Cameron McNeish’s piece for Walkhighlands, ‘Confused about rewilding – so am I?’, has raised some interesting questions and sparked off a well-informed debate about the issues.
It is understandable that when a new movement arises, people might be concerned and will seek to clarify what exactly is being proposed. And rewilding is an emerging and a growing grass-roots movement based on a realisation by many people that the way we have managed much of our land has been damaging, and that it doesn’t have to be that way for ever. A realisation that by giving prominence to nature – wild unmanaged nature – over a big area, we could regenerate our hills in ways that would benefit the wildlife and people of Scotland.
But let’s get one of Cameron’s confusions sorted out straight away. Rewilding is not about excluding people. None of the advocates of rewilding I’ve spoken to have ever suggested that. Cameron’s statement that rewilding is about ‘a richer biodiversity and a natural order of things that excludes mankind’ is spot on – apart from the last three words. They can be deleted.
As James Hunter argued so well in his book ‘On The Other Side of Sorrow’, the regeneration of the land goes hand in hand with the regeneration of the people. Current land management practices support a tiny number of jobs per hectare. Few rural dwellers are employed directly on the land; nor do they hunt or get firewood or food from the land on which they live. This can change. But only if the environment is enriched on a scale big enough to create a host of new niches for wildlife, and new opportunities for sustainable rural employment.
And change is coming. Why? Because all four of the factors that drive land use in Scotland – culture, ownership, regulation and incentives – have either already changed, are changing or will inevitably do so.
The culture of regeneration and ecological restoration is slowly permeating into the hills (hence the birth of the rewilding movement). Increasingly, questions are being asked about the environmental side effects of the ‘traditional’ cultural land uses – grouse shooting and deer stalking. A series of landowners – state, private, charity and community – are already pioneering a different approach. On Creag Meagaidh, Knoydart, Corrour, Glenfeshie and Mar Lodge, to name a few, the emphasis has shifted towards woodland regeneration and ecological restoration.
And, to answer another of Cameron’s misapprehensions, on none of these estates, have ‘hillwalkers been prevented from wandering the hills’ nor do “various re-wilding groups believe certain areas should be fenced off for wildlife conservation alone.” Quite the contrary. The broad rewilding movement, which includes organisations such as the John Muir Trust or Rewilding Britain, certainly does not advocate creating closed wildlife reserves. Indeed, in all of the estates mentioned above walkers are extremely welcome and the deer fences are coming down rather than going up as both deer numbers and the need for fences are reduced.
Land management is being transformed, driven by a combination of changing attitudes, the emergence of a new breed of landowner and parliamentary legislation such as the land reform bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament on top of previous land reforms around access. Consequently, the ‘traditional’ model of the Highland estate is becoming increasingly anachronistic.
Take for example deer management. Here state regulation is still relatively light-touch, and in contrast to most of Europe remains largely voluntary. Nonetheless, over the last twenty years there have been a series of legislative changes inexorably pushing deer managers towards ‘sustainable management’ – which means, in the absence of natural predators, reducing grazing pressures in order to allow the regeneration of natural woodland.
Slowly but surely, we are shifting towards a model of deer management whose priority is the ecological condition of the land rather than the number of stags that the landowner wants to shoot for a few months each year.
And finally, incentives – more accurately called subsidies. These have had an enormous impact on our hills. Over the years, public money has driven many of our land uses from forestry plantations to industrial-scale windfarms. With budgets shrinking both in Scotland and across Europe, there will inevitably be less money around. That means we need to start looking at land uses that are sustainable in the long term, and that, instead of simply generating profits for the wealthy few, will create secure livelihoods for many local people. Rewilding presents such an opportunity.
Of course no rewilding discussion is complete without jumping to the scary hairy beast with claws and fangs. It is well rehearsed that ecologically, top predators such as lynx and wolves could easily live in Scotland right now. Cameron rightly suggests they are ultimately part of the rewilding story. That’s because as apex or keystone species they drive natural ecosystems.
But ‘rewilders’ are equally clear that to do so without the will of the people, especially those living and working in areas where reintroductions might take place, would lead to conflict and failure. The question therefore is not can wolves live in Scotland, but might we or our children wish to consider tolerating wolves at some point in the future?
The rewilding story can start that debate by placing it in the wider context of the benefits to the health of the ecosystem, and ultimately to human beings, that could be delivered by restoring top predators. Perhaps then, we can start to discuss the wolf question in its proper ecological context and in a more rational manner.
For more information on the John Muir Trust – including how to join and support their work: http://www.johnmuirtrust.org/