The ecological condition of Scotland today is in many ways a microcosm of much of our planet where human civilisations have had an impact for long periods of time. The first people to arrive here (after the last Ice Age ended) would have encountered a wild, natural and largely-forested landscape that was diverse, rich in wildlife and self-sustaining. Over the generations and millennia since then increasing numbers of people have exploited the natural wealth and abundance they found, reducing it slowly but inexorably and replacing natural processes with management for human objectives. As a result, we have inherited a country today that is substantially depleted, with its native forests reduced to a tiny percentage of their original extent, most of the large terrestrial mammals nationally extinct and large tracts of land reduced to overgrazed and greatly-simplified ecosystems with a small fraction of their former biomass and species diversity.
However, unlike many parts of the world, where urbanisation and intensive agriculture preclude the possibility of restoring more natural ecosystems, Scotland (and particularly the Highlands) contains large tracts of land with little or no current human use that conflicts with habitat recovery. This observation, together with the then-continuing decline of ancient pinewoods in sites such as Glen Affric, led directly to the founding of Trees for Life in 1986. The charity was established as a pioneering and visionary project, with the goal of restoring the Caledonian Forest to a region of about 1,000 square miles to the west of Loch Ness and Inverness – an area that contains some of the best remnants of the original pinewoods, very little human infrastructure (roads etc) and with only small settlements around its periphery. It provides possibly the best opportunity in the UK for restoring a landscape to a more natural, wild condition on a scale that is sufficient to support its full complement of wildlife species.
More recently, the term for this work, ‘ecological restoration’, has been largely replaced by the more evocative word ‘rewilding’. Because of public and media interest, rewilding is often associated with the reintroduction of large mammals such as the wolf and lynx, but that is only one aspect of what is meant by the term.
So what is rewilding? On one level it represents a profound paradigm shift, a massive change of direction away from the underlying trend of the past few thousand years of ever increasing human control over the rest of nature – everything from the domestication of animals to the damming of rivers and the replacement of natural ecosystems with intensively-managed crops of plants and trees. Rewilding is all about relinquishing human control and allowing nature to express itself freely again, according to its own processes of evolutionary development and dynamic change. It is about stepping back from the current imperative of seeking to manage the entire planet, and allowing some areas at least to become self-willed land again. Implicit within the ethos of rewilding is the need to manage ourselves much better, to reduce our impact on the rest of the world, so that areas that are successfully rewilded are not then subjected to uncontrolled exploitation.
On a practical level, there are three main elements of rewilding, all of which are pivotal to its success. These are: the re-establishment of healthy vegetation communities, as they provide the habitat for all other life; the re-instatement of key ecological processes that are currently not functioning, including nutrient cycling, natural disturbance and predator-prey dynamics; and the reintroduction of extirpated species, from apex predators such as the lynx to less-charismatic but nonetheless important species such as wood ants, which are currently missing from many of the smaller pinewood remnants. All of these are necessary in combination together, to return the Highlands to a healthy ecological condition, which is self-sustaining and functional indefinitely into the future, without the need for human ‘management’.
On a practical level rewilding consists of a set of principles and actions that can assist and accelerate the natural process of recovery of an ecosystem after large-scale disturbance. Like our own human bodies, healthy natural ecosystems have an inherent ability to heal their own wounds. Actions should be targeted to remove or mitigate the major factors that are obstructing this process. In Scotland that is primarily the unsustainable numbers of deer and sheep, which overgraze the land, preventing ecological succession and holding the vegetation in check.
Rewilding is based on the premise that ‘Nature knows best’, and that natural processes should prevail. It recognises that human intervention is sometimes necessary to kick-start the recovery of an ecosystem, but such work should aim to replicate natural processes as much as possible, and be kept to the minimum that is required to achieve this. Thus, at Trees for Life our initial focus was on assisting the natural regeneration of overgrazed Scots pine seedlings and other trees on the periphery of Caledonian Forest remnants by using fences to exclude deer. However, we soon expanded into planting native trees as well, with this being concentrated in areas where the lack of a seed source (ie existing trees) means that woodland regeneration is unlikely to occur by itself in the near future. Tree planting is done inside fenced exclosures, mimicking the natural spread of trees in terms of their species composition, matching them to the appropriate soil conditions and with irregular, varied spacing. The goal is to establish new areas of native woodland that in future will be indistinguishable from patches of forest that have regenerated by themselves.
After the initial focus on Scots pine, our work soon diversified to include the return of all the native trees and varied woodland types, such as riparian forest and montane scrub, as those provide the ecological connectivity along and across watersheds respectively. It has also expanded to focus on particular species that are unable to recover by themselves due to a lack of seed production, such as aspen, montane willows and twinflower. Similarly, the red squirrel is unable to disperse across large tracts of treeless ground, so another project involves translocating squirrels from areas where they are abundant to isolated patches of suitable woodland in the northwest Highlands, where they cannot return by themselves.
Most species are able to recover spontaneously however. Young trees and plants that grow when grazing is reduced provide the habitat and food for many organisms, particularly invertebrates. Those attract predators such as spiders and birds, with the latter also transporting the seeds of trees and plants in their guts, which then germinate in their droppings. This represents a literal reweaving of the web of life, as ecological relationships become re-established and functional again, and is best illustrated by the range expansion and increase in numbers of black grouse in areas where we’ve established young native forests with Scots pine and broadleaved trees – the habitat that grouse thrive in – during the past 25 years.
Trees for Life has always advocated the return of the forest’s missing species – those that have been lost through past human exploitation. Apex predators such as the lynx and the wolf have a critical role to play in maintaining the balance within the ecosystem, and we view their return as essential to the successful re-establishment of healthy, self-sustaining natural forests on a significant scale. Since the early 1990s we’ve been preparing for the reintroduction of the European beaver, a keystone species in riparian and freshwater ecosystems whose presence benefits many other organisms. By planting aspens and willows – important winter food for beavers – along the banks of watercourses and lochs we’re restoring the habitat for them to thrive again in the Highlands.
After the initial human input of planting trees, erecting protective fences and translocation or reintroduction of missing species, the intention is to let nature do most of the work. Over time, with many more young trees producing greater numbers of seeds, fewer large mammals to eat the seedlings (through reducing the numbers of deer and sheep) and the return of apex predators, the balance on the land will shift away from its present skewed emphasis on herbivores towards a more natural situation in which trees and other vegetation are able to grow successfully. Then, a tipping point will be reached where the process of recovery takes off under its own momentum, and no further intervention will be required. The vision of Trees for Life stretches for 250 years, as that is how long it will take for there to be mature Caledonian Forest in areas that are currently bereft of trees, but our expectation is that we will only be actively carrying out rewilding actions for perhaps the first 20% of that period. After that, the forest should be able to continue the recovery process itself, without the need for ongoing human encouragement.
Another crucial aspect of rewilding is that it entails re-connecting people with the land, as the practical work involved necessitates a deep knowledge of, and familiarity with, the place that is being restored. By learning about the ecology of the forest and its species, anyone who participates in rewilding begins to experience an important part of the human birthright that most people alive today have lost – an intimate and profound sense of connectedness with all life.
Most of the practical work of Trees for Life has been carried out by volunteers, some of whom have had life changing experiences as a result. Many have experienced qualities such as increased empowerment, greater self-confidence and the deep personal fulfilment of knowing they are making a positive difference for both the land and the people in the Highlands. It is no coincidence that in the last 30 years, during which organisations such as Trees for Life have become established and successful, there has also been a drive for greater political self-determination in Scotland. Caring for the land, and passing on to our descendants a country that is ecologically healthier and more abundant, is by necessity interwoven with, and dependent upon, regaining control over more of our own decision making as a nation.
Although the work of Trees for Life is focussed in the Highlands and on the recovery of the Caledonian Forest, the principles of rewilding by which we work are applicable to ecosystems everywhere. Our project has acted as the direct inspiration for similar rewilding initiatives in the Scottish Borders and on Dartmoor, and presentations about our work have been given in over 25 countries around the world. Indeed the need for rewilding has now become urgent across the planet, as forests and other natural ecosystems, on land and in the oceans, are increasingly suffering the same fate as the Caledonian Forest – overexploitation, fragmentation, and reduction to a fraction of their former range and species diversity. To create a viable future for both humanity and all other life, a major global long-term initiative is required to restore ecosystems to a state of health and balance. Scotland is well-placed to be a pioneer and world leader in this, as we have the opportunity to rewild significant areas of our land, and organisations such as Trees for Life have been developing the skills, knowledge base and expertise needed for it during the past few decades. Now, by drawing our initiatives together with a vision for Rewilding Scotland we can both scale up the effects of our work here, and play a key role in helping to stimulate and support similar projects elsewhere in the world.
At its most fundamental, rewilding can be seen as a labour of love that involves a lot of hard work in often difficult conditions with little immediate reward. However, it represents a profound change in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, as rewilding is all about giving back to nature – something that few cultures have attempted to do in recent times. Rewilding is also a work of hope, as it is focused on creating a positive future, as a gift for the generations (of both people and wildlife alike) that will follow. It’s the action that will enable us to pass on healthier and more abundant natural landscapes and ecosystems than we inherited, and which will ensure that biological evolution can continue in Scotland. Crucially, rewilding offers an opportunity for everyone who takes part in it to gain a strong sense of empowerment and participation in making Scotland, and the world, a better place.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(I wrote this in 2017 as an introductory chapter for the book, ‘Scotland: A Rewilding Journey’, but it wasn’t used in the actual book when it was printed).
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