Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Time to rewild the Highlands – Ben Goldsmith

Last spring I visited Inverness-shire in the fabled and rugged Scottish Highlands. It’s as bleak a landscape as you’ll find anywhere in Britain, until you arrive at a place called Glenfeshie, where strenuous efforts have been made during the last decade to reduce out-of-control red deer numbers and restore natural balance to the landscape.

Turning off the main road into this remote, beautiful glen after a long drive through the surrounding landscape is like moving from black and white into technicolour. It is as if the hills and valleys here are reawakening after a long sleep. The hillsides are dotted with emergent juniper, hawthorn, dog rose and blackthorn scrub. Little Caledonian pine, rowan, birch and even oak are popping up through the grass everywhere. The Feshie, a tributary of the mighty Spey, fringed with the fresh growth of willow, aspen and alder, cascades along a valley-bottom vivid with wildflowers.

I hear the melancholic call of curlews wheeling overhead, a sound that has all but disappeared from much of Britain. The birdsong from one patch of scrub at Glenfeshie to the next is riotous. The place just teems with life in a way that is quite different to most of upland Britain. Awestruck, I half expected to glimpse a secretive lynx, eradicated from Britain centuries ago, secluded in the branches of one of the few remaining grand old pines which grace the middle reaches of the glen.

In a famous quote, AJP Taylor said that “when we peer into the future we see the past”. This magical place offers a glimpse not only of a past steeped in tradition and rich natural abundance, but of a future in which rewilding breathes new life into the ecology and economy of Scotland’s remoter landscapes.

Ever since Queen Victoria acquired her Balmoral Estate and her husband Prince Albert donned a Sherlock Holmes hat, deer-stalking has been the fashionable pastime of Highlands landowners. Their huge estates, largely denuded of people and their cattle during the notorious Highland clearances a century earlier, had suffered greatly under the forensic grazing pressure of vast numbers of sheep. With the decline of the wool trade the sheep were replaced by red deer, hordes of them, undersized, artificially fed, shivering on exposed hillsides. Across much of the Highlands hardly a tree remains to shelter these beautiful animals, which are ordinarily accustomed to living in a woodland environment. The few trees that do stand are geriatric survivors from before the arrival of the first sheep, since when any young tree that has popped up through the grass has been eaten immediately. Sheep then deer have literally stripped the land bare. Little or no habitat for wildlife remains, and whole glens have become what some nature-lovers have described as ‘green deserts’.

The same is true across much of Britain’s upland landscapes. With the exception of small pockets, trees, scrub, wildflowers and birdsong are largely absent. People think of our uplands as great nature reserves, but they are not. Sadly, there is often less wildlife in these parts of the UK than in surrounding areas. Perhaps it is no surprise that not a single one of our upland areas makes the Telegraph’s annual bucket list. In any other country the uplands would be at the top of such a list – but in Britain we have lost our wild places.

One of the consequences is flooding. The science is crystal clear: if you strip the hills of nature you significantly exacerbate the cycle of flash-flooding and seasonal drought. Bare hills are simply unable to absorb and hold back water after heavy rainfall.

Most people are conscious that the natural fabric of our country has been degraded and depleted over the centuries, but few realise the full extent of the catastrophe that has unfolded around us, particularly in recent decades. Depressingly, the UK now ranks among the most nature-impoverished nations on Earth. Expectations diminish from one generation to the next as we become conditioned to what we know in our own lifetimes, in a process known as “shifting baseline syndrome”. Most of us have no inkling of the extent of our losses.

Countless species have vanished altogether, and those that do remain frequently exist in isolated, often tiny fragments of remnant nature, largely thanks to the care of a handful of dedicated nature-friendly landowners and conservationists. Personal accounts from earlier centuries describe seas teeming with life, meadows and woodland glades carpeted in wildflowers, great forests thronged with songbirds and wildlife. That’s why rewilding has captured the public imagination. It offers a route, for the first time, to meaningful, landscape-scale nature restoration; a way to start reversing the losses.

In the same way that a medieval bridge is supported by several ‘keystones’, without which the bridge collapses, it is understood that the ecological health of our landscapes depends upon the activities of so-called keystone species. In Britain our four keystones are believed to be the wolf, which keeps in check the number of grazing animals on the mountain; the pig (or its ancestor the wild boar), nature’s gardener, turning the soil in its incessant rootling, opening the ground for the benefit of wildflowers and songbirds alike; the beaver, whose damming of streams and small rivers creates invaluable wetland habitat for wildlife of all kinds, whilst reducing flooding and seasonal drought downstream; and finally, the native cattle (or their wild predecessors the aurochs and the bison), whose browsing, grazing and trampling prevents the darkness of the tree canopy from closing over the landscape. The outcome is dynamic wood pasture, complete with scrub and rich in wildflowers, a mosaic of different habitats which teems with life in an abundance that we are unused to seeing in Britain today. The removal of each of these in turn has triggered total ecological collapse across the British uplands – and most notably in the Highlands, probably the most ecologically degraded landscape in all Europe. 

Glenfeshie is just one of a number of Highlands estates that are embracing rewilding. Hugh McLeod, Chief of the ancient McLeod clan, has announced that he’ll be rewilding 40,000 acres on the Isle of Skye, describing the land surrounding Dunvegan Castle as a man-made ‘lunarscape’. Beer company Brewdog has acquired land for rewilding, with a view to restoring nature, developing nature tourism and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

Even more exciting, across some of Scotland’s most iconic landscapes landowners of all stripes – public, private and NGO – are banding together to create great mosaics of restored land across millions of acres. Cairngorms Connect is the most ambitious of these initiatives.

Acknowledging that I am an outsider, it is clear to me that rewilding has the potential to bring not just ecological renewal to the Scottish Highlands, but also economic and social renewal to the communities that live and work in these marvellous, mysterious remote landscapes. Many of the traditional skills associated with rural life are being repurposed for rewilding. For example, in the absence of predators like the wolf, traditional deer stalkers have a vital role in ensuring deer numbers are maintained at a low enough level to ensure young trees can grow. New opportunities also emerge as rewilding takes off. Nature tourism businesses can benefit from the rewilded landscape, as can enterprises that focus on the sustainable use of what the land produces. This can only benefit heavily depopulated upland communities. There is no doubt that as rewilding breathes new life into these landscapes, the jobs that it creates bring new vitality to the communities that live in them. 

The Covid lockdowns have given each of us time to reflect upon what really matters in our lives. Many of us have spent more time in nature during the last year than ever before. We are beginning, individually and collectively, to grasp the central importance of healthy, diverse, abundant nature to our physical and our spiritual health. The time has come for us to begin finally the task of restoring the natural glory of our island, whose crown may once again be Scotland’s majestic Highlands.

Ben Goldsmith is the co-founder of the Highlands & Islands Environment Foundation