Rewilding Scotland: Would you visit a wilder Scotland?

European wolves currently live in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Sweden.

European wolves currently live in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Sweden.

“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.

thThe 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?

Eurasian Lynx could be part of a solution to Scotland's over grazing deer population.

Eurasian Lynx could be part of a solution to Scotland’s over grazing deer population.

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.


Scotland’s problem with deer is less their numbers and more the fact that they are not chased and disturbed by native predators so they tend to hang out in one place and eat everything in sight.

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?








7 thoughts on “Rewilding Scotland: Would you visit a wilder Scotland?

  1. rodger moffet

    I have to be honest and say I’m in two minds about this. A few years back there was a landowner who was trying to reintroduce wolves onto his estate, however it didn’t look as if he was particularly motivated by environmental causes and seemed keener to use it to discourage people roaming on his land (not being used to large predators in the UK we are far more wary than our cousins across the pond). That being said deer can do a massive amount of damage, especially to young trees and the propensity of deer fencing in the highlands shows that.

    Wolves would also suffer the same fate as our raptor bird population which get a lot of criticism from farmers and many blame crofters for bird poisonings. Ive spoken to crofters who have said that while large eagles can take a lamb from time to time its actually the crows that are far more vicious so its hard to judge. Also we would have to contend with illegal hunting as there are enough idiots around who would want to take down a wolf just like Cecil the lion

    Nope still cant decide if its good or bad.

  2. Amanda Moffet

    From speaking to a ranger he explained how delicately and respectfully animals need to be re-introduced, has to be done completely in the right order so they have something to eat that is not going to effect other animals and something is there to eat them. Can be devastating for the environment if something like a mink was introduced. Suppose the danger is the ‘popular’ animals are introduced too early. Hear the beavers are doing really well.

    • Susan McIntosh Post author

      Indeed Amanda. Here in Colorado a quick politically motivated decision was made to reintroduce lynx to the state a few years ago. So the Colorado Department of Wildlife kidnapped a number of lynx from Canada and brought them down to Colorado and released them shortly after arrival. It was mid winter and it just so happened that the snowshoe hare population in that part of Colorado was in decline. Canadian lynx are snowshoe hare obligates. Every one of those lynx died of starvation.

      Regarding wolves: In the U.S. ranchers and wolf opponents always said that they would murder introduced wolves. In the case of the Mexican wolf project along the Arizona – New Mexico border, wolf opponents very efficiently hacked into the animal’s collars, tracked them and killed every one of the first wolves planted there.

      I agree with your ranger Amanda – reintroduction of a long gone species is no small thing and will have enormous implications for a range of species. The important thing to know is we don’t know it all and we cannot predict all of the consequences of the natural resource management that we dabble with.

  3. Keith MacDonald

    Gently extracting the micturation, here’s the plot for the film:

    A Scottish entrepeneur (played by Richard Attenborough) starts a Rewilded Tourist Theme Park, stocked with bears, wolves, boars, lynx and other predators. Don’t get out of the car or leave the windows open. What could possibly go wrong? Sure enough, some Sassanach Tourists get chewed to pieces, and the children are lost in the grant-maintained forest. Cue the rescue squad (played by Sam Neil and Jeff Goldblum). As a side plot, some bad guy with a wind farm that’s being killing raptors comes to a nasty-but-kharmic end when he gets chewed up by his own wind turbine blades.

  4. Joseph McNabb

    Even in the USA, in a nearby protected National Park, the re-introduction of the native red wolf has not gone well. This has not been so much a fault of preparation or of the habitat, but of the seeming inability of the wolves to adapt to an environment not like that in which they were taught to survive by their “birth pack.”
    In the same period as the red wolf introduction, the population of the native black bear has increased to the point the the Tennessee Department of Wildlife Services has introduced a limited area hunting season in the populous Knox County, home of the University of Tennessee.
    At the conclusion of any measured disoourse of the merits, all may come to a quotation from a “Survival Anglia” televised program: “Man does not easily tolerate the presence of other predators.”

  5. Keith MacDonald

    Have people forgotten that there was an era in Britain (not too many centuries ago) when a wolf or a wild boar could seriously interrupt your sleep, or worse, if you were camping overnight in open countryside?

    Perhaps we should start a “Bring Back The Brochs” campaign as well? So that we can offer walkers and tourists places that are safe and protected, to hid them from the rewilded and devouring beasties?

  6. Scott Denison

    The only way to revitalize an environment on the scale they speak of requires one dramatic step: The removal of mankind from the area. No homes, roads, trails or recreation. The type of environment they dream of here is just that. The process has been tried for a hundred years in America with the National Park system. While these Parks are beautiful and diverse, the wildlife is in constant and direct competition with people. Most of the scavengers live off tourist trash and treats, and the predators walk a fine line between a vital link in the food chain and becoming a nuisance/threat animal which must be euthanized. I live in the mountains of NW Montana. I have deer, elk, bear, cougar, coyotes and wolves passing through or near my property seasonally. They exist here because there is an extremely low human population. Despite that, someone is mauled or killed by bear locally every year. People lose livestock to wolves and pets to cougar. Whenever it happens that’s another predator marked for death, if reported. We have so many predators here only because of a booming deer population, thick forests, and rugged terrain… and a lack of people. You cannot reintroduce predators without first building their food supply and you cannot add prey without old growth forest habitat. That does not happen with people sharing the land.


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