Rewilding Scotland: Would you visit a wilder Scotland?
“In the Highlands we have an opportunity to reverse environmental degradation and create a world-class wilderness region offering a lifeline to wildlife including beavers, capercaillie, wood ants and pine martens, and restoring natural forests and wild spaces for our children and grandchildren.”
— Alan Watson Featherstone, Founder and CEO of Scottish charity Trees For Life, 2015
Scotland is in the midst of a national land reform discussion that could affect much about how Scottish land is owned, taxed, used and protected. The debate touches Scotland’s wild lands, cleared lands, enormous ancient estate lands and historic environments. All are places that tend to be highly valued by the Scottish diaspora.
Much of the discussion is contentious. It is no surprise that the idea of reintroducing lynx, wolves and other predators to the Scottish countryside is one of the most energetically debated threads of the land reform debate. In its totality the movement seeks “rewilding” of Scotland’s open lands and that means – among other things – restoring those elements of the biological community that have been lost for several hundred to a thousand years. On the welcome home list are bears, beavers, boars, wolves, lynx and others.
A few early trials and some tribulations.
Scotland has been quietly preparing for larger scale rewilding with smaller projects or “trials”. These have included the restoration of native forests at several Highland sites, the re-establishment of birds of prey such as sea eagles, ospreys and red kites, and the trial reintroduction of European beavers at Knapdale in Argyll. Short term results of these trials have been mixed.
The trial beavers are thriving in Knapdale as expected. The larger ecological advantage of beavers has been amply demonstrated. Unfortunately, so has their destructive potential for local agriculture. Farmers are not pleased with the prospect of having to live with a world full of beavers.
Raptor (birds of prey) deaths continue to be something with which Scotland struggles. In a recent amnesty program more than 80 people turned in to authorities various outlawed pesticides that are utilized to poison wildlife. The amnesty program was part of Scotland’s battle against illegal wildlife killing. Last year Black Isle raptor deaths by poison reached 22. Raptors are also killed using illegal traps and other methods. Clearly, any introduced predators will face illegal hunting, trapping and poisoning in Scotland, at least in today’s mood in rural Scotland. The ethical justification for incurring those deaths for the cause of an increase in wildlife tourist revenue is questionable, given how predictable they will be.
Can Scotland Become Wild Enough For Large Predators?
Scotland’s wild lands are presently dwindling year to year. Check out the 2014 Scottish Natural Heritage Wild Lands Map for perspective. It has recently been pointed out that the “proportion of Scotland from which built development cannot be seen has dropped by two fifths in just 11 years, to 27 per cent in 2013.” See Paul Webster, New Vision Offers A Positive Vision For Scotland’s Mountains. Proponents of Lynx reintroduction estimate that habitat sufficient to support an introduced Lynx population, probably in the borders, could be available by 2025. That is, if all of Scotland was pulling in the same direction, which they are not presently doing.
As in America, rural communities are advising caution with any wildlife introduction plans in Scotland. It is not the grisly legacy of Little Red Ridinghood that drives opposition to predator planting in the Caledonian forest. Opposition generally comes from the grit and reality of rural agrarian existence informed with generations of stories about what might happen to lambs and calves, not to mention barnyard fowl, if there are bears and wolves and big cats in the woods and sea eagles on the wing.
A Legacy Of Human Removal Still Lingers.
Some in the Highlands and Islands have pointed out that a portion of what we consider “wild” in Scotland today was not always like that. Rob Gibson MSP (SNP) representing Caithness, Sutherland and Ross has reminded us of those lands which were cleared of human residence just a few hundred years ago. His point is that putting much of rural Highlands and Islands land into conservation, in some cases on lands that had been previously cleared of local community residence and use, may not be the correct manner in which to progress. Gibson’s position has drawn criticism from wild land proponents. Yet even Gibson’s opponents admit that the sites of 2 of 13 cleared villages are located within bio-protected lands.
If previously cleared lands are withdrawn from the available wild land base in the Highlands and Islands the possibility of a complete ecosystem becomes a bit less viable. It really doesn’t help much to rely on the fact that top predators survived in Scotland for a long time prior to being wiped out. Using today’s technologies, humans are able to penetrate what’s left of Scotland’s forests to a far greater extent with greater disturbance to the wild residents than in centuries past. Top predators may well require a geographically larger wild refuge to thrive in the 21st century than they got away with in the 10th century.
It is an interesting debate, but perhaps the most important thing to remember at present is that it IS a debate. Scotland is far from one mind on these issues. Nonetheless, Scots have proved extremely committed and dogged politically when they find an issue about which they care deeply. For further info, check out the leading proponent of rewilding Scotland, a non profit group called Rewilding Britain. They keep a very informative website and their work includes far more than just top predator reintroduction.
Eco Tourism Driven.
Much of the rationale in support of rewilding Scotland is pulled from the widely predicted “eco-tourism” boost that would result if large charismatic predators were replanted in the Scottish countryside.
So, until next time, what say you?