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Abandoned Farms Are a Hidden Resource for Restoring Biodiversity

Southern Europe isn’t so different. Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal never had collective farms, however the inexorable aging of their populations and the exodus of young people to cities is emptying villages and leaving fields and pastures untended. Francesco Cherubini of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology calculates that prior to now three many years, Europe has seen a net lack of farmland larger than Switzerland.

The trend is surprisingly widespread. Japan, one of the crucial densely populated countries on the planet, nonetheless has something approaching 250,000 acres of farmland sitting idle. Even in parts of Africa, where populations proceed to grow, farming is seen as an old man’s activity, and fields lie abandoned because the young head for jobs within the cities, notes Edward Mitchard, a researcher on the University of Edinburgh.

Sometimes the abandonment isn’t driven by economic, demographic, or social aspects, but by pollution or industrial disasters. Hundreds of square miles of radioactive former farmland across the stricken nuclear reactors at Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan are actually inside exclusion zones and may very well be without human occupation for hundreds of years to return.

Nature pays little regard to exclusion zones, nonetheless. Despite the radiation, wolves, bears, wild boar, lynx, and other large animals are reclaiming their former terrain, forests are encroaching, and carbon is being captured.

Other times, it’s war that does the damage. In the past 19 months, swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine have been consumed by warfare following the Russian invasion. Despite the military mayhem, nature is in places taking up abandoned fields. And even when the war ends, minefields could leave the land unused and unproductive for many years.

While the retreat from farming, for whatever reason, is the biggest source of abandoned land globally, there are other causes. For instance, the top of the Cold War has led to the abandonment of an estimated 5,800 square miles of former military training areas in Europe. Free of tanks and troops, a lot of these areas have gotten nature reserves, including the previous British tank grounds at Lüneburg Heath in western Germany and the Königsbrücker Heath in eastern Germany vacated by Russian troops.

Left to its own devices, nature will often reclaim abandoned places, with advantages for biodiversity and climate. Even without human intervention, carbon capture from the abandoned areas of Russia is already considerable. Irina Kurganova, a soil scientist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, estimates that the collapse of collective farming there has led to the sequestering annually of greater than 40 million tons of carbon in natural vegetation and improved soils.

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