Scotland, host of the COP26 climate summit this November, is the site of an ambitious rewilding project with a centuries-long timeline for restoring the forests that once blanketed the now-familiar landscape of barren moors.
The effort brings together a patchwork of private landowners, government landholdings and conservation charities, all working to restore the habitat through tree planting.
Scotland’s forests cover 19% of its land area, the highest proportion of the four nations that comprise the U.K.; but as a whole, the U.K. is one of the least forested countries in Europe, at 13% compared to the average 38% across the EU.
Advocates of rewilding say it’s about “helping nature to manage itself”: “We kick-start this process by planting trees so in 30 to 50 years, we can walk away.”
SCOTLAND – “To restore the landscape we need cathedral thinking,” says Thomas Macdonell gazing up at a stand of ancient pines within Glen Feshie, Scotland, where he has worked as director of conservation and forestry for the past two decades. Under three different landowners, the former engineer has transformed this valley into a flagship site for rewilding in Scotland.
But there is a long way to go.
“What we are doing now goes beyond my lifespan and the owner of the estate’s lifespan. To give people a different vision, I came up with a 200-year plan for the estate,” Macdonell said. This rolling timescale offers a dramatic reimagining of the Scottish landscape, one that informs his everyday work but is now also influencing contemporary political ambition in the U.K.
In November, global leaders will gather in nearby Glasgow for the pivotal COP26 climate summit. Given the recent isolation of the pandemic, it will present a highly valued opportunity for policymakers, leaders and environmentalists to push for change but also highlight solutions and successes on a grand scale. The Scottish Rewilding Alliance (SRA) is calling on the Scottish government (a devolved power within the U.K.) to become the world’s first rewilding nation ahead of the summit, where ecosystem management has become a key consideration of policies. This builds on the Scottish government’s pledge to increase protection of land surface for nature from 22.7% to 30% by 2030. The SRA is calling for 30% of land not only to be protected but actively restored.
The definition of rewilding itself is difficult to pin down, but has attracted a movement as diverse as the habitats that supporters hope to restore. The variety of rewilding efforts varies in the U.K. from the reintroduction of extinct megafauna like lynx, beavers or wolves, to planting wildflower seeds on city roundabouts. They all have on one thing in common: a baseline, tacit understanding that the U.K. needs to be wilder.
The U.K. has the lowest forest cover of any nation in Europe at only 13%, less than half the European average (38% across the EU) and an increase of only 1% in the last quarter century. For Scotland, the most northerly of the four nations in the U.K., the expanse is proportionally a little higher, rising from 5% to 19% in the last 100 years. Much of the forest is commercial plantation (which contributes $1.4 billion to the national economy) but, according to rewilders, is less biodiverse. Only one-fifth of Scotland’s forests are native woodlands.
“We have lost most of the larger predators in Scotland and to a certain extent ungulates,” says Andrew Kitchener, the principal curator of vertebrates at National Museum of Scotland.
“We used to have elk, aurochs [a type of wild cattle], brown bear, wolf and lynx. We could restore all of these species, there is enough space, but we do need to do a lot of habitat restoration, as I don’t think there is enough habitat for these species”
In Scotland, the rewilding challenges are rooted in a complex lineage of political and social history. But arguments over biodiversity tend to revolve around the land management of two species in particular: sheep and red deer.
Glen Feshie’s long roads
Until the year 2000, Glen Feshie was the quintessential Scottish Highland sporting estate. It was purchased in 1790 by the York shipping company for its Scots pine trees that were used to build the trading ships that plied the British colonies. In the mid-19th century, mass migration removed much of the Highland population (known as the clearances) with many shipped off to the colonies. Glen Feshie families left for Canada, where some pioneered timber extraction on the shores of Lake Ontario.
This new, emptier landscape attracted sports shooters to hunt the burgeoning population of red deer.
Victorian artist Edward Landseer sealed this romantic, de-peopled vision of the Scottish wilderness for the popular imagination in his painting “Monarch of the Glen” in 1851. The majestic stag under fearsome, misty crags, is instantly recognizable, but Landeer’s vision of wilderness, like that of later Hollywood films and television, belies the reality that his view was in large part a man-made wilderness.
“This was the picture of unsustainability,” Macdonell says. “I felt I had worked out in my head how to regenerate the forest so I spoke to my boss at the time and he was passionate about it. He allowed me to stick to the vision. Then the death threats came.”
Macdonell’s first major action, in 2003, was to reduce deer numbers from 45 per square kilometer to just two deer/km2 to allow natural regeneration of trees on the bare moorland. The decision sparked fury from both traditional estates and animal rights activists — one group concerned for livelihoods, the other for animal welfare.
“I am not anti-deer,” Macdonell says, “quite the opposite. They are the sculptors of the forest.”
He points to a granny pine standing alone above the heather and explains how its branching trunk was formed as deer grazed the sapling 260 years ago, stimulating lateral growth.
Red deer (Cervus elaphus) are a woodland species, but the lack of food on the moors and the densities (often kept unnaturally high by sporting estates) halted natural regeneration as well as perpetuating the view of deer on barren moors as the de facto highland vista.
At five deer/km2, Macdonell says, you get resinous tree species regenerating; at two deer/km2, you get broadleaf species.
“I remember sitting under a tree looking down on the river thinking: ‘I wonder if everyone else is right and I am wrong?’”
Macdonell told people the change would take three years to make an impact, but as the time approached, his ambition seemed liked a fantasy.
“The deer had been killed, I had fallen out with everyone, I’d had death threats but nothing was showing,” he says.
“Then, all of a sudden, I spied something green nearby and I found all these new trees were coming up! That was the eureka moment.”
Those little shoots now tower over Macdonell, and the wide glen bristles green with thousands of new trees, seeded from the granny pines spared from becoming ships for the British Empire.
In 2006, Anders Povlsen, a Danish fashion retail billionaire, bought the Glen Feshie estate and has since become the U.K.’s largest private landowner, with 13 estates in Scotland committed to rewilding covering 220,000 hectares (544,000 acres) under the Wildland Limited company. Of these, four estates, including Glen Feshie, are in the southwest of the Cairngorms National Park authority, covering 27,316 hectares (67,500 acres). Povlsen’s financial backing is a major part of Glen Feshie’s success, but it’s not everything.
“Whatever you do, do it well, do it once, taking everything into consideration not just the financial,” Macdonell says. “In other organizations they are under pressure to be doing things. If you don’t have a scheme on the go you are considered to be lazy. But what is the right thing to do? You’ve got a finite time as a human where you are in a position to do something. I am lucky to have been here for 20 years and hope to be here for another few. That is quite unusual.”
Glen Feshie is the original work of art for Macdonell, with no active planting and minimal management. “I call it the Mona Lisa part of the estate,” he says. “We don’t touch it as I would make a mess.” From the start there would be no replanting of trees, no burning of heather for grouse shooting, and no felling of recent tree plantations, even when they looked geometric and artificial.
“I think in landscape scale conservation, the bravest thing to do at times is to do nothing and observe and watch,” Macdonell says.
Beyond this work of art, Wildland Limited has planted 6 million native trees across the vast moorland, employing a design team to plot trees in GPS polygons — a team of planters with iPads, but overseen by Macdonell’s artistic eye. The goal is to restore the ancient Caledonian forest, dominated by Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) but also containing other native broadleaf species including common alder (Alnus glutinosa), downy birch (Betula pubescens), aspen (Populus tremula), sessile oak (Quercus petraea), goat willow (Salix caprea) and bird cherry (Prunus padus).
The staff team debate where species would naturally occur, blending with commercial plantations and smoothing out the landscape. They have even planted an orchard as a natural memorial on the site of a cleared village from the 19th century.
Unique rewilding efforts
The country that gave the world the “father of the national parks,” John Muir, only created its first national park in 2002, and its second, the Cairngorms, in 2003, as Macdonell was beginning his great experiment. But national park sites in the U.K., unlike their U.S. cousins, encompass wilderness areas as well as large inhabited areas with a complex network of private landowners, and include towns and villages.
An outside visitor would struggle to see where the park begins and ends, which is fine for walkers, as the right to roam is enshrined in Scots law. This local challenge is also an opportunity where the park can model best practices that flow beyond the invisible perimeter.
The park may operate practically over large areas as a planning authority, but the vision for wildness remains at its core. Cairngorms National Park covers 4,528 km2 (1,748 square miles) across the mountainous heart of Scotland, incorporating the U.K.’s only arctic-alpine plateau, remnants of ancient pine forest, and carbon-capturing blanket bog.
Like-minded landowners within the park have formed Cairngorms Connect to collaborate on the 200-year rewilding ambition. They include private companies, like Povlsen’s Wildland Ltd., government landholdings, and conservation charities like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, whose purchase of the Abernethy reserve here in 1988 was the largest purchase in Europe by a voluntary conservation organization.
This partnership approach is a key strength of the rewilding movement in the U.K., created by necessity of being on this small island with high population density.
Before Glen Feshie, a great deal of groundwork had already been laid, and one grassroots group was already reimagining the landscape in the south of Scotland, just over an hour from Glasgow.
A metal deer target in a plantation in Glen Feshie in the Scottish Highlands. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
Mature Scots pine tree on the shores of Loch an Eilein, part of the Cairngorm National Park, founded in 2003. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
Marks of muirburn on a moorland near Colquhar in the Scottish Borders. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
A school pupil from Moffat academy on a tree planting effort at Corehead farm, a land holding purchased by The Border Forest Trust. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
The River Feshie, flowing through the glen of the same name in the Scottish Highlands, is flag ship site for rewilding. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
Saplings spread around a mature Scots pine tree in Glen Feshie, Scotland. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
Forest in Glentromie on land owned by Wildlands Ltd., overseen by Thomas Macdonell. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
Glen Feshie in the Scottish Highlands is flag ship site for rewilding after deer numbers were reduced, to allow natural regeneration of trees on the bare moorland. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
The Scottish Borders hills are a series of high summits and deep glens rolling southward from the industrialized central belt, where 70% of the population live, toward and across the English border. The southern uplands appear smooth from a distance, covered in boggy grasslands grazed low by sheep and patchworks of fire-scarred heather moors managed for game shooting. This was not always so.
“From the 13th century the Border Reivers were active in this area, stealing cattle from each other and the English,” says Adrian Kershaw, a psychiatric nurse turned site manager of the Corehead reserve near Moffat, now owned by the Borders Forests Trust.
Stolen cattle were hidden in the Devil’s Beef Tub, a natural hollow, and the woods here were where Scottish leader William Wallace gathered his army for his first attack on the English during the wars of independence at the turn of the 14th century.
“The idea of hiding there seems difficult to imagine today except this was all once covered in trees,” Kershaw says.
Today, the Beef Tub retains its trademark deep bowl shape encircled by higher peaks with a scattering of sheep on the otherwise barren landscape. “They started clearing the trees from the 1700s,” Kershaw says, “and with the sheep grazing they were just never coming back.”
The Borders Forest Trust began life 25 years ago as a group of 40 individuals united to rewild one single catchment to create the 607-hectare (1,500-acre) Carrifran Wildwood. The idea was so singular and appealing that it was funded by donations from around 600 supporters buying up the land on the first day of the new millennium. Since then, they have expanded, like at Glen Feshie, by acquiring neighboring sheep farms, first to Corehead (639 hectares, or 1,579 acres) in 2009, and then Talla & Gameshope (1,832 hectares, or 4,527 acres) in 2013, connecting over to the original site at Carrifran Wildwood. Together, the trust’s “Wild Heart of Southern Scotland” covers a total of 3,078 hectares (7,606 acres), but its reach is even wider.
“Our strength is our ability to buy land,” says Nicola Hunt, the head of land management for the trust. “But we also work with private landowners which covers about the same amount of land again. We have such degenerated land in Scotland but it has given us realization we have made a mess of it and a desire to restore it.
“Now we really see the difference,” she adds. “It wasn’t our initial vision to expand more widely but the success made us feel we can do this. Coming off the hill one day there was a red squirrel with a hazelnut in its mouth and I thought, ‘now, this is proper woodland’ where once it was sheep and grass.”
Two million trees, all native species, have been planted across the Wild Heart. A tenth of them were planted by a loyal clan of volunteers, many of them schoolchildren. The trust employs eight staff, four part-time and four full-time, and hires contractors for the wider work of land management, drawing on a range of funding sources. The engagement of local communities is a central part of taking the vision beyond their land.
“It is rewilding,” Kershaw says, “but we stayed away from the term for a time because of its link to reintroducing wolves and bears. We are rewilding with trees. We don’t only conserve but we create things — it’s restoration. We are putting things back to how they once were.”
“Rewilding is about helping nature to manage itself,” Hunt says. “We can restore the land to self-management. We kick-start this process by planting trees so in 30 to 50 years, we can walk away.”
Turning the clock back offers a window on Scotland’s possible future. Two decades on and the first fruits of this rewilding process are clear to see for locals and governments.
“Local people reimagine the landscape,” Kershaw says, “and slowly the perception changes.”
Questions remain around how to make ecological sustainability financially sustainable.
The Borders Forest Trust started with crowdfunding and is today sustained through a wide range of grant-giving bodies. Both the trust and Wildland Ltd. suggest funding for ecological services like carbon sequestration and flood mitigation is something leaders at the climate summit in Glasgow this November can facilitate — an approach the U.K. and Scottish governments are already moving toward, at least in theory.
In line with many traditional sporting estates, Wildland Ltd. hasn’t managed to break even. In 2020, its 13 estates lost a combined $5.9 million as the pandemic hit, a drop of $1.28 million on the year before. It says its focus on high-budget tourism, including sports shooting, is a work in progress but central to the vision of becoming both financially and ecologically sustainable. “We have one of the world’s greatest business minds,” Macdonell says, “so it’s just a matter of time.”
Banner image: School pupils from Moffat academy on a tree planting effort at Corehead farm, a land holding purchased by The Border Forest Trust. Image courtesy of Kieran Dodds.
About the journalist: Kieran Dodds is a non-fiction photographer in Scotland known for his research-driven photo stories and portraiture. His personal work considers the interplay of environment and culture, tracing global events through daily lives. You can find more information on his website.
Correction: A statement was updated on June 22, 2021, to correct the percentage of Scotland’s forests that are native woodlands.
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