As birth rates fall, abandoned villages become more naturalised



This is an extract from an article published in the International Edition of The Guardian newspaper on 24 January 2021.

As birth rates fall, animals prowl in our abandoned ‘ghost villages’
Human populations are set to decline in countries from Asia to Europe – and an unusual form of rewilding is taking place

«For many years it seemed that overpopulation was the looming crisis of our age. Back in 1968, the Stanford biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich infamously predicted that millions would soon starve to death in their bestselling, doom-saying book The Population Bomb… But growth has slowed – and considerably. As women’s empowerment advances, and access to contraception improves, birthrates around the world are stuttering and stalling, and in many countries now there are fewer than 2.1 children per woman – the minimum level required to maintain a stable population. Falling fertility rates have been a problem in the world’s wealthiest nations – notably in Japan and Germany – for some time.

Increasingly this is also the case in middle-income countries too, including Thailand and Brazil. In Iran, a birthrate of 1.7 children per woman has alarmed the government; it recently announced that state clinics would no longer hand out contraceptives or offer vasectomies.
Thanks to this worldwide pattern of falling fertility levels, the UN now believes that we will see an end to population growth within decades – before the slide begins in earnest.

But what does population decline look like on the ground? The experience of Japan, a country that has been showing this trend for more than a decade, might offer some insight. Already there are too few people to fill all its houses – one in every eight homes now lies empty. In Japan, they call such vacant buildings akiya – ghost homes. Most often to be found in rural areas, these houses quickly fall into disrepair, leaving them as eerie presences in the landscape, thus speeding the decline of the neighbourhood. Many akiya have been left empty after the death of their occupants; inherited by their city-living relatives, many go unclaimed and untended. With so many structures under unknown ownership, local authorities are also unable to tear them down.

Closer to home, in the EU, an area the size of Italy is expected to be abandoned by 2030. Spain is among the European countries expected to lose more than half its population by 2100; already, three- quarters of Spanish municipalities are in decline.
Picturesque Galicia and Castilla y León are among the regions worst affected, as entire settlements have gradually emptied of their residents. More than 3,000 ghost villages now haunt the hills, standing in various states of dereliction. Mark Adkinson, a British expat who runs the estate agency Galician Country Homes, told the Observer that he has identified “more than 1,000” abandoned villages in the region, adding that a staff member of his was continually on the road, leaving letters at abandoned properties in the hope of tracking down their owners and returning them to the market.
“I’ve been here for 43 years,” he said. “Things have changed considerably. The youngsters have left the villages, and the parents are getting old and getting flats closer to the hospital. You don’t want to get stuck up in the hills when you can no longer drive.”

As in Japan, nature is already stepping into the breach. According to José Benayas, a professor of ecology at Madrid’s University of Alcalá, Spain’s forests have tripled in area since 1900, expanding from 8% to cover 25% of the territory as ground goes untilled. Falling populations would continue to trigger land abandonment, he said, “because there will be fewer humans to be fed.”

Rural abandonment on a large scale is one factor that has contributed to the recent resurgence of large carnivores in Europe: lynx, wolverines, brown bears and wolves have all seen increases in their populations over the last decade. In Spain, the Iberian wolf has rebounded from 400 individuals to more than 2,000, many of which are to be found haunting the ghost villages of Galicia, as they hunt wild boar and roe deer – whose numbers have also skyrocketed. A brown bear was spotted in Galicia last year for the first time in 150 years.
A vision of the future, perhaps, in a post-peak world: smaller populations crowding ever more tightly into urban centres. And outside, beyond the city limits, the wild animals prowling.»