As It Happens·Q&A

Conservationists ready to 'rewild' the Scottish Highlands to their former glory

Conservationists are getting ready to "rewild" the Scottish Highlands and return the land to a rich and sustainable forest. But that has local communities feeling skeptical.

The 30-year project will need landowners and local communities to engage in eco-friendly farming

Rowan berry trees growing in Glen Affric, in the Scottish Highlands. The rowan has a long history in folklore as a tree that protects against witchcraft, according to the Trees for Life conservationist group. (Trees for Life/Facebook)

Story Transcript

Conservationists are getting ready to "rewild" the Scottish Highlands and return the land to a rich and sustainable forest. They'll be planting trees, restoring peat bogs and encouraging more land-friendly farming — but that has local communities feeling skeptical.

In an effort to reintroduce wildlife like fish and small predators, as well as shrubs, they plan to cull the deer population down to balance how much of the little vegetation available in the Highlands gets eaten.

The trampling effect of animals on the land has exposed our peatland ... So we want to heal over these erosion scars and put that wet habitat back in place. And that will support the return of a whole range of wildlife here.- Alan McDonnell, conservation manager and rewilding project leader at Trees for Life

Trees for Life has been meeting with landowners and local communities for the last two years about their plans for the 500,000-acre area. 

Their 30-year project plans to restore wildlife all the way from Loch Ness, across the central Highlands, to Kintail on the northwest Highlands coast.

The group's conservation manager and project leader Alan McDonnell spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about those plans. Here is part of that conversation.

Alan McDonnell is the conservation manager at the group Trees for Life and is the rewilding project leader. (Alex Macleod/Submitted by Alan McDonnell)

Alan, for those who haven't visited the Scottish Highlands, what does it look like now? 

There's some really stark mountain scenery, very steep side mountains and glens [with] rivers flowing through the bottom. But on those mountainsides, there's very little vegetation there. So we have pretty grassy hills with occasional trees trying to grow. 

And if it had been untouched, I guess, by humans, what would it have looked like now?

I think naturally this landscape would look much more wooded. 

It would also have more peatlands and more of our bogs. These really rich, wet habitats would be more intact than they are now. 

People, over time, particularly the animals they've brought onto the hills for grazing and trampling sheep ... [and] deer that have grown in big numbers ... have had a real impact on the ecology here.

So this initiative would take half a million acres of land area in the Highlands and rewild them. What are you proposing?

One of the key things to do is to re-establish tree cover — and you can do that through fencing to keep deer out. 

But I think also it's important that we see here we've had such a long period of growth in this unchecked deer population. To see that [we] reduce where that's possible, just to ease the pressure on the land and to rebalance that dynamic between animals eating vegetation [and] the ability of vegetation to develop.

The trampling effect of animals on the land has exposed our peatland. We're leaking carbon at scale across the landscapes. So we want to heal over these erosion scars and put that wet habitat back in place. And that will support the return of a whole range of wildlife here.

And will you reintroduce wildlife or do you feel it will just be drawn to these landscapes where they can actually thrive?

To a large extent, wildlife can return itself.

Obviously, there are species now that are extinct.... There's a case to look at reintroducing some of those. And while we believe that's physically possible, actually the main thing is, is what's socially possible. 

What will people here accept? Because if animals have been extinct for a few hundred years, how will they fit [in]? How might they affect modern land use? People need to understand that and feel comfortable with that before it can go ahead.

That's the important conversation to have, isn't it? These areas are denuded of this vegetation because of farming, because of grazing, because of other uses. So what conversations are you having with people in the Highlands about this?

They've been around for a couple of hundred years now. [It's] part of the tradition, part of the culture here. And so rewilding can be perceived as a threat to that. 

[We're] saying we actually want to build on those land uses and the livelihoods that they support. 

That can mean changes to some practices. But we actually think it can be more profitable and more beneficial to communities here.

Trees for Life aims to restore native woodland in the Scottish Highlands. (Trees for Life/Facebook)

Well, it sounds like it's more than a subtle tweaking of the practices. People will have to change how they farm, how they use the land, right?

Well, we don't think so. I mean, a lot of the land ... is used for deer hunting and we still think that's a vital activity for the future, so that will continue.

A lot of the debate here, and sometimes it gets controversial, is around how many deer are culled in any given year. 

What [rewilding] advocates is replacing the rule of natural predation with increased human predation of deer. It still doesn't change the land use itself. It's just taking that in a slightly different direction.

Give us a snapshot of what you think this area might look like 30 years from now.

Where we have pretty bare hillsides now ... [will have] young woodland starting to come through, going higher up ... towards the top of the mountains. 

You have kind of a dwarf stunted shrub just where the winds and the temperature are cooler … that could be a very rich habitat. Areas of this can restore peatland and bog land there. 

And what kind of wildlife?

Fish would really benefit from this sort of restoration. The ability to have more ... in our rivers to keep water temperatures down, that's actually becoming quite a crucial issue now for species like salmon and sea trout.

You'll see small mammals come back in at greater abundance then that can support other predator species.... Stoats, weasels, pine martens and the eagles. Ospreys predating on fish ... the songbirds as well, just benefiting more from that. 

From the better range of shelter and different habitats to nest in, or make dens in, and having more food availability in that landscape, whether that's fruit or insects or just leaves. Better browsing for animals like the red deer itself.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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