Kilts aside, Scotland has long been defined by its lush, green, and seemingly endless countryside – a picturesque patchwork of rolling hills, peat-coloured lochs, green glens, and the rugged peaks of the Scottish Highlands. Once known as Caledonia in the era of the Roman Empire, it was a land where wild meadows thrived alongside forests of Scots pine, aspen, birch, and rowan trees. Where wild boar and lynx prowled in the company of wolves, and where it was once claimed that a squirrel could travel from the east to the west coast without ever touching the ground.
But as humans moved in, farmlands trumped forests, livestock grew in abundance, and man became the dominant predator.
Decades later and only 2% of the Caledonian forest remains, resulting in most of the original wildlife and vegetation being either lost forever or perilously perched on the brink of extinction. And with deforestation, overgrazing, and climate change colliding, natural regeneration has become severely compromised.
But there is a growing movement to turn back the clock. A promising movement known as rewilding.
The idea to return Scotland's wilderness to its natural state has been building for some time now, with environmentalists, charities, and individuals seizing opportunities to launch restoration projects along the country’s sparsely populated land.
But even with an estimated 75% of the Scottish population said to be in favour of rewilding, there’s still a long journey ahead.
Paul Lister is a pioneer of rewilding. In 2003 – years before rewilding became a common topic in Scotland – Paul bought 23,000 acres of land in Sutherland with the sole intention of rewilding it. Today, Alladale Wilderness Reserve is the UK’s largest and longest-standing privately owned rewilding effort.
“Rewilding for me means the reduction or removal of extractive processes,” says Paul, philanthropist, custodian of Alladale Wilderness Reserve, and Founder of The European Nature Trust (TENT). “It’s sort of regenerative ecology.”
The trigger for Paul came around 25 years ago. “I started thinking we’ve done such a job of messing with our environment. And yet, places like Romania are still so incredible,” Paul tells us. So, he saw an opportunity to put something back into the Highlands of Scotland.
“Rewilding starts with plants, trees, and so on,” Paul continues. He explains that, ultimately, insects, birds, and mammals then come back into an area that was once designated for timber, cattle, livestock, or crops.
“Rewilding is giving the land time to breathe and regenerate.”
Starting with plants and trees is something the charity Trees for Life knows all too well. For the last 30 years, they’ve committed to restoring nature and the planet by planting and protecting trees, woodland, and forests.
Today, Trees for Life is one of 22 member organisations under the Scottish Rewilding Alliance (SRA) urging the government to declare Scotland the first “rewilding nation”. That means committing 30% of public land to rewilding by 2030, reintroducing species such as lynx and beavers, and creating a protected coastal zone free from trawling and dredging.
“Rewilding is about hope,” says Steve Micklewright, Trees for Life CEO. “It gives us a practical framework to follow that supports nature, people and the planet.”
In 2008, Trees for Life purchased Dundreggan, a hunting estate that had suffered centuries of degradation. Slowly but surely, this depleted Highland landscape near Loch Ness is being restored and Dundreggan’s 10,000 acres are coming back to life. The diversity of natural habitats on the estate is key to its rich biodiversity, where habitats range from riparian and floodplain woodland through wildflower meadows and Caledonian pinewood remnants to mires, bogs, and montane scrub. These provide a wealth of ecological niches and homes for an array of different species.
And the results are beginning to show as a host of wildlife has now returned. Golden eagles are seen regularly, and in 2020 a pair raised a chick at Dundreggan for the first time in 40 years.
“We’re giving Dundreggan a helping hand to recover. Through tree planting and supporting natural regeneration, young woodlands are emerging – kickstarting a whole new cycle of life throughout the glen,” says Steve.
For Trees for Life, the emphasis might be on restoring nature and bringing back native species, however, the people element is a crucial part of that dynamic. “We recognise that to do all this on a bigger scale, you need to work with others,” says Steve.
Like Dundreggan, Alladale Reserve is a testament to how successful rewilding can be. Paul and his team have already revived damaged peatlands, planted a million native trees, and stabilised the salmon, water vole, and black grouse populations.
With help from Trees for Life, Alladale has also reintroduced a population of red squirrels. Trees for Life is continuing its red squirrel translocation programme and has helped create ten new populations across the north-west Highlands.
These animals and plants have been in a continuous decline in Scotland. However, places like Alladale and Dundreggan have given them the space – and protection – to thrive.
For Paul, the next step would be adding a 50,000-acre fenced wolf enclosure into Alladale with the aim of reaping the same ecological and community-shared financial benefits as the famed Yellowstone’s wolf project - where the reintroduction of wolves increased beaver populations, brought back aspen, and is estimated to have generated around $35m a year through ecotourism.
“There’s room for discussion between the local community and hiking groups who will ultimately have a business on their back door,” says Paul. “It would employ dozens of people. Reintroducing wolves in a controlled way is a lot about creating a new rural economy.”
One hurdle, however, is how reintroducing wolves sits with Scotland’s Freedom to Roam Act, where private land and estates are accessible to walkers, hikers, and members of the public. The Act means a large fence can’t be built around a vast piece of land. “If you want to build a rocket launching station on the North Coast of Scotland, you wouldn’t have people walking past the launchpad," acknowledges Paul.
“Wolves are a key species, not only in rewilding terms but also in economic terms.”
However, he argues that if something were to be enclosed – and an attraction – it would create a temporary derogation from the Freedom to Roam Act based on merging business and local employment. “There are all sorts of precedents," he says. “But I think the idea is to prove how good wolves are – and how effective they are in creating a tourism draw. They could bring so much to an area.”
For Trees for Life, reintroducing lynx into the wild is perhaps a more realistic apex predator. They’re about to start the second stage of a detailed study into the social feasibility of the species’ return. The study’s first stage spoke with a diverse cross-sector of rural stakeholders, who concluded: ‘Not now, but not never’.
Another big cat that has become the focus of Alladale Reserve and Trees for Life is the almost extinct Scottish Wildcat. As part of a national captive breeding programme, Alladale has bred wildcats alongside the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Together, they’ve swapped them with other breeders to help maintain genetic integrity.
It’s hoped that a dozen wildcats will be released into the Cairngorms next year.
Today, over 15% of Scotland has been restored thanks to rewilding efforts. Paul himself, however, is keen to become one of the crew of the Alladale ship rather than the skipper. “We’ve planted a million trees, and the forests are slowly coming back," says Paul. “But I think rewilding requires fresh blood.”
Paul’s currently in talks with a potential new successor – one keen to bring back wolves in some capacity. He’s hopeful that with this fresh injection they can take the Alladale project to the next level, bring wolves back into a protected area, and continue to restore Scotland to its former natural glory.
Trees for Life hopes rewilding will be a tool for many, such as helping children living in cities connect with nature as well as helping traditional landowners diversify their land use while also giving them a tangible roadmap to do their part for climate change.
“It comes back to the people who live here and exploring how nature restoration can support and sit alongside communities,” says Steve. He tells us how this will be a primary focus of the Affric Highlands initiative - a 30-year vision of bringing together local people, businesses, and landowners to restore the woodland, peatland, and riverside habitats across half a million acres of the Scottish Highlands.
“Nature restoration can help with not just environmental concerns, but creates new nature-based enterprise opportunities, and can help us reconnect with our natural heritage and culture too,” Steve tells us.
Trees for Life will also open the world’s first Rewilding Centre at Dundreggan in the spring of 2023, giving people a chance to explore the estate and connect with the local landscape directly.
“The Rewilding Centre is all about enabling more diverse audiences to connect with nature and learn more about Scotland’s native woodlands. Interactive, educational information inside, including a storytelling bothy, will be complemented with a programme of outdoor learning activities, as well as an accessible trails network,” says Steve.
“Nature restoration is intrinsically part of people, communities and livelihoods.”
What’s clear is that the future of rewilding will rely on collaboration. Rewilding is not a one-person band but a network of people connecting at the roots to revive nature together. Momentum is building in Scotland and has already spread to other parts of the UK.
From small steps to larger-scale initiatives, the rewilding revolution is in bloom, bringing the once lost wilderness back to life, one tree at a time.
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