Imagine the time before humans had cut down Europe’s magnificent forests and destroyed over two thirds of its wildlife. When there was space for large animals to roam freely, the seas were a kaleidoscope of fish, and wildflower meadows were alive with insects and songbirds.
David Thomas has seen how the world could be, and he’s gushing with enthusiasm. “It's just so astonishing to experience landscapes and seascapes rich in biodiversity, humming with life and sounds,” he says.
This is not virtual reality. Thomas has been visiting projects across Europe - projects that are starting to demonstrate that the large-scale restoration of nature is possible, and beneficial to people too.
From Scotland’s Cairngorms to Portugal’s Greater Côa Valley, teams from different conservation groups are coming together to restore some of Europe’s most endangered natural spaces. And in making landscapes and seas healthier, they’re also helping to regulate the climate, support livelihoods, and boost wellbeing.
As Director of the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme (ELSP), Thomas oversees grant-making to these ambitious projects. It's a different approach to nature conservation, which he says has always felt a bit of a battle.
“When I started my career thirty-five years ago, the focus was on conserving the nature we had left – putting fences around it like a fortress,” he says. “But now so many ecosystems have been damaged that there’s a move towards actually trying to bring back some of what we've lost."
"Restoration feels different – it has an element of creativity and hope.”
David Thomas, Programme Director - Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme
The programme is also different because it funds projects at massive scales, pushing for long-term change and involving a broad spectrum of people.
“For many years conservation has been at site level, often with complete control of that site,” says Thomas. “But restoration at landscape level isn’t so straightforward – you need to involve people in many different sectors: energy, transport, tourism, food production, all with their own priorities. It's very different.”
Reversing the side-effects of thousands of years of human activity - intensive agriculture, urbanisation, resource extraction and more - is not going be a quick process. But the programme, now in its fifth year, is already making a difference.