To many people, today’s Scotland remains the Scotland of a picture postcard beauty of vast glens, magnificent monuments, towering mountains and long, secretive, mist-laden lochs. It is within this world that we see images of ospreys, golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, pine martens, red deer and smaller species, all living in an idyllic existence that can be seen in any tourist brochure.
But this particular Scotland is increasingly seen as something of a myth. This wild, rugged landscape is neither as wild nor as rugged as it should be. Indeed, it is one of the most man-made ‘wild’ environments on planet Earth. It is hard to see how such beautiful countryside, such green and purple hues can be seen as anything other than stunning and awe-inspiring, but the argument gaining traction is that this is actually something of a ‘wet desert'.
A quirk of ownership
The reason for this land of contrasts is that Scotland’s laws and history provide it with one of the strangest quirks of land ownership in the world. The Highland Clearances of the 18th Century, which saw vast swathes of land divested of their human inhabitants in favour of sheep farming and other agricultural practices, have led to a situation where land ownership in Scotland sees 1% of the population own over 50% of the land.
The vast majority of these exceptionally wealthy landowners have their estates based on traditional, perhaps relict, forms of sport such as grouse shooting and deerstalking. Huge tracts of Scotland are kept in an unnatural state so as to make sure that heather moors remain low for the grouse to flourish in the shooting season, which begins on the so-called ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of August, and red deer numbers in particular have been encouraged to reach almost epidemic proportions in some areas to ensure that well paying guests go into the glens to stalk venison for the pot.
It can clearly be argued that both of these pastimes have had a catastrophic impact on the real wildlife of those magnificent Scottish glens. With deer populations reaching saturation point in many areas, the historic Caledonian Forest, which is now down to perhaps 3% the size of a thousand years ago, has no chance or opportunity to regrow, because young shoots of pine and other tree species in that forest are systematically eaten by deer.
With grouse shooting, the issue is even more pronounced, with hillsides being burned to ensure regrowth of heather, rather than anything else, purely so the grouse has a favourable environment in which to thrive ready for the guns.
To the brink of extinction … and back again
Persecution of wildlife in Scotland reached such lows as to cause the virtual disappearance of so many iconic species that it is only in the last 50 years that serious attempts have been made to conserve them. Gamekeepers and egg collectors brought some raptors to the brink of extinction, most notably ospreys, the golden eagle and the peregrine falcon, and the over fishing of salmon and trout left many ‘course fishing’ rivers barren. For the Scottish wildcat, another problem permeated – that of the interbreeding with feral or domestic cats diluting the bloodline to such a degree that it has been argued the number of true specimens is now in the tens. That claim makes the Scottish wildcat one of the most at-risk cats on Earth.
Today, comprehensive conservation programmes, greater emphasis on the policing of wildlife issues and a wider recognition of the impact Man is having on this planet have all brought about a change of fortunes for most of these species.
For example, the Osprey had disappeared completely from Scotland by the start of the 20th Century. In 1954 a pair returned to Loch Garten, and today, through extensive efforts by the RSPB and other organisations, the raptor flourishes locally. Following these dedicated efforts, more than 200 breeding pairs were recorded in 2011, leading to an upsurge of this beautiful predator, which is now being seen further south with breeding pairs recorded in Wales and England’s Lake District.
On land, huge efforts have taken place over the last 50 years to protect the Scottish wildcat. Once widespread across England and Wales, as well as Scotland, the wildcat population, depending on the parameters used to describe that creature, can range from as few as 40 pure bred individuals in the wild to perhaps 2,000. Regardless of the arguments that rage over whether it can be considered genetically identical to the European wildcat and therefore not at risk of extinction, organisations such as the now defunct Scottish Wildcat Association and the newly formed Wildcat Haven are desperately trying to save what remains of Britain’s last wild feline predator. The Wildcat Haven project, set up on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in the west of Scotland, has seen the neutering of feral and hybrid cats across 250 square miles of terrain in a bid to safeguard the remaining pure wildcats.
What each of these examples shows is that efforts to conserve just one aspect of an area’s biodiversity are a common occurrence that often meets with success. Indeed there are many other on-going programmes focusing on one or other species, and there have even been reintroductions of long lost species, such as the beaver, not seen in Scotland for around 400 years.
But these success stories also raise a question of a different kind; although these species remain scarce in the UK, they are actually much more prevalent elsewhere in Europe and globally. Therefore, should so much attention be given to them when there are others within Europe that are classed as much more at risk?
A case in point would be the critically endangered Iberian lynx. Once widespread across much of the Iberian peninsula, it is now limited to particular areas in southern Spain and Portugal, and its habitat is reducing as climate change increasingly warms up the planet. The effect of the climate on the Iberian lynx is to push its favoured habitat further north, with the landscape at risk of desertification as a result of increasing temperatures in higher latitudes.
This brings forth an interesting question: should we look to the translocation of the Iberian lynx as a conservation measure, rather than placing so much emphasis on the Scottish wildcat, for example? The south of England is now seeing summers more typical of northern Spain, and the area has a thriving wild rabbit population which farmers see as vermin. They are the natural prey of the Iberian lynx and provide a ready-made food source. Why not introduce the Iberian lynx to southern England?
The typical counter-argument to translocation is that there will be knock on effects for local biodiversity, that local farmers will see their livestock put at risk from these larger predators, indeed that humans might also become targets. In saving one species, are others put at risk?
In translocating from one part of Europe and placing a ‘foreign’ species in an area where they have never before been known to exist raises many issues. But key is the question of whether there remain anywhere on Earth tracts of land that have yet to have had the destructive hand of humankind upon them. Many of what are considered indigenous species in an area such as Britain can have their introduction traced back. There are few things more evocative of England than the oak tree; whether it is a native species is hotly debated.
Rewilding – a radical concept
But there is a movement garnering increasing support among many conservationists that is providing a new approach to conservation. Rather than the relatively piecemeal method of targeting one species in one area, the returning to Nature of vast swathes of land is fast becoming seen as the best way to fully protect wild habitats, at least among those already convinced.
‘Rewilding’, a term that first appeared in print in 1990, concerns the returning of land to Nature, with the addition of keynote species at the top of the food chain. For Scotland, the logical argument becomes the change of emphasis that no longer sees the grouse or deer as the beneficiaries of land management, but that areas of woodland are planted and protected from deer until reaching such a stage that they are no longer at risk and can grow to their full, mature size. Concurrently, the reintroduction of long missing species, such as Eurasian lynx, wild boar, beaver and even wolf and bear, would bring about a rebalancing of the nation’s wildlife, returning dedicated areas to the wild.
The experience of beavers
Scotland, thus far, has seen very tentative steps in this direction. There are small scale examples of returning land to forest, with deer in particular being fenced out to allow samplings to grow. And in the west of Scotland, specifically Knapdale Forest in Argyll, a beaver reintroduction programme has been hailed as a success by its supporters.
But there have been concerns raised over an ‘unofficial’ population that has reintroduced itself on the River Tay flowing out into the North Sea. Not linked to the planned reintroduction further west, these beaver are believed to have escaped and naturally re-established habitats lost since the 1600s. Again, it is mankind’s pastimes which are seen as being at threat from this development as opposed to the benefit of the wildlife. Salmon fishing is worth millions of pounds to the Scottish economy and, with beavers damming rivers such as the Tay, and its tributaries, the perceived threat is obvious.
However, the effect on the trout and salmon populations of these rivers has been remarkable and shows no sign of providing negative aspects to the situation. The reintroduction of beaver into Scotland has met with a typical and expected argument at many levels of the political spectrum, pushed most notably on one side by Natural Heritage Scotland and those charities determined to reintroduce this animal, and farmers and landowners on the other convinced it threatens their livelihoods.
For beaver, campaigners now suggest we should read bear, lynx, wild boar and possibly even the wolf. Reintroduction of these species to the Highlands of Scotland would mark a step change in land use in that it is no longer managed by Man, but by those reintroduced species themselves.
The cascade effect from reintroducing, for example, the Eurasian lynx that is believed to have been extinct from the island of Great Britain for at least 1,500 years, would be to prey on the teeming populations of deer, bringing numbers down to a natural equilibrium. With reduced numbers of deer, the forest would no longer be devastated at sapling or shoot stage as some would survive and re-establish naturally growing forest.
To become reality
In just 20 to 30 years, areas of the so-called ‘wet desert’ could be returned to Nature and reforestation could be at a level where it is naturally maintained without the need for Man’s involvement or interference.
For such a situation to ever occur there will need to be an incredible change of attitude to land and species management. The furore over the beaver is only likely to magnify exponentially when trying to reintroduce major predators and, regardless of any efforts at education, will the local population ever accede to the possibility of bears and wolves potentially walking down their high street?
Should the concept of rewilding gain sufficient traction, small scale pilots are likely to be the starting point. Campaigners are seeking benevolent landowners who will no longer see their land as sporting estates where killing is king, but where conservation becomes the priority. Perhaps in decades to come, sufficient like-minded landlords will have come forward to make rewilding a meaningful concept in areas of the Highlands. Perhaps then the concept will be widely accepted.
Have your book written for you, edited and proofed.