Sunday 4 September 2016

Rewilding in Scotland

Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

With rewilding in the news again here's a piece I wrote earlier in the year for The National newspaper.

Rewilding has become a buzzword in outdoor and countryside circles in recent years, a word with enough power to really excite or annoy depending on whether you see it as positive or negative.  The concept was first developed in the USA in the 1990s and meant the restoration of huge wilderness areas by the reintroduction of big predators that have a crucial effect on biodiversity. Now that’s fine in North America where vast wilderness areas exist, many already with bears, wolves, and mountain lions. Some of these may have been wiped out in some areas (grizzly bears in California for example, where, ironically, it’s the state animal) but the right environment is there for them to return, either by themselves when persecution declines, as is happening with grizzly bears in the North Cascades, or by reintroduction, as with the successful return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. 

Black bear in the High Sierra, California
How though can the rewilding concept be applied here in Scotland where the whole country is only the same size as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and less than a fifth the size of California and where most of our native forests are long gone? And should it be applied anyway? As a long-time lover of wild places and supporter of nature conservation I have no doubts about the value of rewilding, of having greater biodiversity and a wilder landscape. That doesn’t mean I think we should try and rewild everywhere and certainly not productive farmland. However in the hills where farming is marginal if it exists at all and the land is already fairly wild the return of more varied wildlife and vegetation should be welcomed. I first realised how bare and impoverished many of our hills and glens are after walking through huge wilderness areas on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains of the Western USA. Here I spent week after week in beautiful forests that extended up the mountainsides before fading out as the trees shrank in size and number. There are few places here where you can see similar forests or a natural timberline.

Rewilding in Scotland means initially the restoration of a natural forest, something that’s been happening in some areas for many years. Back in the 1950s and 60s experimental work on forest regeneration and preservation began on the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. The late Dick Balharry, a key figure in Scottish conservation, was involved in this and then took the work forward in the 1980s at the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve, where the result is a flourishing woodland on what were once bare slopes. Changes in the remit of the Forestry Commission and the reforesting work of organisations like Trees for Life, the John Muir Trust, the Woodland Trust and the RSPB has seen other forests start to spread. These areas are still small though and much more could and should be done.

Ancient forest in the North Cascades

Returning forests can only be part of rewilding though. For a healthy, self-sustaining natural environment there needs to be much greater diversity of wildlife than we have now. In particular predators are needed to control grazing animals, not just by reducing numbers but also by affecting their behaviour so they move on more frequently and even avoid some areas completely, allowing vegetation to flourish and with it a greater diversity of birds and smaller animals. Ultimately the key species is the wolf, though much as I would love it now I think it will be a long time before we hear a pack howling in our hills, but the introduction of lynx, far more likely, would almost certainly make a significant difference. In the meantime over-grazing by deer can only be reduced by culling – we are their only predator - or by fencing. However whilst lynx are in the future and wolves far, far away sea eagles and beavers are already here. If they spread, as they should, this would be an important part of rewilding. 

No trees, many deer

Rewilding can seem to be about nature not people. It shouldn’t be. Rewilding is about both. We are part of nature. In fact there could be more people living in now-empty glens yet they could still be wilder than they are now. A forested glen with rich wildlife plus human habitations is preferable to a bare glen with ruins. Rewilding shouldn’t affect access to the hills in any way either. I am completely opposed to fencing huge areas for wolves to run around in whilst people are only allowed on vehicle safaris to see them. That would just be a big zoo not a restored natural landscape.

Natural woodland beside Loch Morar

In the end the question of rewilding is whether we want a healthier natural environment with richer plantlife and wildlife, whether we want our already spectacular landscape to be even more magnificent and beautiful. It could easily be so if the will was there.


  1. Chris, my feeling is that, although the wolf is very much the iconic symbol of rewilding, the lynx would be the more appropriate species to reintroduce first. It would need to be on a relatively small scale to begin with, because of the amount of deforestation which has taken place, but a progressive reintroduction would help to bring the red deer population under control, which in itself would be a big help towards restoring the forests.

    I would love to see wild wolves become part of our landscape during my lifetime, but I'm not optimistic. I don't see any argument against controlled reintroduction of lynx, and preferably soon. However, as we are a species which seems unable to coexist with even a few hundred pairs of hen harrier, I won't be holding my breath. Pity.

  2. I agree entirely with you Dave. I would love to see the re-introduction of both species but for them it would be calamitous.

  3. i am not so sure that lynx would have much of an impact on red deer, in Scandinavia they prey on hares and grouse so they would not go down well with the shooters. I feel that re-wilding in the Scotish context should first and foremost reduce deer populations to a level which permits natural regeneration without fences. Too many people believe that the open moorlands are a natural landscape.Places like Glen Afric, Glen Feshie and Rothiemurcus need to be seen as examples of what the highlands can become,exotic predators are something of a red herring i believe.It would be better to require or financially encourage a reduction in deer numbers.