Drennan Watson

We are a problem you know – us - Homo sapiens. Studies show that at least 125,000 years ago we were having a massive impact on ecosystems, wiping out large animals like the mammoth. Scientists suspect the impact was even earlier and in a recent study of fossils it has been proposed the impacts possibly started as far back as 5 million years ago! We are a clever species certainly but uniquely destructive, often to our own gross disadvantage. Scotland is rated by some as one of the world’s most “dewilded“countries, although measuring and proving that would be rather complicated. James Ritchie, in his now rather rare, wonderful book Animal Life in Scotland, published in 1920, documented much of the story of dewilding in Scotland. Ancient Gaelic poetry records what was here as in The Aged Bard’s Wish:-

I see the ridge of hinds, the steep of the sloping glen

The wood of cuckoos at its foot

The blue height of a thousand pines

Of wolves and roes and elks

The earliest extinctions began in the 1st century AD. The two chief causes of extinction were of course direct killing of species or the destruction of their habitat without regard to long term conservation of resources.

The fur trade was one driver. Scotland had a European reputation for its fur exports including fox, marten, otter, badger deer and beaver but only the beaver was driven to extinction. Overexploitation of the freshwater mussel ended that trade. Direct pursuit of a single species as a hazard was relatively unusual but the wolf, as a hazard to stock and, notice, to humans was found to be a menace. Ritchie records how, as late as 1743, a wolf was slain by a hunter called McQueen after it had killed two children in Findhorn Hills. Slayers of wolves were heroes. It was part of the reason for the creation of “Spittals”, shelters for travelers in the forests, as in the Spittal of Glenshee. Over centuries, the wolf’s destruction was pursued through various schemes rewarding wolf killers. Finally, in combination with wide-scale deforestation, wolves succumbed. In various countries in Europe, wolf predation of stock was prevented by large, strong dog breeds that defended the flocks. These dogs are trained to attack anything fast moving hear the flocks – and they did. Decline of wolf populations made them redundant but a new project reported in the New Scientist is reintroducing them as it would permit wolf populations to be tolerated. This should be interesting.

Typical moorland in Glen Moy - once clothed with trees? © C Lacy

That deforestation finally eliminated the wolf, but it affected many other species. Scotland was basically a forested landscape. The Romans named it Caledonia, meaning 'wooded heights'. Hence, most of the indigenous species were forest adapted and loss of that habitat inevitably impacted many such.

Deforestation is thought to be the main reason for the extinction of the Elk for example. A basic part of this was due simply to clearance for the expansion of agriculture. It is significant for example this historical contraction of forest and woodland took place in the reasonably fertile Donside more than in the much less fertile Deeside. “Ae mile o Donside’s worth twa mile o Dee, ‘cepting for salmon, stane and tree” as the old saw goes. Grazing by cattle and sheep of seedling trees and shrubs was an important impact. Early travellers, however, comment not so much on the numbers of sheep or cattle but on the numbers of domestic goats, a nonindigenous species, well adapted to yielding milk and meat on poor land. The last farmer in Glen Callater, for example, sustained a herd of white goats on and around Lochnagar apparently because he tended to lose sheep that became marooned or stumbled. There are still areas of the Highlands with populations of feral goats.

Overexploitation of timber was a chief cause of loss with timber later having to be imported. Scotland never developed those systems of management of grazing pressures and sustainable management of forests that were in place in the Swiss Alps for example as early as the 13th century.

Drainage for agriculture, and the subsequent loss of wet habitats is an often underestimated cause of habitat loss in Scotland. Most of the Scottish lowland lochs have long been drained. But the impact of what must amount to some hundreds of miles of subsurface drains and how they mould the landscape in lowland areas is not widely realised.

But times are changing! REWILDING HAS COME! Rising protection of wildlife has moved through stages. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 was basically a rescue operation to protect remaining fragments of distinctive habitats. Then came the move, aided by legislation such as the EU directives requiring protected areas to be upgraded to an ecologically “healthy” standard. But now the increasing trend is to restore wildlife and ecosystems more widely and that is where rewilding comes in. Given that, for example, upper Glen Avon, Abernethy, Mar Lodge Estate, Glen Feshie are now in ownership of NGOs or private landowners committed to it, a sizeable proportion of the Cairngorms is now in the process of being rewilded. The legally very liberal situation on land ownership and acquisition in Scotland that permitted the development of much of the sporting estate (and is still doing so) has also allowed this situation to develop.

The scale of what is happening more widely is significant. Affric Highlands is an example. It is, it claims, “A 30-year vision driven by natural processes will transform the Affric Highlands into a wild refuge for many iconic species, enriching the local economy with nature-based initiatives that form more resilient ecosystems and communities. It is a partnership that will demonstrate the interdependence of nature, people and business.” That’s a lot of land. Nearer home, Cairngorms Connect, a partnership of neighbouring land managers, states it is “committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park.” covering over 600 square kilometres.

On the ground, what does rewilding mean? At its simplest, it means reduce deer numbers, stand well back and let the forest regenerate itself. But rewilding needs to take place throughout the whole altitudinal range. Andrew Painting, in his excellent book on ecological restoration on Mar Lodge Estate, demonstrated the knowledge, hard work and diverse skills needed to restore surviving fragments of plant species with narrowed genetic diversity, or endangered bird populations.

And there is the lively question of what extinct species should you restore? Reintroducing ospreys is not really controversial but proponents of reintroducing the wolf, with its notorious history in Scotland are onto a larger debate. Much is made of the returning pine marten but not the neglected polecat? Why not the reindeer already thriving around Cairn Gorm? Or the elk? As the ancient Gaelic poem on the Death of Diarmid says

Glenshee –that glen by my side

Where of is heard the voice of deer and elk

Complications can arise with introduced species. Take that fertile, well drained strip of land along the Firth of Tay between Perth and Dundee covered in crops, the Carse of Gowrie. But a Carse is Scots for an Alder dominated bog, which it was until monks and others dug deep drainage channels. Great think these busy little ecological engineers the beavers who arrive as their populations expand and start to dam them. Oh dear!

Are there significant disadvantages to rewilding? Take reforestation. There is room in the Highlands for more initiatives like Glen Feshie but consider. It is that bareness of the Scottish hills that is part of the attraction for hillwalking. In Scotland, relatively small climbs reveal views remarkable for their space and scale to far horizons and the actual bareness of that land actually contributes much to a sense of wildness. Hillwalking and mountaineering as assessed even 20 years ago, support 6,000 full time jobs in the Highlands and rambling adds to that. The tourist industry is by far the most important industry, and it is based largely on enjoyment of landscapes as viewed by the car borne tourist. In short it is based on the view from the road and forest would obscure that. Already over parts of the west highlands, regeneration by birch along roadsides and beyond has obscured once classic views from the road. A good example in the Cairngorms is the stretch of the A9, the most important tourist route, up the Spey and past Aviemore gave a classic panoramic view south over the Cairngorms. It is now largely obscured by roadside regeneration of pine and birch.

There may be something here to think about on rewilding.

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