|Regenerating forest spreading up Coire Ardair, Creag Meagaidh|
Rewilding has been in the news recently, following the high-profile launch of Rewilding Britain, inspired by George Monbiot’s book Feral. Unsurprisingly all the attention has been on wolves and other big animals. They’re not known as charismatic megafauna for nothing. Important though these creatures are, rewilding is about far more and starts, in my opinion, with the land, with ending over-grazing and allowing forests, grassland and moorlands to regenerate.
|The forest returns to a once heavily grazed field|
I’ve been watching this happen for over a decade in the area around my home in the far north-east corner of the Cairngorms National Park. Twenty-five years ago when I came to live here there were two working tenant farms not far away. Large flocks of sheep and herds of cows kept the rough pastures fairly close-cropped and prevented the growth of trees, long grasses and many flowers. Then those farms closed and the land was shared out amongst more distant farms. The number of cows and sheep dwindled and only some fields were used. Trees began to return, grasses and flowers flourished. The land changed.
|Fifteen years ago this was over-grazed|
Livestock used to regularly be driven up and down the track leading to my house, nibbling everything along the way. Now there are birch thickets, beautiful long grasses and masses of wild flowers. Even the pastures still grazed by cows and sheep have a richer vegetation as the smaller numbers means the animals don’t over-graze any area. The roe deer that live in the woods now venture into the meadows far from the trees. Farmers and, particularly, farmers’ dogs are no longer around to disturb them.
|Roe deer buck in a field by my house|
The main way for rewilding to take place in the higher and remoter areas of the Highlands is to reduce red deer numbers and end over-grazing. In the absence of large predators this can only be done either by increasing the numbers shot or by fencing deer out of forests. Where deer numbers have been reduced (and sheep removed) the results are startling as can be seen at the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve where a new forest is springing up.
|Forest regeneration, Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve|
The new forests that appear when overgrazing is ended won’t be – can’t be – replicas of the old Great Wood of Caledon. (Jim Crumley reckons there were actually four separate ‘Great Woods’ anyway). It would be impossible for this to happen and futile to attempt it. What period would you pick as the model to try and emulate? 5,000 years ago? 8,000? Conditions have changed. None can be copied. New forests will be just that – new. And some will inevitably include introduced species such as European larch and even the much-maligned Sitka spruce – they might even be the dominant species in places. Sitka spruce, now the commonest tree in Scotland, would be impossible to eradicate anyway. Also, when not grown in regimented lines in dense plantations it is a magnificent tree. Ending the plantation system and the clear-cutting that leaves areas devastated would greatly improve commercial forests and make them wilder too. I often see self-seeded spruce and larch growing outside of plantations and I delight in seeing these free trees.
Missing wild animals are still needed of course. But even without them a new wilder and more natural landscape is emerging in many places and this provides a better habitat for the animals that are already here.
|Black bear in Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada, California|
|Fresh bear print over a hiker's footprint in Glacier National Park in the Rocky Mountains|
Many years ago on my long walk in the Yukon Territory I had one really special encounter that remains a highlight of all my days in wild places.
I was crossing a big meadow when the feeling came over me that I was being watched. I stopped, looked towards the forest a few hundred yards away and froze with a mixture of awe, excitement and, I must admit, slight fear. On the edge of the trees a pack of wolves was watching me. There were six of them, ranging in colour from pale grey to almost black, all silent, alert, magnificent. I stayed still and after a few seconds the wolves began to slowly move away in single file, one of them always staying stationary, watching me. When the watcher fell to the rear of the line another would stop and the pack would continue. After several minutes they vanished into the trees and I breathed out and relaxed. Later in the evening I heard them howling, a wonderfully wild sound.
I saw wolves once more on that trip and heard them howling many times more. How I would love to hear that sound in the Scottish Highlands! The Highlands are wild but could be so much wilder.
|Bison and elk in Yellowstone National Park|
A few years ago I read three excellent books on rewilding and the reintroduction of wildlife. Two were by Jim Crumley – The Last Wolf and The Great Wood. The other was Feral. Crumley’s books are about wolves and forests in Scotland and discuss the history of these as well as proposals for the future while Monbiot’s book is more general, though centred on Wales. The message of these books is that for our wild places to become wilder, for their ecosystems to become healthier and more robust, extinct species, especially predators, need to be reintroduced. Crumley particularly wants wolves, which he sees as being the key to the renewal of the Caledonian Forest. Monbiot spreads his suggestions more widely and accepts that wolves are unlikely in the near future. Lynx however could be brought back now. Both authors mention the results of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park, which has led to far more positive changes than expected. As well as keeping deer numbers down the wolves have kept the deer moving, reducing grazing pressure. The deer now completely avoid some areas where the wolves could easily trap them too so in those places there is no browsing at all. This has allowed many plants to flourish and with them a host of birds and animals. It is a fascinating and inspiring story.
Realistically wolves are unlikely to be reintroduced in the near future, due to the opposition of estate owners and the false picture created about them over the centuries (well described in The Last Wolf). Other less controversial species could be reintroduced though such as lynx while beavers, already present both officially and unofficially (the latter seem to be doing best), could be released in more places (Cairngorms National Park are considering this
Rewilding results in a more diverse landscape with a greater variety of plants and animals. It could be done very easily in far more places if the will was there.