Monday, 30 November 2015

Rewilding: Some Thoughts on the Debate


Tree regeneration in Glen Feshie

Since the launch of Rewilding Britain earlier in the year the topic has become quite controversial, especially as the mass media tend to identify it purely with the reintroduction of wolves. As well as criticism of this idea rewilding has been attacked for apparently wanting to drive people out of the hills and replace them with some sort of pristine untouchable wilderness. Now there are some proponents of rewilding who would like some areas to be off-limits to people (or at least only accessible to those who pay for safari-type tours) but this isn’t my vision of rewilding or even in the spirit of rewilding at all. Rewilding should be for the whole of nature, and that includes people. 

There’s also a tendency to see rewilding as only applying to vast areas, as all or nothing. ‘Rewilding isn’t possible’, people say. I don’t think this is correct either. Rewilding is a process. It’s not absolute. It means becoming wilder. And that is happening in many places and has been for many years. In Scotland it can be traced back to the first experiments in forest regeneration on the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve in the 1950s. In recent years forest restoration whether in terms of natural regeneration or by planting has been spreading quite rapidly. This is rewilding. The reintroduction of sea eagles and beavers is rewilding. The spread of ospreys, which returned of their own accord in the 1950s, pine martins and red squirrels is rewilding. It is happening now. 

Young and old Scots Pines, Ryvoan Pass, Cairngorms
 
Rewilding is tied up of course with land ownership. Big stalking and shooting estates generally want plenty of deer and grouse. Many deer means no tree regeneration, many grouse means heather burning and predator control. Estates want quick access to their prey too, which means building roads into wild places. Not all the private estates are like this – some are a mixture and have some forest regeneration and protect some wildlife, others are run mainly to do this – Glen Feshie and Coignafearn being two examples. Estates owned by conservation bodies like the John Muir Trust, RSPB, Trees for Life and the National Trust for Scotland and government bodies like Scottish Natural Heritage and Forest Enterprise do rewilding work too, though sometimes not as much as they could or should.

What happens to land ownership will be decided by the Scottish Government, which is looking at proposals for reform now. Whatever happens I think estates should be encouraged to work towards rewilding with more forest regeneration and wildlife protection. 

Any proposals to keep nature away from people, or to restrict access to the paying few, are anathema to me. One of the points of rewilding should be to make a better world for all of us. I also think that rewilding on a larger scale will only occur when enough people want it. Turning them away will not achieve that. I don’t seen any contradiction between people living and working in wild places and rewilding either. What matter is not that they are there but what they do. I think any change will be slow but wildlife watching, conservation work, and outdoor pursuits are all growth areas. There will still be estate workers too and livestock farming in the glens. To say it again, rewilding is not all or nothing. I can imagine now empty, treeless glens with forests and houses. They would be wilder and with people. 

Natural forest & rough grazing in Strathspey
 
The results of rewilding, on whatever scale, will surprise us. Some wildlife will flourish, some will not. Forests will spread in some places, fail in others. Any imagined past won’t be recreated. As I’ve written before we can’t do that and shouldn’t try. Starting rewilding by removing grazing pressure, introducing once native wildlife and, if necessary, planting and fencing trees is the most management that should be done. Once the process is underway, leave it be. 

How far rewilding will spread and how long it will take it’s impossible to say. But every little sign of it should be encouraged. We need nature. Nature needs us.

For a somewhat different take on the current rewilding debate see this excellent piece by Cameron McNeish on the Walk Highlands site.

16 comments:

  1. My only osprey sighting was on the outskirts of Portsmouth, which makes me wonder how much rewilding is needed.

    There are downsides. Look at the secondary growth behind the fences in Glen Affric. It's close to impenetrable and offers very little in the way of good camping spots. Also, as you mentioned, numpties are using the idea of rewilding as an excuse for bringing back iconic species with which I definitely do not want to share a wild pitch.

    However, I was impressed by the work of the estate at the Heights of Kinlochewe to reforest a glen with seeds of a known and appropriate provenance. Crucially, they included improvements to the path through the regeneration. It was one of the best walking surfaces on the Cape Wrath Trail. Also, a fenced off area between the railway and a narrow lane near Helmsdale has some of the most delightful woodland I've seen in Scotland.

    I think the owner of the estate in Glen Feshie has another estate near Tongue where deer numbers have drastically reduced this year. The locals aren't at all happy. The economic growth you mention is likely to arrive slowly there, if at all.

    Rewilding is complicated and I don't know how extensively it should be practised but you are bang on about one thing. It doesn't need a vast area. I'm going to hide my oil tank by rewilding six square metres outside my back window.

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  2. Hmm.. A rather selfish point of view meallanliath? I hadn't realised nature was there to provide us with a convenient camping pitch. Maybe I've missed something?

    Chris, your post is spot on. I read about how when the Australian aborigines where cleared off their land to make way for the development of national parks, the ecology suffered. The aboriginies routinely burnt scrubland, which although seems destructive, is a practice that goes back tens of thousands of years, and was a vital part of the cycles in ecology, a balanced, harmonic existance within nature. The human was as vital to the ecology there as the wolves are in Yellowstone.

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    1. Yes, and the reference to secondary growth is there because of my age. I'll never see a climax community return to the glens. However, the point is, we can backpack fairly freely throughout the Highlands now and rewilding should not stop that.

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  3. OK, I respect your opinions meallanliath, but I suppose my point of view is to put nature first. Our leisure/recreation time should perhaps come secondary to the healing of nature? Is nature an amenity for our anthropomorphic ideals?

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    1. Perhaps I've been reading too much about human evolution and about pre-history but I think backpacking resonates so powerfully because we are going home. We are part of nature.

      Anyway, I followed Chris's reference to Coignafearn and found this quote from Sigrid Rausing, the present owner. "On the other hand most landowners are in receipt of quite substantial grants.

      "There is no reason why the public should pay grants to landowners whose philosophy of land management is hostile to the whole idea that the public has a right to intervene."

      I pay my Council tax to the Highland Council and think landowners damn well should reserve a space for those of us who sponsor them. Sigrid Rausing says walkers are welcome. Good for her.

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  4. maybe the CAP budget could be reworked to provide an incentive for regeneration?.
    The only way landowners will adopt new practices, is through education, and sometimes finacial benefit. lets hope the scottish government play it right!!.

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  5. The big problem I have with rewilding is with the "re" bit, the idea that we are going back to a state which existed in the past, together with the assumption that this would be a good thing. We really ought to be concentrating on the present and the future. I am at heart a conservationist; I want to see the good bits of what we have protected, and in some cases with some tweaking improved in the future. Some of rewilding ideas are, I think, in conflict with conservation.

    I'm fine with the individual, moderate scale forestation through natural scale regeneration schemes; they improve what we already have and restore some balance to our diverse landscapes. But I'm horrified at prospects of widescale restoration of Caledonian forest; blanket forest is bad whether its commercial or otherwise. A lot of the superb landscape in Scotland, indeed in Britain, owes its impact to the lack of being hidden under forest, and I wouldn't want to see that changed, or to see our ability to enjoy it changed by forestation.

    Likewise I have no sympathy with the idea of introducing wolves and the like. Wolves disappeared some time ago, largely as a result of a changing Britain. Bringing them back would in effect be introducing an alien species, with considerable impact on what is here, and for no good reason. If wolves as a species need supporting, support them in the habitats they have left, and help the communities in those places use them as a benefit. Using wolves to "control" the deer population is a revolting idea, as are side effects such as wiping out the wild goat populations. Even such an apparently innocuous scheme such as the re-introduction of the sea eagles has had an adverse impact on the flocks of the crofters around Gairloch.

    This summer I took a brief walk fron Glenmore Lodge up to Ryvoan, one I've enjoyed in past for the stunning views up the pass. Since my last visit the regenerated woodland has oblitered most of the views, and I had the feeling of something valuable lost, so easily done. We need to appreciate and cherish what we have; conservation should come first. And that includes respecting the communities who work in and around the areas in question.

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    1. I disagree Nigel. I visit Ryvoan Pass regularly and I love seeing the regenerating forest and I think the views are wonderful and much improved. A bare over-grazed landscape is not attractive. I'm in favour of introducing wolves, beaver, lynx and other wildlife as this will mean a more self-sustaining and natural landscape.

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    3. Nigel, wolves disappeared as a result of being murdered.

      And I'm with Chris: the views along the path towards Ryvoan are better for the regeneration of the trees. In fact, once you're onto the shoulder of meall a bhuachaille, you can't help thinking how much better it would be if more of the old pine forests remained. Just different points of view, I suppose.

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  6. We differ, Chris! Introducing alien species, especially predators, into the existing eco-system will have a wide ranging effect, mostly negative. I rather like deer, which can be culled through shooting, far more effectively and humanely than being torn to pieces by wolves, while many other species will be adversely affected; I mentioned wild goats, but in fact very few things will be unaffected. Local communities and their livestock will be at risk. And I just can't see the benefits.

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    1. The benefits will be a healthy ecosystem and greater biodiversity. This piece is worth reading. http://www.wolvesandhumans.org/wolves/is_time_right_for_wolf_reintroduction.htm. I don't think of missing species as alien either. They should be present.

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  7. Decades of culling haven't resolved the problem of the ever expanding deer population in the highlands. It's our fixation with eradicating apex predators that's partly allowed the grey squirrel to colonise most of the UK, at the expense of our native reds: had we not all but eliminated polecats, pine marten and goshawks they would have had a much less easy time of it.

    The real irony of it all lies in how much of the artificial clearing of the larger native predators was a deliberate strategy to make way for sheep - an alien species.

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  8. Culling works. Look at Abernethy or Creag Meagaidh, for example. All it needs is the will to carry it out. There's also the fact that wolf introduction could only be carried out in a small percentage of the habitats occupied by deer, so it would have little impact on the overall "problem". I'm afraid the claims for the proposal don't stack up.

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  9. The impact of apex predators extends beyond the numbers they actually kill. Their presence forces prey species to avoid areas which are exposed, usually as a consequence of over-grazed vegetation. That in itself is enough to kick-start regeneration.

    The idea that if we've already eradicated a species then it's consigned to history and should play no part in conservation plans seems inane to me. On that basis we'd have no white-tailed eagles, beaver or breeding ospreys.

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  10. The point about wolves is that they disappeared because (as I said earlier)the conflict between them and a changing Britain was too great, a conflict which would be far greater today. That is the sense in which they are alien to this country. You can't re-introduce them without damaging what is here already, in all sorts of ways.

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