Rewilding: Why Is It Important?
There is nothing I like better, where I live on the coast of Argyll, than to walk through an Atlantic Oak Rainforest in spring when it is a carpet of bluebells, the call of songbirds fills the woodland, I can hear buzzards calling overhead and I look for the scampering activity of red squirrels through the canopy or the call of otters on the shore. Being in these woods brings a powerful sense of calm and connection, things that I believe are essential for our well-being. Walking in these woods I feel like I am seeing them just as the first humans arriving in Scotland, marvelling at their biodiversity and in awe of their beauty. On a recent visit to the north west Highlands of Scotland standing on a mountain peak I looked down onto miles and miles of barren peat bog and heather hillside with not an animal or bird in sight let alone any native forest. It made me wonder why the contrast is so stark and why nature has not been able to recolonise these vast areas. It got me thinking again about rewilding and why it is important. I have always had a strong interest in rewilding and having researched it further I want to share my findings and my thoughts with you.
“flourishing Caledonian pinewoods”
Unfortunately, most of Scotland is not covered by natural woodland as it only survives in small pockets by chance, having escaped from the agricultural revolution of subsistence farming that left barren swathes of land across the Highlands and Islands. Rewilding is about large scale ecological restoration of the natural landscape by allowing nature to do its own thing. Rewilding is a source of hope and joy that one day everyone living or visiting Scotland will be able to experience the magic of our native natural ecosystem as it should be. The good news is that there are organisations with very dedicated people working to help return big swathes of land to diverse forest full of wildlife like red squirrels and wildcats. In this blog I explore some of their work and how we can all help to reshape the landscape that we work and live in, or visit, so that our children and their children can experience the real wild Scotland of flourishing Caledonian pinewoods, Atlantic Rainforests or restored wetlands. For me rewilding is the key for nature to be in a sustainable equilibrium and if we only think about sustainability in terms of what we eat, how we travel and what be buy, then we are missing perhaps the most fundamental aspect.
“50% of the land mass but only 8% of the population”
As I mentioned before I live in Argyll which is part of the Highland and Islands of Scotland, an area which covers 50% of the land mass of Scotland but with only 8.8% of the population. So we have vast areas of land that are unpopulated by people and which largely have had their natural flora and fauna stripped away by land misuse and persecution of wildlife. This might have something to do with land ownership and the history of Scotland. I always find it an amazing fact that 50% of Scotland’s land is owned by less than 500 people. This is to do with the long history of estate ownership which has tended to result in damage to the environmental diversity through deer stalking and grouse shooting and has pushed people off the land by cutting the ground available to farmers or converting estate buildings into holiday lets. However, there are some great examples where private landowners have had a positive impact, increasing the sustainability of the local population and economy, for example, supporting woodland regeneration and woodland croft creation as well as beginning the rewilding process to restore the local ecology.
“pristine oak rainforests”
So how should Scotland’s landscape look like in the Highlands and Islands? What would the first explorers have found when they ventured into our coasts, mountains and glens? They would have discovered densely forested coast lines, along the west coast there would have found pristine oak rainforests dripping with lichens and inland majestic Caledonian pine forests. In low lying areas they would have come across wetlands (or mosses as they are locally known here) rich in bird life, fish and insects like dragonflies. The explorers would have seen mountains rising out of the forest with slightly less dense stunted birch trees on the higher reaches giving out to an alpine ecology with mountain hares and golden eagles soaring overhead. Does this sound like a landscape worth reclaiming again? It certainly does to me.
Having done my research I thought these 5 points were the most important to share with you:
- How Do We Go About Rewilding Scotland?
- What About The Economy of a Rewilded Scotland?
- Where Can You See Rewilding In Action?
- The Norway Example
- Larger Predators
- Return of Native Species
Across Europe there are examples of where rewilding has worked brilliantly. Examples include the Danube Delta full of bird life and where water buffalo and wild konik horses have been reintroduced to restore the natural balance. In the Romanian Carpathian Mountains there are vast areas of unspoilt forest and alpine mountain tops where lynx, bears, wolves and bison roam free. In England at Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex the farm has allowed nature the freedom to take over, using traditional long horn cattle to graze in a sustainable manner, enabling the comeback of rare species like turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies. These projects and the work going on in Scotland allow nature to take the lead. It does not generally involve tree planting or fencing off large areas, rather keeping grazing by herbivores such as sheep and deer to a level which allows ground cover plants and trees to begin to naturally recover. Trees will still grow from seeds lying dormant in the ground and take root and push above the heather moorlands and begin to reclaim the land. In Scotland many organisations are working together to make this happen including private landowners, the John Muir Trust, Trees for Life, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Scottish Rewilding Alliance.
2. What About The Economy of a Rewilded Scotland?
So how can humans fit into this landscape? Is it possible to rewild but still allow space for people to survive and thrive? Well that is certainly the view of Scotland The Big Picture who are the leading rewilding charity in Scotland. They see a future where many different uses for the land can sit alongside and benefit from rewilding. The obvious one is eco-tourism which is already starting to draw people into the Highlands and Islands. Where I live near Oban people come to watch sea eagles and otters and witness the magic of dolphins, whales and basking sharks. But this is not enough and there needs to be sustainable hunting, fishing and farming as well as making use of high quality food production and woodcraft skills. Technology, arts, communications as well as many other professions would be attracted to come and live in such a place where people can connect with nature so profoundly. Already we are seeing people move to the area as the digital revolution has provided an opportunity to do their work from anywhere.
3. Where Can You See Rewilding In Action?
There are some great examples of where leaving nature to itself has led to fantastic rewilding success. Places you can visit to see this include Glen Feshie and the Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms, Corrour Estate and the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre in the Central Highlands. Other estates on the west coast where rewilding is being given priority include Artornish in Morvern and Kilchoan (near Kilmore). There are numerous species specific projects supporting the return of wildcats, beavers, red squirrels and capercaillies. The Scottish Beaver partnership has returned beavers to the wild in Knapdale in Argyll. The Wildcat Action project aims to restore viable populations of wildcats in the Highland areas of Strathbogie, Angus Glens, Northern Strathspey, Morvern, and Strathpeffer. Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels works with local communities to support the comeback of red squirrels and the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project is working to stop the extinction of this iconic bird by supporting habitat creation.
4. The Norway Example
I have been lucky enough to visit Norway several times as I have family over there and my father grew up near Bergen in the south west of the country. Recently many people have contrasted the south west coast of Norway to Scotland pointing to what is possible in terms of rewilding and natural ecological restoration. Land ownership is very different in Norway with more owner occupied farms, and in recent history the economy of the south west has changed with, less agricultural use of grazing large areas, instead concentrating sheep and cattle farming in the most fertile areas. This in addition to a stronger control of the deer population has led to a natural forest regeneration, which shows what is possible in Scotland which has a very similar climate to that part of Norway.
6. Larger Predators
What is missing from our nature ecology no matter what natural restoration takes place, is larger predators. All of them are now extinct in Scotland. This includes lynx, wolves, bears and bison. Whilst reintroduction of these species might not be universally popular, they are part of the eco system needed to naturally control the deer population without human intervention. One of the most stunning examples of rewilding is Yellowstone National Park which took place after the reintroduction of wolves. There is a great short video on this which you might like to look at here. It shows what an amazing difference the wolves made to the whole landscape, not only did they control the deer, but by doing so they reforested the land and changed the river system to bring more diversity back to the ecosystem.
7. Return of Native Species
Some species are already extinct, but many are on the edge and classified as Sensitive Species. The other day I heard from one of my neighbours how 20 years ago the fields round us were filled with lapwings at certain times of year and this past year she didn’t see a single one. On a more positive note another neighbour has been filling in drainage ditches on the local moss to restore the wetland and to his joy has discovered brown trout swimming up from the sea and signs of otters too. There are many other species that we have seen steep reductions in across Scotland as diverse as Atlantic Salmon, which no longer swim up our rivers to spawn, black grouse, the beaded tit and the short-eared owl. Some species have begun to make a come back including the pine marten and the sea eagle but are still at threat of persecution. Reintroduction is an important step for returning our wild areas to their natural balance as we have seen with the wolves at Yellowstone. But reintroduction is not enough, we then need to create corridors to allow animals such as red squirrels to move through and large areas of undisturbed wilderness to enable species such as the wildcat to have any chance of survival.
I hope I have inspired you about rewilding and the potential it has to reshape our Scottish landscape for the better. Rewilding is a huge challenge both economically, politically and environmentally. It takes time as nature cannot be rushed, but the result will be worth waiting for. At Skirr we value sustainability from every angle of our product creation, from ingredients to packaging and shipping. But for us it goes deeper than that and we consider the health of the soil where our ingredients grow and the kind of world we want to live and work in. Nature is fundamental to our understanding of sustainability and we are supporters of rewilding. Wikipedia gives the definition of sustainability as ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’. Although I think it is on the right track I believe there should be more emphasis about positively supporting natural resources, as avoiding depletion alone will not get us to the place we want to be. As we have seen rewilding is about restoration and not just protection. I hope you might be able to visit one of the glens of Scotland where you can see rewilding in action, and perhaps in future see a lynx peering back at you from the forest. For now take yourself to these wild places and experience the effect they have on your mind, body and soul and support the organisations who are making it happen.
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