It’s an early evening in mid-April and I’m walking through a spring-green birch forest in Glen Cannich, a dozen miles west of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands.
The trees are dripping with silver-grey lichen, and mosses abound; birdsong is everywhere, and the air feels strikingly pure and fresh. There are beautiful views through the trees and bracken to the river and fields in the glen below. Further round the hillside, I come to the ruins of Comar Wood dun, an Iron Age defensive dwelling, occupied for hundreds of years in the first millennium BC. People have lived in this beautiful region of the Highlands for thousands of years.
I’m here to visit Glen Affric and talk to one of Scotland’s leading rewilding charities, Trees for Life, who are based in Dundreggan. Glen Affric lies just to the west of Glen Cannich, with access via ten miles of a small single-track road from the small village of Cannich and then further on foot. Trees for Life have been rewilding here for 30 years, and at Dundreggan since 2008.
The idea of rewilding has been around for a long time, but it has gained new profile, dynamism and wider public support in recent years as more and more people become aware of the damage and destruction to our biodiversity around the world. Scotland and the rest of the UK are in the bottom 25 per cent internationally in terms of nature depletion and biodiversity loss. So, there is a huge amount to do and urgency needed. But much work is now under way to restore our degraded nature, with some like Trees for Life in the vanguard with their work having started back in 1993.
Rewilding Views and Challenges
The crucial questions are how to rewild at large scale, how to achieve widespread public support, and how to move fast enough to be successful given the scale of the challenge. Time is short in this crucial decade for both the biodiversity and climate crises. But both nature and public support need time and considerable work.
Nature can, left to itself, do much, often remarkably quickly, to regenerate on its own and re-create flourishing landscape-scale biodiverse landscapes. But in the face of our current depleted natural environment, unbalanced eco-systems, competing and varied interests across different communities, organisations, businesses, and landowners, then action – and not only leaving nature to itself – is needed.
There are a wide range of views on rewilding with different points of view. Some put the emphasis on re-introducing species like beavers and key predators, like lynx and wolves, to allow a re-balancing of eco-systems. Others emphasise leaving nature to regenerate itself, keeping land free of agriculture, people, sports and other activities. In Scotland, in particular, reducing deer numbers is vital, whether through culling, or potentially through re-introducing lynx as a key predator, and through protecting areas that are being rewilded, including those being allowed to regenerate naturally, with fencing.
Trees for Life CEO, Steve Micklewright emphasises to me, in a podcast now published by the European Movement in Scotland, that their approach to rewilding is not hands-off. And they do encourage people to visit areas that are being rewilded, and have plentiful examples of how rewilding can create jobs, help local communities and encourage younger people who may have left the area to return. I see this myself when I walk through Glen Affric and around the loch, passing through a gate with a sign saying ‘walkers are welcome’.
Anyone who visits this stunningly beautiful area of high mountains, forests of Scots pine, birch, hazel, aspen and many more species of trees, flowers and other plants, will soon see that rewilding does not mean covering the Highlands in trees from mountain top to glens and fields. There are gorgeous vistas through the trees round Loch Affric to the bare tops of high mountains beyond. Trees for Life emphasise three main areas – restoring wild forests, especially the once-great Caledonian Forest of which only fragments now remain (including in Glen Affric), and renewing peatlands and riverside habitats or riverwoods. Such varied landscape can support and sustain a wide range of wildlife from golden eagles to red squirrels to otters and many other iconic and less known species.
Bringing different groups together
Rewilding is not without opposition or critics. Not everyone wants beavers re-introduced near them. Sheep farmers or sporting estates may resist actions they think damage their business. The answer here, says Steve Micklewright, is consultation, conversation, listening, compromise. There is a discussion under way, not yet concluded, about re-introducing beavers to Glen Affric so they can help rewild and sustain the wider eco-system. Trees for Life is also working with others to have an informed conversation about the feasibility of reintroducing the lynx to Scotland. Information and reassurance can be vital as well as showing local communities or landowners how a change may be beneficial to them. There will never be 100 per cent agreement on change driven by rewilding but the consultative approach adopted by Trees for Life is driving participation and progress.
This is in rather stark contrast to the unhappy state of the argument around highly protected marine areas where the Scottish government’s consultation has led to substantial protest and opposition across affected Highlands’ communities. This, as former MSP Andy Wightman, has recently pointed out, is as much or more about wider democratic problems and over-centralisation of government, and broader challenges in local communities, as it is actually about marine protection as such. But it shows how conversations on biodiversity and ecosystems can go wrong.
Rewilding is systemic and so must go along with consultation, conversation and democratic participation and agreement. It also must inspire people: stories and culture matter as much as detailed consultation programmes.
European networks vital
Trees for Life are part of a major European network, Rewilding Europe (one thing that Brexit, fortunately, has not stopped – although it has posed major funding challenges to groups like Trees for Life). In that context, their very large-scale project, Affric Highlands, is now beginning with the goal of rewilding a half million acre landscape, over the next 30 years, running broadly from west of Loch Ness to the west coast. This can only be successful with participation of a whole range of communities, landowners, businesses and other organisations. And there is already substantial buy-in. Micklewright emphasises engaging younger people especially: what sort of landscape do they want to see in 30 years’ time.
The big question here is: can this happen fast enough, working together with all the other vital Scottish rewilding and nature conservations groups and including government bodies, to reach UN and Scottish government targets of protecting at least 30 per cent of nature across Scotland as a whole by 2030? Steve Micklewright sees this target as achievable. But he also emphasises that government will need to step in at points where charities and other groups do not have the powers to achieve as fast or large-scale set of results as is needed.
From seeds to forests
Scale is certainly an issue. When I visit Trees for Life’s base at Dundreggan, where the world’s first Rewilding Centre opened in mid-April, I see first-hand the detailed, painstaking work that goes into reviving Scotland’s wild forests. Trees for Life moved to Dundreggan thanks to a generous legacy from an individual donor. And the European Regional Development Fund gave important support to the new Dundreggan Rewilding Centre which opened for visitors in the middle of April this year. The Centre offers guided walks (or set off on your own) through parts of their 40 square kilometre estate, as well as accommodation, events, a café, and other activities inside the new Centre located at the foot of the forests that spread up the hills and mountains behind.
It’s also the location for their nursery where I am shown round by Stephen Couling, Trees for Life Property Manager, who looks after all the buildings and infrastructure at Dundreggan, and is referred to amiably by some of the team as Captain Stephen. The deceptively simple-looking nursery, taking up a relatively small corner of the estate, I soon learn is neither simple nor small. There are around 70,000 seedlings and saplings in the nursery at any one time with a whole range of growing methods. Stephen is fairly soon giving me a crash course in growing trees from seeds, cuttings, grafting, fertilisation and more.
Many of these are then planted out by Trees for Life on the Dundreggan estate and in Glen Affric; they also provide trees and seeds to other nature groups and organisations including Mar Lodge in the Cairngorms, Highlands Rewilding Estates in Bunloit and Beldorney, and both National Trust Estates and Forest and Land Scotland in Glen Affric. They have also provided seeds for the Millennium Seed Bank, from their unassuming research centre located in the nursery. They plant around 100,000 trees a year – including planting, some of the time, for other organisations. Overall, they have planted over two million trees in Glen Affric and Dundreggan.
The nursery has many seeds and bare roots trees growing outside, from the tiny beginnings of Scots pines and willows (including rare downy and woolly montane willows), to oak trees, downy, silver and dwarf birch, hazel, rowan, juniper, alder and many more – with around 30 species in the nursery. And out on the hill and mountain sides, there are over 4,000 species of plants and animals – an extraordinary number.
There are a few polytunnels where more tricky work goes on. In one, I’m shown the painstaking process of fertilising female aspen trees from male ones – the two types of tree being separate, making fertilisation in the wild much more difficult (unlike so-called monoecious trees that have both male and female flower parts on the same tree). Here, the staff collect pollen from the male trees and ‘paint’ it onto the female catkin. When later, the female tree produces a fruit containing seeds, an hourly watch is kept to ensure the fruit doesn’t split and scatter the seeds with no-one there to collect them. One year, some of the seeds blew onto some juniper plants in the same tunnel, so rather than attempt to separate them they were planted out together – nature making its own interventions.
Trees for Life also has many volunteers helping out too. In the nursery, they help with weeding, pricking out seedlings and other tasks, while up in the hills of the estate and Glen Affric, there’s a whole range of work to be done, not least planting trees but also helping with fencing or removing invasive and non-native species.
Back in the Rewilding Centre’s warm and welcoming café, I have a coffee before heading off to explore the forests and hills behind it. Many of the paths through the forests behind the Centre are wheel-chair accessible, and signs on the way round, and in the Centre – in both Gaelic and English – give helpful, brief summaries about trees, forests, heathland, bogs, montane scrub, wildlife, culture, art and more.
The more hardy can walk further up through the forests to the heathland beyond, on the so-called heather path. Birds dart across the paths and there are wonderful views, as I emerge from the trees to still partly snow-covered mountain tops beyond to the west. Here, I come across a sign acknowledging the support of the EU for some of the Dundreggan woodland. It’s bitter-sweet: great to see the impact of European support, but less so to know that’s now lost due to Brexit. I come back down to the Centre on the ‘pine path’ passing beautiful Scots pines, their red trunks and branches and vibrant green needles a huge symbol of hope.
The rewilding journey is a long and vital one. With places like Dundreggan and Glen Affric showing the way, it can – and must – be a successful one.