In today's world, you'll have a hard time finding true wilderness. Many of the places that look wild are actually severely altered and eroded underneath the surface. Scotland is a good example. It’s been voted the world's most beautiful country in a number of polls. There's no denying its beauty, with its impressive mountain vistas and crystal clear lochs. But, look deeper and you'll find degraded landscapes and fragile ecosystems. Today, pioneering projects across Scotland are working to heal these ecological wounds and restore wilderness to these impressive landscapes. With some of the finest examples in Europe, Scotland is the perfect place to explore the wonderful world of rewilding.
An Ancient Wilderness
Historically, much of Scotland was covered in forest. The Romans even gave it the name Caledonia, meaning 'wooded heights'. Swathes of Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen and juniper covered the landscape and gave life to the vast Caledonian woodlands. The Celtic rainforest on the west coast was home to spectacular oak and birch trees that grew from a rich green carpet of mosses, ferns and lichens. Lush meadows, thriving wetlands and peat bogs, and vibrant dunes and coastal habitats flourished. Scotland's most iconic and rare wildlife, like the capercaillie and wildcat, were widespread and they lived alongside a diversity of species no longer found here. Lynx, wolves and wild boar once roamed this wild landscape. Since then, a combination of deforestation, overgrazing, persecution and climate change has transformed Scotland into a shadow of its former self. It has lost huge expanses of forest and many species have disappeared altogether.
Over many centuries, felling for timber and farmland, combined with high densities of sheep, cattle and wild deer has had drastic ecological consequences for Scotland's woodlands. In the 1700s, large scale sport shooting and sheep grazing began to leave its mark on the landscape. Overabundant herbivores and over grazing, alongside regular burning, prevented woodlands from naturally regenerating, causing soil erosion, soil acidification, flooding, biodiversity loss and more. Sheep numbers have declined rapidly in Scotland in recent years, but deer management has been largely unsuccessful and red and roe deer numbers continue to increase. Deer are still a major ecological problem limiting the regeneration and expansion of woodland in almost all parts of Scotland. With all of their natural predators (lynx, wolves and brown bears) absent from the landscape, winter mortality and shooting are the only controls on deer numbers.
Today, things are beginning to change once again, this time for the better. Baby Scots pine are recolonizing bare landscapes, red squirrels and pine martens are moving back into lost territory, and rare wildflowers and blaeberry are growing strong in patches of relict pinewood. These changes are being brought about by pioneering rewilding projects across Scotland. Initiatives like Trees for Life and Cairngorms Connect are some of the finest examples of habitat restoration in the UK. Private estates like Alladale Wilderness Reserve and Glenfeshie are also rejecting the traditional deer stalking culture, where management is aimed at maximising deer numbers for sport hunting, choosing to dramatically reduce deers numbers in the name of habitat restoration. With extra help from protective fencing and active planting, tree seedlings now carpet these glens once more.
Habitat restoration is a huge part of the rewilding Scotland movement, but it's not all. Considerable efforts are being made to conserve existing populations of wildcats, pine martens and other rare species. Through reintroductions, previously absent species, like the sea eagle, are making a comeback. The idea of returning apex predators, like lynx and wolves, has also entered the rewilding narrative. With a full complement of keystone species, like apex predators and ecosystem engineers, we could give nature the tools to thrive once again in a rewiled Scotland.
A Wilder Future
Today, Scotland's land and ocean habitats are already a little bit wilder and that's worth celebrating. But, we must do more. With such wonderful changes already happening, there really is no better time to join the rewilding Scotland movement than now. If you’d like to see beavers back in Scotland’s rivers, wildcats denning in pine forests and ospreys patrolling the skies, you’re in good company. A wilder future for Scotland is entirely possible.
Sources & further reading
- “Rewilding – A new paradigm for nature conservation in Scotland” - Taylor & Francis Online
- “Rooting for Rewilding: Quantifying Wild Boar’s Sus scrofa Rooting Rate in the Scottish Highlands” - Wiley Online Library
- “Divergent visions of wildness and naturalness in a storied landscape: Practices and discourses of rewilding in Scotland’s wild places” - Science Direct
- “The Guardian view on rewilding Scotland: an immodest proposal” - The Guardian
- “Scottish beavers spur debate on ‘rewilding’ of British landscapes” - Financial Times