The Story of ‘Rewilding’ – Could Scotland be a Beacon of Hope for the World’s Wildlife?

Human beings have been fascinated by the animal kingdom for thousands of years. Early evidence of human-animal working relationships can be found as far back as 15,000 years ago when we employed cats to kill disease spreading rodents, and larger mammals to drag farming equipment. Fast forward to the modern day, and there are thought to be around 1.2 million species of animals which humans have identified and described.

Modern scientists have the technology to monitor population sizes of mammals, amphibians, birds and reptiles. Alarmingly, general animal population sizes decreased by around 68% between 1970 and 2016 according to the WWF. These population sizes are an important indicator of planetary health. In other words, these population drops must be taken seriously and humans must take action to move the needle in the opposite direction.

But how? Well simply put, nature knows best when it comes to ‘rewilding’. Leave nature to do it’s thing, and the short and long term results are astounding.

What is Rewilding?

There is no universally agreed upon definition of rewilding however in a nutshell, rewilding refers to the general purpose of restoring diversity to an ecosystem. It is a series of small projects which make up a larger project, with the overall objective of allowing an area of nature to rebuild itself and for plant and animal species to flourish as they once did.

Rewilding Scotland

Rewilding differs from other conservations attempts which generally try to save one species, or plant a certain number of trees in an area. However rewilding refers to the holistic approach of allowing nature to rebuild itself as an entirety.

During the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, there were dozens of examples of how quickly animal and plant species began to regain a toehold when humans took a break from pollution and other harmful activities which under normal circumstances, can put the brakes on environmental development.

Scotland – The World’s First Rewilding Nation

Yes, you read that right. There are calls for the Scottish Government to officially make Scotland an active rewilding nation. If they do, it will be the first country in the world to do so.

Scotland has a global reputation for amazing outdoor scenery – this can range from dramatic landscapes, to intimate and hidden away beauty spots. This being said, Scotland is actually one of Europe’s least wooded countries at 19% compared to a near 40% average throughout the rest of Europe. Surprising as this is, it means Scotland is a perfect candidate to restore brownfield land, reintroduce native species, and actively connect it’s residents to the outdoors.

Rewilding Scotland

The much touted COP26 is coming to Glasgow in November, an event which is critical in holding countries accountable for climate change and tipping the scales back into nature’s favour. With the event being in Scotland, many supporters of rewilding are pushing the Scottish Government to commit Scotland to the cause, coinciding with COP26. Optimism is growing as a result of 30 MSPs across the SNP, Greens, Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems declaring their support for the motion.

In terms of what this would mean practically for Scotland:

  • 30% of Scotland’s land and sea would be committed to rewilding by 2030
  • The reintroduction of keystone species including beavers, lynx and potentially even wolves
  • The creation of a coastal zone where trawling and dredging are prohibited
  • The introduction of a plan to restrict deer populations from overgrazing

In September this year, plans were announced to rewild 200,000 hectares of land in the Affric Highlands Project. The project is part of a 30 year plan to restore nature to the area stretching from Scotland’s West Coast to Loch Ness, as well as creating grass roots tourism jobs alongside it. Supporters hope this project will be the first of many in pushing Scotland towards becoming a rewilding nation.

Case Studies – Would it Work?

‘Wolves’ may have been a word which jumped out the page at you from the last section. Don’t worry, whilst experts have given reassurances that a reintroduction would be feasible alongside humans and livestock, this is some distance off from being seriously discussed. However, the wolf reintroduction at Yellowstone National Park is a great success story from which much optimism can be taken for Scotland.

In the early 1900s, American government predator control programmes led to grey wolves becoming all but eliminated from Yellowstone. This had a cascading effect on the entire ecosystem because of a subsequent explosion in beaver and elk population. This in turn led to the loss of habitat for other species such as songbirds, eroding land, as well as a whole host of other knock on effects such as rising water temperature and levels in the area.

In the 1990s, the decision was made to trial a re-introduction of wolves to the area. 14 wolves were re-introduced to the park in 1995, and within 20 years their numbers were flourishing and caused a ripple of positive changes in the park.

A ‘keystone’ species is one which the entire ecosystem benefits from on a number of levels. In this example, the Yellowstone wolves were named a ‘keystone’ species because they controlled the populations of animals such as beavers and elk, leading to increased natural vegetation and greenery.

Wolf Yellowstone

It has been 35 years since reactor no. 4 at Chernobyl exploded and released 400 times more radiation than the 2 atomic bombs over Japan in WWII. More than 200 people suffered from acute radiation poisoning, animals died, and the nearby ‘Red Forest’ withered and died. The radiation across the world was so far flung that even in Wales, the sale of contaminated livestock was restricted until 2012.

Today, the levels of radiation remain too high for any human to live healthily. However in the years since humans have abandoned Chernobyl, the city has been a fascinating and unlikely nature reserve. The city has become overgrown with greenery, and new trees have emerged from the once brown forests. There is an abundance of animals even as large as bears and bison which roam the city.

The health limitations of these animals is still being called into question, however the city is nonetheless an amazing example of how nature can bounce back even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Rewilding Chernobyl

What Do Scots Think of Rewilding?

A poll in October 2020 showed that Scottish people are overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed rewilding (76% to be exact). Only 7% outright opposed.

Scots have even put their money where their mouth is… Bamff Estate in Perthshire was aiming to rewild 450 acres of land by removing livestock, and allowing small numbers of pigs, ponies and other animals to roam free. To do this they required £25,000 of investment, but instead successfully crowdfunded nearly £38,000.

A sign of things to come? We hope so.