Early days of a better nature

David LinternDavid Lintern reports on the ‘Rewilding and Repeopling‘ event held by the Cairngorms National Park last month.

In May, Cairngorms National Park held an interesting talk at Boat of Garten as part of their Big Weekend (which aims to encourage active interest and participation in wildlife and nature). Before the discussion was opened out to the audience, there were presentations from Managing Director for Rewilding Europe; Frans Schepers, Rob McMorran from the Wildland Research Institute, the new Policy Director of Community Land Scotland; Calum Macleod, and Stuart Brooks; Head of Natural Heritage Policy at National Trust for Scotland.

Grant Moir, CEO of Cairngorm National Park, welcoming us aboard

What’s the wider context?

All of the speakers were clear that ‘land abandonment’ is a real and growing issue for both Europe and Scotland. In Scotland, the rural exodus has been reversed in areas like Inverness and Lochaber, concentrating the population in these centres, but overall there’s a consistent move away from agricultural and grazing land use, a decline in crofting and a move towards urbanisation. If the current trajectory continues, there’s a ‘demographic time-bomb’ waiting in the Highlands and Islands, with the number of dependents increased and people of working age down.

The speakers differed on how to deal with this. For Calum Macleod, the initial focus was on questioning some of the assumptions around ‘wildness’ and ‘wild land’, arguing that these things are social constructs and that people have been erased from the landscape. And indeed, all of the speakers acknowledged that in a Scottish context, the language around the issue has been divisive in the past and left some communities feeling left outside. Community Land Scotland has called for a new map of previously inhabited areas, powers to designate and purchase land for settlement and a duty on ministers to consider repopulation of rural areas.

Calum Macleod of Community Land Scotland

Stuart Brooks put the case that if our landscapes are a cultural construct, then so is any form of land management, be it intensive hunting, forestry, conservation or resettlement. “It’s about choices.” He also gave pause for thought, framing the local in a global context: While rural depopulation is an issue here, human population growth as a whole has created enormous pressures on wildlife and nature. He pointed out that by 2020, we’ll have failed to meet nearly all our agreed biodiversity targets… and that we may see these wider issues having an influence on government policy, closer to home, in the future.

Frans Schepers was keen to focus on the opportunities for both nature and people that rural depopulation might entail, not just the challenges; “Landscape and land use will always change, it always has. People want to fix things in the past. We could create big open-air museums without people, paid for by subsidies, but it’s not sustainable.” Using examples of rewilding projects from Portugal (with the highest rate of land abandonment in Europe), Croatia and Lapland, he aimed to show how rewilding was a flexible concept that could also benefit remaining and returning humans – not just about reintroducing big predators.

Just what is rewilding?

Schepers and Brooks agreed that rewilding had got off to a bumpy start in the UK, perhaps not helped by a media keen to dumb the idea down and equate it to WOLVES NOW! (capitals intended). It might be more helpfully called ‘land restoration’ said Schepers, but the language matters less than the principles involved. For Rewilding Europe, it was about letting nature take its own course… perhaps offering some human help at the start, but otherwise allowing the time and space for natural systems to expand and regenerate. But crucially, he reassured; “It’s not about everything being a 9 or a 10 on a scale of 10 – there are many shades of wildness. It’s just about moving things up a level where you can, and doing what’s appropriate for the place.” For Brooks, answering some valid audience concerns about the future of farming; “Rewilding will never be the only land use in the countryside. We need to prioritise farming where it can give us maximum benefit, and prioritise rewilding where it can do the same.”

L-R: Stuart Brooks of NTS, Rob McMorran of Wildland Research Institute and Frans Schepers of Rewilding Europe

Rob McMorran bought a scientific perspective to bear and offered a concise definition of rewilding focused on three things: Cores, Corridors and Keystone Species. The restoration of key areas of land, the reintroduction of keystone species, for example Beavers and Boars, and the establishment of connections between the reserve areas, because wildlife and nature can only function properly on a landscape scale.

It was notable (and noted by the panel) that talk of toothy carnivores was mostly avoided, and felt to be a diversion at this point in time. Why?

Local challenges and opportunities

It’s early days, and the Scottish context is very specific. We have a highly concentrated land ownership – with less than 1000 people owning 60% of all land in Scotland – over a third of native woodlands in poor condition, and a deer population that exceeds what the land can support. That will make for uncomfortable reading for many, and will no doubt be denied by some… but the evidence is in.

While McMorran and Macleod linked our feudal system of ownership with land management that creates barriers to nature (regeneration) and people (community development), Brooks and Schepers seemed less convinced about a direct antipathy, arguing that there are some good examples of landscape restoration on estates – be they privately run, or by NGO’s and charities. Mar Lodge was used to good effect as an example of how reducing deer numbers could improve woodlands, thereby benefitting other plants and animals, although Brooks admitted this was controversial at the time.

For McMorran, a significant challenge to ‘First Phase Rewilding’ was deer overgrazing. He acknowledged that some Deer Management Groups (DMG’s) had made progress, but there was still a long way to travel. Another challenge was driven grouse moor management and raptor persecution. He also pointed out that unsanctioned reintroductions (Beaver in the Tay) have raised tensions still further. This is the backdrop to rewilding in Scotland, and it’s a hostile environment.

Rob McMorran helps define Rewilding

As a result, conflict management will be key to help the countryside transition. McMorran discussed both positive and negative models, and pointed out that the Scottish Government had just issued new guidelines for community engagement and developing partnerships. They are worth referring to and using for those involved in partnerships, he said. Stuart Brooks agreed: “There are silos on all sides of the debate, but conflict can only be resolved by talking. It’s important to define the parameters of your relationships, so you can refer to them later. People in some of these organisations move on – but those in the communities less so. Having a shared reference point is crucial.”

The talking cure is one solution, but McMorran offered other ways out of our ideological terrain trap. Developing a national strategy, including the identification of a National Ecological Network, rather than just isolated pockets. Mainstreaming a science based (rather than media or opinion led!) concept of land management. Acknowledging that small scale projects are valid too, and identifying where rewilding can most benefit community development – all these things would help shift rewilding in Scotland from the theoretical to the practical.

Do we even want to rewild Scotland?

Arguably, this is where the current media led debate has been focused so far – in the theoretical. Schepers and Brooks advocated for what’s been called ‘ecosystem services’ to make the case for rewilding: Land in better condition can provide better flood and fire control, improved pollination, a new lease of life for farming and higher quality recreation. Schepers mentioned studies that predict significant social and economic benefits for a rewilded Scotland, and Macleod pointed to the emergence of creative and IT facilitated industries in rural areas.

These arguments will be familiar to many readers, but for McMorran, as well as some of the audience, it’s unrealistic to expect green tourism and internet based businesses to be the whole Scottish rural story: “I hesitate to see a rural community that becomes an educational and cultural elite,” said one member of the audience, “…it wouldn’t reflect the demographic of the people that actually live and work here.”

Audience Q&A

On the other hand, there are further tangible human benefits – ‘multiplier effects’ – from green tourism. Visitors coming to enjoy ‘wild’ places need transport, accommodation, restaurants, and building contractors – which supports a returning population beyond the Latte quaffing classes. Mar Lodge again provided an example. As well as full time staff numbering between 30 and 40, there is now an on-site wedding business, boosting local accommodation, restaurant and taxi services.

There are other inhibitors to change, now well-rehearsed in the media. McMorran pointed out that the history of the clearances, plus the fact that land designated as ‘wild’ on the Wild Land Map can be in poor ecological condition, had led to polarised narratives in recent years. Brooks agreed it was a shame that ‘wild land’ had become “stuck in planning as a constraint, rather than being about how multiple benefits can accrue from land restoration”.

Frans Schepers addresses the Scottish opportunity

As a way through the word salad we find ourselves in, Schepers made a convincing case for ‘early adopters’: “You are making it too complicated! Of course you shouldn’t reintroduce wolves here straight away, there is a different history. Just ignore the semantics – call it ‘landscape restoration’ – it doesn’t matter, as long as the principles are there. Walk the talk, develop pilots, keep things practical. Don’t frame it too much, let nature tell you how to move forward. For us, we are discovering rewilding in a European context – not a North American context. It’s very possible to do the same here, to make your own story. There’s so much you can do, even on a small scale, that will make things just that little bit better”

What can we do better?

Most of those I spoke to after the event felt buoyed by Schepers’ positive outlook. Leading by example is often the best teacher – it doesn’t preach, it just is. It also offers a way out of the media arms race. Here in the UK we expend so much time and energy arguing over terminology when we could be highlighting good practice – tangible alternatives to knackered soils and population timebombs.

But as Macleod pointed out, there is still a participation gap in community involvement over land use, and that frustration was evident in some of the audience contributions. There is a lingering sense that conservation can only be handled by professionals and that communities are sidelined. I don’t know if it’s realistic to expect hard pressed and underfunded conservationists to work even harder, but I do think we all might need to work a little smarter.

Audience members I spoke to felt we could use wider representation on these panels, for example. The gender (not to mention class and race) bias up front may be reflective of wider inequalities, but it’s a little embarrassing for a sector that is all about fostering (bio)diversity. Others said they wanted to hear more detail on the actual restoration projects themselves, and perhaps further events showcasing and providing networking opportunities for those working on a smaller scale, demonstrating how individuals and small groups can make a difference.

Audience Q&A

Still on the repeopling side of the equation¸it was interesting to hear from Macleod on the Ulva buyout, but there was nothing about the current mega-turbine proposals for Harris (where French corporation EDF are going against crofter plans for local energy provision) and nothing about a community Equal Right of Appeal, something which would improve land justice no end but which the new planning bill is likely to sidestep. Isn’t this important for Community landowners too?

On the rewilding front, the consensus seems to be first things first: deer numbers must come down for woodland to improve. This ‘first phase’ of rewilding will have its own multiplier effects – other species will return, and so too will people. But not unless the deer population is brought under control.

As a reminder, no-one on the panel was talking about reintroducing wolves next week to do this. And it would mean more work for keepers and foresters, not less…

The ongoing deer welfare issue; a long winter, overpopulation and no shelter = starvation

Second, a coordinated network of reserves and corridors joining them, on the kind of landscape scale wildlife needs to thrive and survive. Early examples in Scotland worth celebrating might be Cairngorms Connect, the Great Trossachs Forest NNR the Heart of Scotland Forest Partnership and Borders Forest Trust properties, some of which are multi-agency partnership projects and most of which will involve volunteers and communities.

Lastly, we need platforms and strategies for conflict resolution – listening more and assuming less – including to those who are highly resistant to change. This event led by Cairngorm National Park was a big step in the right direction – partly because it highlighted there is still public confusion around the issue – and partly because the packed house showed just how passionate people are about the future of our rural places.

On a personal note, I’ll leave you with a photo, taken the day before I attended this event. It’s of a place I chanced upon under Braeriach, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) third highest mountain. Here was a tiny lochan and a small area of raised ground, marked by a few piles of stones. It commanded a position overlooking the lower Lairig Ghru, an ancient pass through the Cairngorms and had obviously been a resting place for hunters, gatherers and drovers.

This place bore the mark of our forebears, and yet it was miles from a road and in the middle of ‘wild’ country. For me, there’s no contradiction here; this is part of what Scotland feels like, what it is. And I say ‘obviously’ because these places have a frequency to them – they vibrate. If you listen you will hear, or rather feel, this resonance quite clearly. I don’t mean this in some airy fairy, spiritual way – it’s a real, tangible thing that some places have. If you are out often enough for long enough, I’ll wager you know what I mean.

I think we need to approach the subject of rewilding and repeopling with the same sensitivity, the same listening skills, the same empathy. And we need to act and demonstrate by good practice, to help those not convinced by the semantics and those with vested interests see that change is not as frightening as it seems. The public relations arms race has alienated and confused the public. It’s time for phase one to begin in earnest.

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