Featured image: Ancient Oak © Kenyon Fields
By Kenyon Fields August 16, 2019
The name “Scotland” conjures a medley of images both clichéd (bagpipes, kilts, Braveheart) and more enchanting (lochs, highlands, and mist). But an association not typically made with “Scotland” is “wild” – at least, not as defined by the typical North American ecologist or conservation activist. Over the past two summers my wife and I have mucked about in our Wellies from the outermost reaches of the Outer Hebrides to the most remote of the Northwest Highlands, playing connect-the-dots between remnant stands of ancient forest and climbing mossy mountains. And while true that Scots have denuded nearly every hectare of native forest and extinguished nearly every native creature larger than your rubber boot, the simple fact remains that much of Scotland still simply feels wild. It’s for good reason that rewilding is not a foreign term there. In fact, in Scotland it could be said that nature conservation is synonymous with rewilding.
I am by no means an expert on Scotland, but I offer a few impressions on rewilding Scotland. First, a condensed history. After the last ice age, beginning 9,000 years ago and peaking around 6,000 years ago, oak and Caledonian pinewoods (Scots pine) became established through most of Scotland, and all but the most wind-shorn islands had significant temperate rainforest cover akin to Alaska’s Tongass. But soon after reaching its geographic peak, forest cover thinned due to a changing climate, and by 4,000 years ago the metal tools of the Bronze Age took their toll. Smelting ore required continuous supplies of charcoal, and that ore produced ever more effective tools for felling trees, and on the cycle went. Continuing changes in climate increased the acreage of moorland (peat bogs), combined with extensive growth in agriculture and population. By the Viking era, many of today’s most remote outer coastal sites were heavily logged for the shipbuilding Norse populating the shore. By the Middle Ages the great majority of the island of Britain’s original forests were gone, and the pattern of small copses of woods surrounded by agricultural land that you see today was established. By the late 17th century, gone too were predators such and wolf, lynx, and bear, and soon after moose (“elk” in their terms), boar, beaver and more.
Today’s Scotland has but a scattering of stars – pockets of remaining historical jewels that are not even fairly called “forests,” but rather, copses or groves, often the size of city parks. Yet to bounce one’s way on the carpet of drenched mosses amidst the fog-shrouded Fanghorn-inspired old-growth remnant Caledonian pinewood is one of the most enchanting experiences a forest ecologist can savor in life. A close second is a walk amongst the chest-high bracken fern that form dense understories beneath whimsically corkscrewing limbs of enormous ancient sessile oak, clad in epiphytic liverworts, lichens and mosses. Elsewhere, pedunculate oak, wych elm, rowan, ash, hazel, holly and alder may each be featured in isolated vivacious green corners left abandoned by the ages.
“Ancient” woodlands in Scotland are typically those persisting since 1750, though examples of much older individual trees or pockets of coppiced hazel (sometimes thousands of years old) certainly exist. These woodlands generally share in common a remote and difficult location, typically of poor soils. The growth of human population and of forest clearings in Scotland was not a free-for-all of entirely unplanned exploitation – plenty of evidence suggests planned forest management as far back as the Bronze Age. But it certainly did not favor old wizened forests. And unfortunately, “modern” forest management in Scotland, beginning in the early 19th century, recognized the problems of mass deforestation and set out to solve it with the planting on non-native conifers.
Today, the traveler is often surprised by the high volume of tree cover in Scotland, but even the most untrained eye will recognize these are unnatural plantations of largely American Sitka spruce and Norwegian spruce. A complex system (or “scheme” as they say) for afforestation in recent decades has encouraged – often with subsidies – farmers to plant these conifers for tax benefits, carbon credits, “shelter belts” for wildlife, and ultimately profit for felling the plantations. More controversially, grants are available for “restocking” after felling plantations, even though owners are legally required to restock. Regardless, in nearly every case I witnessed, these plantations are ecologically valueless “doghair” stands of tightly packed non-native trees, typically fenced to prevent deer browsing, which serves to concentrate their nibbling on native broadleaf trees elsewhere.
But now it’s time for a little hope. Opening the summer issue of Rural Matters, a free Scottish publication, after an article or two about the benefits of tree plantations and forestry grants, there is an article entitled “Back to the Wild,” about the benefits of rewilding. It spoke specifically of efforts being made by large sporting estates (which vaguely play the role of a Western ranch in the USA) to remove non-native conifers, reintroduce native species, more closely manage where sheep may roam, and so forth. My point here is that this is a publication one might find lying about anywhere, from a laundromat to a grocery store, and it is not alone is heralding the benefits of a rewilding approach.
Trees For Life and other established Scottish NGOs have been working for years to rewild the Highlands, with extensive planting of native trees and reintroductions of creatures. But the concept has clearly broadened out to a wider audience, and it is not rare to stumble across a new effort by perhaps a local organization or school to raise awareness of the rewilding challenge facing this beautiful country. Copses of old oak or Caledonian pine, some smaller than your local drugstore, will be proudly announced by a road sign and interpretive signage along a short trail. It’s not uncommon to see huge piles of dead, hand-removed rhododendron – a wildly successful non-native shrub that overtakes everything else in these northern Atlantic woodlands. Debates on rewilding are printed in the country’s most prominent newspapers. One of the more rancorous debates concerns billionaire philanthropist Paul Lister’s publicly stated desire to reintroduce wolves onto his private guest-lodging estate, which he has been using as a grand rewilding experiment (where you can attend conservation seminars after your yoga or survival lessons).
While we in North America are concerned with saving what’s left, it’s not terribly exaggerated to say that the Scots have a nearly blank canvas from which to begin to create anew. Fortunately, although one cannot escape the touch of humanity anywhere in Scotland, there remains plenty of room to work with, and wide-open spaces are easily found; not depopulated Wilderness, but quiet and largely empty. Once beyond the reach of the Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen metro areas, where the bulk of Scots live, population density is often very low. True, you can climb over two mountain ridges to reach a blank spot on the map and you’ll surely descend to find a cottage along the shore replete with baying sheep all about – but it ain’t no Walmart.
Rewilding might not yet be a household word in Scotland, but it’s catching on. Little oaks are growing behind protective fences, and the odd wildcat is seen roaming the hills. After their first reintroduction trials in 2009, Scottish beavers received protective status the winter of 2019, and now even have their own website. Not all hope is lost in the world!
Kenyon Fields, former western strategic director of Wildlands Network, now co-manages Mountain Island Ranch with his wife Mary Conover. Kenyon and Mary both serve on the board of directors of Western Landowners Alliance, which they co-founded (and where they met!)
Check out Kenyon’s photography here.