Monday 31 August 2015

Of Wolves & Woods: Thoughts on Rewilding

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
Rewilding is also about the experience it gives us, about the intensity of being in a place that is truly wild. On walks in North America I've seen grizzly bears, black bears and wolves. These top predators make the wilderness real and add a feeling that can't be had when they aren't present. Knowing they are there means being alert, watching out for signs, taking precautions and realising that you are not the dominant animal. (That said, for those worried at the thought of bears roaming wild domestic dogs and cattle are far more dangerous and kill and maim vastly more people). 

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.


  1. Nice post and great photos! Makes me realize how lucky we are in U.S. not to have wiped out all the megafauna -- though we tried at one time and may do it yet by changing the climate.

    Bill Gordon

  2. Interesting post Chris. I feel that any rewilding has to ironically be man managed. Ennerdale in Cumbria is a good example. But as you say, at what point in history do we wish to replicate? But also, what is "Wild"? For example the US National Park system, from my knowledge, encourages visitors, yet discourages human settlements. In contrast, the English Lake District National Park has the fingerprints of man all over the ecology - from Herdwick sheep farming that shapes the aesthetic of the hills that we love, to the dams such as Haweswater or Thirlmere that provide drinking water to our cities. So it is indeed a complex issue. Surely Man, such as the Herdwick sheep farmer is as much a part of nature as the Osprey?

    I think man managed rewilding is the way, as for example some areas of rainforests that were illegally logged and now protected are regenerating. But not necessarily in as an ideal way as it would appear to the casual observer. The biodiversity has been lost and the regeneration is one of monoculture species dominating (from what I've read and I don't claim to be an expert).

    1. Yes, any rewilding has to be managed as indeed is happening now. Reducing grazing pressure is management. In some areas that's enough for forests to regenerate as at Creag Meagaidh. In other areas Trees for Life are planting trees and fencing areas to keep sheep and deer out. And reintroducing animals and birds generally requires management. They don't usually arrive of their own accord - sea eagles and red kites in Scotland are good examples. I think once rewilding has begun management should cease or be reduced to a minimum.

      The US National Parks have plenty of settlements - see Yosemite Valley and Old Faithful in Yellowstone. It's Wilderness Areas that don't. These are a separate designation from National Parks - in fact most National Parks have Wilderness Areas within them.

    2. Chris,
      I put it to my old friend Jim Crumely just last week, that is now time to consider creating the whole of the Greater Monadhliath as our first National Wildlife Refugium. There is in effect the greatest area of boreo-subarctic territory in Scotland outwith of the Cairngorms within what is in effect an' island' formed between the A9, A86, A82 and the B851 with an established perimeter with fences/dykes that would pre-empt the problems Paul Lister is having at Alladale and would allow a proper barrier fence to be screened behind regenerating forest. We are talking about something like the type of true Wilderness Area you and I are familiar with in the USA with a much more defined wildlife-first protocol than is apparent in the 'Concretegorms Business Development Area' with its prismatic tenure and associated multiple agendas. The area is at least 500 square miles with an altitudinal range from 200-900metres, thus giving us several forest zones and enough range size for the more controversial predators. The area s not prime alpine ski-ing territory and has only 4 Munros and large settlements/industrial developments are not extant. Perhaps it's time to 'grab the Auroch by the horns and go for it!

      Ron Greer, Blair Atholl

    3. I like the idea of turning the Greater Monadhliath into a Wilderness Area. The potential is clearly great though the area is being eaten into rapidly at present - I was up in the Glen Doe area last year and the road network beyond the reservoir is extensive.

      I would only find a fence acceptable if there were plenty of access points though and free access to the whole area - I am totally opposed to Lister's plans for fencing Alladale and restricting access, as I've said several times on this blog. As you know Wilderness Areas in the USA are not fenced and most have no access restrictions. Those that do issue permits to control numbers at popular times but don't restrict where anyone can go.

  3. re-wilding is a great idea, but our main problem in this country is the lack of space for large animals to roam freely. I agree that starting with reducing deer numbers, to allow flora regeneration is a good plan.

    1. I think there's plenty of space, especially in Scotland. Large animals exist in many European countries with less space than we have.

    2. I get most of this don't agree with some but what I'm worried about is the impact on jobs. Masses of agricultural jobs will go. People like Chris packham state this but reply to it by saying they will just have to diversify to tourism etc. Very nice for those not relying upon them jobs
      Rather more for those making a living from those same lands
      I now take rewilding point on reintroduce of wolves my main concern is urbanisation(foxes have) massive areas. Were man is not allowed to wander

  4. Really enjoyed this post, recently watched a video made about the introduction of wolves into Yellowstone and it was so humbling to see the benefits that different species bring to an area. Made me really evaluate how we're such a small part of a very big thing.

    Team Colapz

  5. One of your biggest problems is not a biological/ecological one but the growing momentum over Land Reform/Community buy outs. There is an understandable distrust of outside influences in the Highlands with many locals hating the word "Wilderness". They simply see the areas you are talking about as having been stolen from their ancestors and used as a playground for rich southerners....and these folk have a growing influence in the scottish parliament. Its a delicate road you are on here. I have a genuine fear that our new landowners may be even more destructive of the wild environment as their absentee landlord predecessors.

  6. It is very sad to see rich people trying to fence and reduce access, and walking. Scottish people were pushed out by the Highland Clearances, and poverty, and cruel decisions by landowners and government ... we in Canada were raised hearing about these evils ... and why our people came to Canada ... so I am perplexed that more Scottish people do not (see it?) (dislike it?) (resist?) complain against having more Scottish people pushed off the land ... for some Scottish people, walking is the last chance they have to connect with the land, and their heritage, and live the culture, and feel part of the homes of their ancestors.