Imagine walking from sea to sea beneath the cover of ancient Caledonian pine forest. The smell of rich sap and freshness of pine needles. The hush of luscious earth beneath your boots with every step. Just enough sunlight peeking through the trees and a healthy dampness to the soil. Perhaps you’ll meet a local lynx or a private pine martin just off the path. The forest whispers and murmurs encouragingly for it is very much alive; fostered by its complex relationship with all the species within it.
Once this was a reality, and it is just one vision of what rewilding could look like for Scotland.
Rewilding is guided by the idea that nature can take care of itself, given the chance. That wild places are healthy places, for both the creatures which live there as well as the environment. As humanity has fundamentally altered our world, it is our role to foster and protect our wild places. Some would say it is our responsibility. At Wilderness Scotland, we agree.
Rewilding is complex and multifaceted idea which includes many stakeholders with varied and valid viewpoints. There are headwinds and we must take care to implement it responsibly. That said, when we get it right the results can be quite remarkable.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Rewilding is a conservation and ecological restoration approach that aims to restore and revitalize ecosystems by allowing nature to take its course with minimal human intervention. As such, the concept of rewilding is rooted in the belief that many of the world’s ecosystems have been heavily modified or degraded by human activities, and by reintroducing key species and ecological processes, we can help these ecosystems regain their natural balance and resilience.
This is achieved through a number of means, but we will focus on the three most prevalent in Scotland:
Ecosystem restoration focuses on restoring the health and functionality of ecosystems damaged or altered by human activities, such as deforestation or habitat destruction. This route includes the restoration of wetlands, peatland, and forests. This has a wide range of positive effects, especially with climate change looming large in the conversation. By planting more trees, the hope is that the trees will capture carbon to mitigate the greenhouse effect and slow global warming.
These restored wild areas are also home to resurgent wildlife populations who can return. With humanity responsible for destroying vast swathes of these landscapes, many argue that it falls to us to help restore them.
Due to hunting, trapping, and habitat destruction, many species crucial to natural balance have been severely reduced in number or totally depopulated from their previously occupied areas. These species are often referred to as “keystone species” because they play a crucial role in shaping and maintaining the ecosystem. The key species to remember for Scotland are beaver, lynx, and, most controversially, wolves. That said, there are a number of other species which are being introduced worldwide, such as harvest mice and buffalo.
Rewilding seeks to create and maintain corridors and pathways that allow species to move freely through the landscape. This helps prevent genetic isolation, foster species migration, and promote genetic diversity. This can mitigate healthier breeding populations in these regions so that they can become tenable once more. This also supports ecological restoration and the overall footprint of wild spaces that can be enjoyed continuously by people.
Opposition to rewilding primarily revolves around three key issues. Firstly, concerns about its impact on local economies and livelihoods, especially in farming and traditional land-use areas. Secondly, there is scepticism about the potential ecological disruptions and unintended consequences of reintroducing species. Lastly, differences in worldviews and values can lead to opposition. Some people prioritize human needs and cultural significance over ecological restoration. These multifaceted challenges underscore the importance of addressing ecological, economic, and cultural considerations to foster productive dialogue around rewilding initiatives.
While 76% of respondents have supported rewilding, there are still those with valid concerns about how to take action. The key headwinds to rewilding in Scotland come in the nature of land usage and the introduction of large predators. Both are key reasons why taking on the viewpoints of all stakeholders to get local support is a key part of the modern rewilding process. With land usage, many consider that land could be better used for economic activity. In the case of large predators such as lynx, farmers may worry for livestock and general safety is a concern.
New information is coming to light that changes the conversation around lynx. Conservationists have found that lynx are unlikely to stray from the cover of woodland, making them less likely to impact grazing animals such as sheep. They are also notoriously shy and their actual risk to humans is minimal. Peter Cairns of Rewilding: The Big Picture has an excellent paper on this elusive creature and their possible reintroduction to Scotland. You can read the report on the case for lynx reintroduction here.
There are currently many rewilding projects across Scotland, great and small. The Scottish Government was the first government worldwide to announce a climate emergency in 2019, followed swiftly by Wales. While this has provided the backdrop of official support for many rewilding efforts across the country many have been underway for decades. With funding becoming available from both private and public bodies, as well as from communities themselves, rewilding efforts have only grown in recent years.
We’ve taken the time to gather some of the efforts we’re most excited about. While this list isn’t complete, it gives a broad understanding of what rewilding can look like alongside some of its successes.
Mossy Earth is undertaking a project which focuses on the Alladale River for reforestation of aspen. Aspen struggle to repopulate themselves in Scotland and have been decimated by not only human interference in removing “non-useful” trees but also the increased deer numbers which have had such an impact on forestry. With that in mind, Mossy Earth aims to plant 10,000 trees in the next four years.
Surprisingly, aspen and other coniferous trees historically made up just over 15% of Scottish forests, but it’s difficult to see today. A return to diversity will have far-reaching implications for the other denizens of Scotland’s woodlands. Generally, aspen do not seed often in Scotland, which makes it difficult to reforest lost areas. Instead many aspen will root sprout to create genetically identical trees from the same cluster. This can have long term detrimental effects on the species in the long term. It is far better to have many aspen in an area and that is what the Alladale project aims to achieve.
Additionally, aspen are a favourite of beavers who have begun naturally re-engineering our rivers with their reintroduction. The two appear to have evolved in tandem and so naturally support one another.
Cairngorm Connect’s 200-year initiative for rewilding is a visionary and ambitious project aimed at the restoration and revitalization of the Cairngorms, one of Scotland’s most iconic and ecologically significant regions. This rewilding initiative takes a long-term perspective to allow the natural processes of this rugged and diverse landscape to fully unfold. Due to its scope and the reality that no one person can complete such an ambitious project, many consider it one of the most visionary approaches to rewilding in the world.
Spanning over 600 square kilometres, the initiative manages a range of projects. Some simply monitor, such as their predator project which monitors the impact of returning predators to the area on prey and local ecology, while others seek to restore vast swathes of natural landscape such as the Insh Marshes. This is the largest natural floodplain mire in Britain and a site of keen interest. Additionally, they are making efforts to restore woodland, especially high-altitude woodland, across the area of the initiative as well as reconnecting existing woodlands for species diversity.
In 2009, with advice from experts, beavers saw reintroduction into Scotland for the first time in 400 years. The Knapdale Beaver project aimed to release a population of beavers into Scotland’s Argyll and Bute region and scientifically monitor their impact upon their environment.
Over ten years later the Knapdale Beavers have had a demonstrably positive impact that has exceeded even the most optimistic expert predictions. Their reintroduction has shown a re-engineering of their landscape and an improvement in the diversity of wildlife in the area. Beaver dams hold back silt, which makes the water cleaner, while also creating ponds which attract other species. Their natural tree felling also works in tandem with the forest to allow light in and the remaining trees to flourish. This is especially useful for trees of different ages, heights, and species.
Thousands of tourists visit the Knapdale project each year, which also promotes the local economy. At Wilderness believe heavily that conservation efforts need to centre local communities as stakeholders and that people are part of the restoration of our wilderness. That’s why we’ve expanded the Wilderness Conservation Contribution Fund to the Wilderness Conservation and Community Fund. We now try to centre community voices and needs in any of the projects we support. That way we can support communities with what matters to them; from rewilding to sports gear for a local team.
Following Knapdale’s lead we’ve seen other populations of beavers released into the wild across the UK. Most notably, Tayside now hosts several beaver communities. These are a local favourite, and visiting them is a highlight of our A Rewilding Journey in the Cairngorms trip.
Trees for Life has been one of the major players in rewilding across Scotland for over 30 years. They realised in 1993 that only 1% of Caledonian pine forest remained and that this was often isolated in small patches. From there the only course for the group and its founders was to try and connect these oases of wilderness. Their efforts have largely focused on Glen Affric and the surrounding country, which harbours one of the crucial remnants of ancient woodland.
While planting Caledonian pine and other rarer trees, such as aspen and birch, they’ve also engaged with the community effectively. Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of the charity is to open the purpose-built Dundreggan Rewilding Centre. It is the first of its kind and provides a hub for their local efforts while educating visitors. With a tree nursery to foster sproutlings and a number of scenic walks, Dundreggan is a brave new step for rewilding enthusiasts worldwide. It represents a new step in the ongoing dialogue around rewilding in Scotland.
Many of our trips include some attention to rewilding, including some direct volunteering by guides and clients. We’re lucky enough to often host Peter Cairns, Chief Executive of Rewilding: The Big Picture, for talks on our Highlands and Winter Highlands retreats alongside High Points of the Cairngorms. Rewilding: The Big Picture is one of the leading organisations addressing rewilding in Scotland and is a respected voice in the worldwide rewilding discussion. Listening to Peter speak authoritatively and passionately about the essential work that his organisation does is a true delight. We’re proud to work with them in delivering their vision.
Additionally our Autumn Highlands and Autumn in Perthshire trips go to the newly opened Trees for Life Rewilding Centre at Dundreggan. This is the first of its type anywhere in the world and is focusing on rewilding portions of Glen Affric and surrounding areas. They also provide information and community support in the local area. As Platinum Partners with Trees for Life, we have heavily funded their efforts, particularly at Dundreggan. We also love the opportunity to raise awareness about this excellent group doing crucial work on our trips.