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Scotland Is Poised to Become the World’s First “Rewilding Nation”

By Lenora Todaro

Apr 22, 2022

From the Spring 2022 issue

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Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, is home to the U.K.’s largest habitat restoration project.

Photo by James Shooter

Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, is home to the U.K.’s largest habitat restoration project.

Following centuries of deforestation, the U.K.’s northernmost territory has invested heavily in rewilding. Now some environmental leaders want to go a step further.

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When you think of Scottish landscapes, perhaps you picture gilded mountain vistas, undulating coastlines, green glens, and spongy peat bogs. However, while those pastoral wonders do exist, they are “surrounded mostly by ecological deserts,” says Susan Wright in her book Scotland: A Rewilding Journey (Big Picture Press, 2018).

The deforestation of Scotland unfolded over hundreds of years, beginning in the early 18th century when trees were felled on a massive scale for fuel and buildings. In the early 19th century, more trees were cleared to make space for farming. By the 1950s, only about 1 percent of the original Caledonian Forest—the forest that once covered most of Scotland—remained, according to Richard Bunting, a spokesperson for the Scottish nonprofit Trees for Life. “But we have the space, the wealth, the experience, and the global responsibility to rewild,” Bunting says.

In the 1960s, Scotland’s reforestation efforts began in earnest, starting with Glen Affric, now a nature reserve 15 miles from Loch Ness. Since then, more than 15 percent of Scotland has been restored. There are currently dozens of projects taking place throughout the country. But people like Bunting want to go even further.

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Trees for Life is one of 22 member organizations under the umbrella of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance (SRA), which is urging the government to declare Scotland the first “rewilding nation.” Practically, this would mean committing 30 percent of public land to rewilding by 2030; reintroducing keystone species, such as beavers, lynx, and oysters; and creating a coastal zone where dredging and trawling are not permitted. 

Those involved with rewilding recognize that there’s a psychological component: They need to educate the public on the value of rewilding, including the ways it can benefit their lives through improved air and water quality, as well as economic opportunities.

To that end, in early 2023, Trees for Life will open a rewilding center near Loch Ness on the Dundreggan estate, which the organization purchased in 2008. The center and its surrounds (the first project of its kind in Scotland) will act as an education center, with plenty of ways to engage with the local landscape and culture, from hiking the trails and planting native trees to attending events and exhibits that showcase progress.   

“Rewilding,” Bunting says, “offers one positive, powerful solution for tackling the nature and climate emergencies. It is a narrative of hope.” Here, six projects that have helped pave the way. 

Alladale Wilderness Reserve

  • Project launched: 2009
  • Acres protected: 23,000

Since he purchased this stretch of land in the Scottish Highlands in 2003, with the intent of turning it into a wilderness reserve, Alladale founder Paul Lister and his team have planted nearly a million native trees, including Scots pine and woolly willow. They’ve also restored damaged peatlands, reintroduced the red squirrel (critical to seed dispersion), and launched a breeding program for Scottish wildcats; eventually they’d like to reintroduce wolves.

How to visit

Travelers can book one of four remote lodges, including a Victorian manor that sleeps 14, and take part in ranger-led hikes that showcase the reserve’s flora and fauna.

Dundreggan

  • Project launched: 2008
  • Acres protected: 10,000

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Situated in the heart of the Caledonian Forest, the Dundreggan estate was the hunting grounds for kings in the 14th century. Since Trees for Life purchased the land in 2008, volunteers have replanted nearly 255,000 trees—Scots pine, juniper, and woolly willow—across the Highlands. In addition to reducing flooding risk and improving soil biodiversity, the new forest offers nature-based tourism.

How to visit

Travelers can hike, watch for more than 95 species of birds (including golden eagles), and, come 2023, explore exhibits and local Gaelic culture at the new rewilding center.

Community of Arran Seabed Trust

  • Project launched: 1995
  • Sea acres protected: 69,190

For more than 25 years, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust has been “seawilding” the waters around the Isle of Arran, located off the west coast of Scotland. The organization counts, among other successes, protection of one square mile of ocean habitat in Lamlash Bay from overfishing and extraction. These protected areas encourage the natural regeneration of habitats and the recovery of wildlife populations, mainly by restoring seabeds around Arran that have been badly damaged by trawlers and scallop dredgers.

How to visit

Travelers can explore the protected areas via the self-led Arran Snorkel Trail where they might see anemone, crabs, seals, otters, and all manner of jellyfish.

Cairngorms Connect

  • Project launched: 2016
  • Acres protected: 148,000

The United Kingdom’s largest habitat restoration project, Cairngorms Connect occupies 231 square miles of Cairngorms National Park. Funded by Arcadia, a charitable trust that focuses on endangered spaces, land managers have planted trees, restored peatlands and blanket bogs, and improved rivers by removing human-introduced obstacles so water can move more freely across floodplains. The habitats are home to more than 5,000 species, including pine martens (picture a weasel with a catlike face), badgers, golden eagles, and the world’s largest grouse, the capercaillie.

How to visit

Travelers can volunteer to collect and plant tree seedlings, dig over beds in the Cairngorms Connect tree nursery, or help plant trees on the reserve. 

Carrifran Wildwood

  • Project launched: 2000
  • Acres protected: 1,620

Prior to 2000, the Carrifran Valley was typical of southern Scotland: a brown wasteland, due in part to overgrazing by sheep. Two decades and 750,000 trees later, the valley has been transformed and the ecosystem is nearly self-sustaining, thanks to the work of the nonprofit Borders Forest Trust, which owns the land. Volunteers planted many native trees, including aspen and willow, as well as woodland shrubs, such as wild roses that provide cover for several species of birds and insects. 

How to visit

A self-guided hike will lead you down a narrow tree-lined path, through glens, past peatland, and up to a former sheep pen with a panoramic view of the valley.

Bamff Wildland

  • Project launched: 2002
  • Acres protected: 1,300

The Ramsay family has owned this 1,300-acre estate of farmland, woodland, and wetlands in central Scotland since the 13th century. In the 1980s, Bamff’s current owners, Paul and Louise Ramsay, took over, with a goal of replanting native pinewood and other trees on nearly 400 acres of farmland. Plant life flourished, and in 2002 the Ramsays reintroduced beavers.

How to visit

Take in the bounty on a guided tour, during which visitors explore the environs and the creatures that inhabit them: beavers, red squirrels, otters, woodpeckers, and about 100 species of birds. 

>>Next: Trees, Intentional Hiking, and the Beauty of Slime Molds

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