-ON-WYE, Wales (Reuters) - Europe has an extraordinary opportunity to re-introduce wolves, bison and beavers and allow its citizens to reconnect with their wild side, an environmentalist and author said.
George Monbiot told an audience at the Hay Festival of literature on the weekend that some 30 million hectares - an area the size of Poland - were expected to be taken out of agricultural use between 2000 and 2030 as farmers chose not to stay on unproductive land.
This was a unique opportunity for "re-wilding" and the restoration of species, including large predators, that have all but disappeared from much of the continent.
Bringing back wolves, for example, to some of Europe's least productive agricultural areas would increase biodiversity and increase economic opportunities, Monbiot said, whose latest book "Feral" was published last week.
Re-wilding the landscape was also "an opportunity to re-wild ourselves" and "to fill the world with wonders of which we have been deprived and alongside which we evolved," he said.
Monbiot said the re-introduction of two packs of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming had led to a greater diversity of ecosystems, allowing more species to flourish.
By reducing the local deer population, the trees on which they feed had grown, encouraging more migratory birds.
He attacked the system of agricultural subsidies in Europe, which rewarded some farmers for keeping grassland cropped even when it was not in use. This had seen areas of woodland in parts of Europe cut down.
Monbiot, who has caused controversy in Wales, where he lives, by saying sheep-farming is bad for the landscape and bad for employment, called for such subsidies to be capped to cover only limited areas.
He described nature conservation in Britain as "utterly perverse" in that it required many protected areas to be kept unchanged even if they were much depleted of wildlife that could flourish there. Re-wilding was an opportunity to reverse that process.
"We are beginning to see that the story we have told ourselves about the inevitable degradation and destruction of the natural world doesn't have to end that way," he said.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)