Germans are getting used to a new kind of immigrant. In 1998 a pack of wolves crossed the Neisse River on the Polish-German border. In the empty landscape of eastern Saxony, speckled with abandoned mines and declining villages, the wolves found plenty of deer and few humans. According to local wildlife biologist Gesa Kluth, a second pack split from the original after five years, so there are now two families of wolves in the region.
A hundred years ago, a growing, land-hungry population killed off the last of Germany's wolves. Today, it's the local humans whose numbers are under threat.
Villages are emptying, thanks to the region's low birth rate and rural flight. Hoyerswerda is Germany's fastest shrinking town, losing 25,000 of its 70,000 residents in the past 15 years.
Home to 22 of the world's 25 lowest fertility rate countries, Europe will lose 30 million people by 2030 even with continued immigration, according to the latest United Nations Population Division report. The biggest decline will hit rural Europe. As Italians, Spaniards, Germans and others produce barely three-fifths of the children needed to maintain the population status quo and as rural flight sucks people into Europe's suburbs and cities, the countryside will lose close to a quarter of its population, say both the United Nations and the European Union.
"It's a triple time bomb," says University of Lisbon demographer Nuno da Costa. "Too few children, too many old people and too many of the remaining young people leaving the village:"
The implications of this transformation touch on everything from tourism to retirement locales to conservation and agricultural policies.
Our postcard view of Europe is of a continent where every scrap of land has long been farmed, fenced off and settled. But the continent of the future may look rather different. "Big parts of Europe will renaturalise," says Reiner Klingholz, head of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.
Bears are back in Austria. In Swiss Alpine valleys, farms have been receding and forests growing back. In parts of France and Germany, wildcats and ospreys have re-established their range.
This sounds like an environmentalist's dream. Yet the truth is more varied and interesting. While many rural regions of Europe will empty out, others will experience something of a renaissance. Already, attractive areas within striking distance of prosperous cities are seeing robust revivals, driven by urban flight and an influx of childless retirees. From Provence to Piedmont, Kent to the Costa del Sol, former urbanites are snapping up holiday homes, vineyards and horse farms.
Contrast that with less-favoured areas, from the Spanish interior to Scandinavia and eastern Europe. These face dying villages, abandoned farms and changes in the land not seen for generations. Both types of region will have to cope with a steeply ageing population and its accompanying health and service needs, says Gunnar Malmberg, a human geographer at Sweden's Umea University. "Rural Europe is the laboratory for demographic change."
Take the Greek village of Prastos. An ancient hill town in the eastern Peloponnesus, Prastos once had 1000 residents, most of them working the land. Now only a dozen are left, most in their 60s and 70s. The school has been closed since 1988. Sunday church bells no longer ring. "The older people here will die," says visiting former resident Petros Litrivis, 60. "Everything will be abandoned." Without farmers to tend the fields, rain has washed away the once fertile soil. As in much of Greece, land that has been orchards and pasture for some 2000 years is now covered with a parched scrub that, in the summer, frequently catches fire.
Rural depopulation is not new. Thousands of villages like Prastos dot Europe, the result of a century or more of emigration, industrialisation and agricultural mechanisation.
"But this time it's different because never has the rural birth rate been so low," demographer Costa says.
In the past, a farmer could usually find at least one of his offspring to take over the land. Today, the chances are that he has only a single son or daughter, usually working in the city and rarely willing to return. In Italy, more than 40% of the country's 1.9 million farmers are at least 65 years old. Once they die out, many of their farms will join the 6 million hectares — one third of Italy's farmland — that has already been abandoned.
Rising economic pressures will amplify the trend. One third of Europe's farmland is marginal, from the cold northern plains to the parched Mediterranean hills. Most of these farmers subsist on European Union subsidies, since it's cheaper to import food from abroad.
"Without subsidies, some of the most scenic European landscapes would not survive," says Jan-Erik Petersen, an agri-environmental expert at the European Environmental Agency in Copenhagen.
In the Austrian or Swiss Alps, defined for centuries by orchards, cows and high mountain pastures, the steep valleys are labour-intensive to farm, with subsidies paying up to 90% of the cost. Across the border in France and Italy, subsidies have been reduced for mountain farming. Since then, across the southern Alps, villages have emptied and forests have grown back in. Outside the range of subsidies, in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine, big tracts of land are returning to the wild.
This isn't necessarily the environmentalist's dream it might seem. The scrub brush and forest that grows on abandoned land might be good for deer and wolves but is vastly less species-rich than traditional farming, with its pastures, ponds and hedges.
"Once shrubs cover everything, you lose the meadow habitat. All the flowers, herbs, birds and butterflies disappear," says the European Environment Agency's Petersen. "A new forest doesn't get diverse until it is a couple of hundred years old."
For governments, the challenge has been to develop policies that slow the demographic decline or attract new residents. In some places, such as Britain and France, large parts of the countryside are reviving as an increasingly wealthy urban middle class in search of second homes recolonises villages and farms.
Villages such as Santo Stefano di Sessanio in central Italy — down from 1500 in the early 20th century to 100 mostly elderly people today — are counting on tourism to revive their town. A Swedish-Italian investor has bought an entire section of the village and is turning its medieval buildings into a complex of hostels for tourists and hikers. In Tuscany, an Italian count has converted the empty village of Gargonza into luxury guesthouses.
But once the baby boomers start dying out around 2020, populations will start to decline so sharply in many European countries that there simply won't be enough people for every town to reinvent itself. It's similarly unclear how long current government policies can stave off the inevitable. In northern Sweden, a vast land of thick forests and small rural settlements, three decades of massive spending have not halted the decline.
"We now talk about civilised depopulation," says Mats Johansson of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. "We just have to make sure that the old people we leave behind are taken care of."
In eastern Germany taxpayers have sunk more than $234 billion into rural areas without even a blip in the speed of decline. The countryside is full of subsidised white elephants, from a bankrupt airship factory in Brandenburg to a never-used Formula 1 racetrack. Hundreds of rural communities built vastly oversize water networks and sewage systems, each certain of drawing new businesses and residents. In nine cases out of ten, a dwindling number of villagers now face sharply rising costs. In some villages, there are too few people flushing for the sewage to properly flow, requiring costly investments to redimension the pipes.
Some communities are turning by necessity into laboratories of innovation. In the Swiss canton of Graubunden, where the number of children has sharply dropped, the authorities in the 1980s reintroduced one room schoolhouses in many hamlets.
"Now we're entering the next phase," says Dany Bazzell of the Graubunden schools department. "There are so few children that not even the one-room schools will survive."
In northern Sweden, Umea University is pushing online learning, giving students an incentive to stay in their village instead of moving away to university, from where they rarely return.
The biggest challenge is finding creative ways to keep up services for the rising proportion of seniors. When the Austrian village of Klaus, thinly spread over the Alpine foothills, decided it could no longer afford a regular public bus service, the community set up the Dorfmobil, a public taxi-on-demand that serves mainly the aged. In thinly populated Lapland, an area of 80,000 square kilometres where doctors are few and far between, tech-savvy Finns are meeting the rising demand for specialised health care with Tel Lappi, a service that uses video-conferencing and the internet for remote medical examinations.
Another pioneer is the Spanish village of Aguaviva. In Spain's vast interior, one of Europe's most rapidly depopulating regions, many villages are already abandoned, while 90 surviving ones, including Aguaviva, have banded together as the Spanish Association of Towns Against Depopulation. In 2000, Mayor Luis Bricio Manzanares began offering free airfares and housing for foreign families to settle in Aguaviva, a mud-brown town of about 600 on the dry plain in Teruel province. Now Aguaviva has 130 mostly Argentine and Romanian immigrants and the town's only school now has 54 pupils. "Immigration was one solution to the problem," says Bricio Manzanares.
But most foreign immigrants continue to prefer cities. And within Europe migration only exports the problem. Western Europeans look towards eastern Europe as a source for migrants, yet those countries have ultra low birth rates of their own. Ukraine and Bulgaria will see their populations drop by at least a third by mid-century. Western Europe needs 1.1 million immigrants a year above the current level to keep the working-age population stable between now and 2015. A much more likely source of migrants would be Europe's Muslim neighbours, whose young populations are set almost to double in that time. But that is a touchy issue few are yet willing to address.
Increasingly, worried European governments are crafting policies to nudge people to have more children, from better childcare to monthly stipends linked to family size. They hope to copy France, which first implemented such policies in the 1930s and remains one of Europe's few growing countries. But while these measures might raise the birth rate slightly, across much of the ageing continent there are just too few potential parents around. As for the land itself, there's a trend in many areas towards abandoning less productive land.
"But for thousands of years we Europeans have been used to fields and orchards and pastures around our towns," says Michel Revaz, a Swiss Alpine forestry expert. "It's part of our genes."
The landscape, he says, is what the Germans call Kulturlandschaft — a landscape shaped by centuries of human care. Today's unprecedented population decline, amplified by the shifting economics of farming, puts the future of many of those Kulturlandschaften in doubt, just as pressure rises to cut the subsidies that fund them.
Many Europeans are reluctant just to let nature do its thing.
"We still cry when the woods close in," Revaz says. "Unless, of course, you're a fan of wolves."