Huge rewilding project launches in Scottish Highlands

Press release from Trees for Life (24th September 2021)

Affric Highlands launched to rewild half a million acres of Scottish Highlands

30-year project joins prestigious European group of awe-inspiring rewilding areas

An ambitious 30-year landscape-scale rewilding initiative to link up a majestic sweep of the Scottish Highlands as one vast nature recovery area connecting Loch Ness to Scotland’s west coast has been launched by charity Trees for Life, and joins a select group of prestigious European rewilding areas. 

The Affric Highlands initiative follows three years of consultation between Rewilding Europe, Trees for Life, and other local partners and stakeholders.

[Glen Affric. Photo by Grant Willoughby]

It will restore nature across a network of landholdings potentially covering an area of over 500,000 acres stretching from Loch Ness across the central Highlands to Kintail in the west, and encompassing Glens Cannich, Affric, Moriston and Shiel. 

Trees for Life has brought together a broad coalition of landowners, communities and others to boost habitat connectivity, species diversity, and social and economic opportunities in the region, while tackling climate breakdown.

With community involvement and partnership working central to the project, a diverse group of 20 landowners covering at least 25% of the total area and six organisations are already on board, with hopes that more will join. Work is underway to further involve local people, with practical action to connect areas of rewilding land due to begin in 2023.

During a ceremony attended by partners and stakeholders at Glenurquhart Public Hall in Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness on 23 September, Affric Highlands was officially welcomed by Rewilding Europe as the ninth member of its network of large pioneering rewilding areas – taking the organisation one step closer to its ultimate goal of 10 such areas in Europe.

Rewilding Europe’s eight other awe-inspiring rewilding areas are Portugal’s Greater Côa Valley; the Danube Delta in Ukraine, Romania and Moldova; Romania’s Southern Carpathians; Croatia’s Velebit Mountains; Italy’s Central Apennines; Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains; the Oder Delta in Germany and Poland; and Swedish Lapland.

With Scotland’s rewilding movement growing rapidly – and the Scottish Rewilding Alliance calling for Scotland to become the world’s first Rewilding Nation, with the rewilding of 30% of the country’s land and sea by 2030 – Affric Highlands will take large-scale nature recovery to a new level, providing a catalyst for the local economy at the same time,” said Steve Micklewright, Chief Executive of Trees for Life.

The Highlands have huge potential to help nature to come back and so help people to thrive, and to make a leading contribution to tackling the global climate and nature emergencies. We are delighted Affric Highlands is now one of Rewilding Europe’s large rewilding areas that are inspiring hundreds of other rewilding projects across the continent.”

Because engaging and involving stakeholders from the beginning is crucial to the success of any rewilding initiative, Rewilding Europe has been working with Trees for Life to lay the foundations for this over the past three years – including through meetings with over 50 local stakeholders, drawing on experience from other major rewilding sites across Europe, and a scoping study.

As well as connecting habitats, Affric Highlands will bring people together to help nature recover, and strengthen connections between communities and the wildlife on their doorsteps.

Forest rewilding has been at the root of Trees for Life’s work for three decades. The charity has so far established nearly two million native trees to restore the unique and globally important Caledonian Forest at its own 10,000 acre estate at Dundreggan in Glenmoriston, and at dozens of other sites in the Highlands, including Glen Affric.

In 2023, Dundreggan will become home to the world’s first Rewilding Centre – showcasing how large-scale nature recovery can give people amazing experiences, create jobs and benefit local communities.

Rewilding Europe says this work in the Highlands has been a beacon of hope for reversing declines in habitat and wildlife that have left vast swathes of Scotland overgrazed, treeless, denuded, drained and over-managed, to the point that little remains unmodified by humans.

Affric Highlands is a bold, exciting and inspiring venture for nature’s recovery as Scotland moves up the biodiversity league table. Our decision to accept the project as our ninth rewilding area reflects the hard work and achievements of Trees for Life, its volunteers and its partners,” said Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe.

Including Affric Highlands in our portfolio of major European rewilding areas will help magnify rewilding’s impact in the Highlands, and put it firmly on the global map.”  

The project will take a grassroots, community-driven approach that grows organically – harnessing an interdependence of nature, people and businesses to create a more resilient area for the future.

Rewilding Europe’s rewilding principles, best practices and wealth of Europe-wide practical experience will help to shape and guide Affric Highlands on its rewilding journey. 

Affric Highlands has been made possible thanks to funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Find out more about Affric Highlands at treesforlife.org.uk/affric-highlands. For details of Rewilding Europe’s rewilding areas, see rewildingeurope.com/areas.

ENDS

There’s also a fascinating article about this project in today’s Guardian, including an important discussion about the definition of rewilding and how project leader Alan McDonnell has been working with a psychologist to help communicate with 50+ local stakeholders, some of whom may be fearful of what rewilding entails. Well worth a read here.

20 thoughts on “Huge rewilding project launches in Scottish Highlands”

  1. This is fantastic news, Trees for Life already have a great track record and have been very active in the Glen Affric region for many years. Projects such as this give me hope for the future of our planet.

  2. A magnificent idea that will hopefully allay the fears of those who have been influenced by the scare stories put ouit by lanowners with other vested interests.

  3. Great News. Fingers crossed that this leads to a wider appreciation of the urgency required. An informed and supportive population would lead to a more informed world view including the central position that the environment and the dependant ecological must now have. Energy might be building that will decimate the activities that have been so damaging to our country.

  4. Something has to be done to secure a safe future for our wild places and wildlife. That is beyond any doubt whatsoever. Will this project be a golden egg ? I have absolutely no idea, primarily because I have no confidence that suitable people will be put in control and that if something magical results will it be secured safe from the likes of NatureScot, the Holyrood mob and the rest of the current failing crew. .

    We are in the embryonic fine words stage.
    “The plan is to recruit a team of three to develop Affric Highlands. Building out from the current partnership to bring more community organisations, local businesses and landowners on board is critical. Other key aspects of the early work include developing nature-based business opportunities, coordinating the first steps towards ecological restoration, and developing the governance structure that will take over from Trees for Life when the delivery phase gets underway.”

    DEVELOPING THE GOVERNANCE STRUCTURE ……….. that can mean just about anything. I would prefer to know precisely, in ultra plain language, what will be the governing structure (and who will have the power) at the very outset.

    1. After my initial burst of enthusisam .. engendered no doubt by an unidentified need to be positive about so,mething .. Dougie’s cautionary words rang a bell as to how large project commercial entryism functions. “Nature-based Business opportunities” is something I have railed at before when I see artificial feeding stations created, with hides, for photographic purposes at the center of some plans — at a cost that would rule many of us out. Lets hope that at least some of these business plans include our less wealthy citizens who are often left out. Exposure to a rewilded Scotland is EXACTLY what many of those in this demographic require in so many areas such as mental health, exercise etc/. etc.
      Lets make sure that all Scottish citizens benefit — not just the few. We need to make everyone feel included.

      1. Unlike DGS or open hill deer stalking I can’t see how even the more expensive ecotourism options will exclude anyone from more nature, rather the opposite in fact. Having options where the more well heeled can put their money into nature conservation via ecotourism rather than say golfing holidays is going to be important for the general economic health of ecotourism – plus getting the more wealthy involved in conservation is a step forward in itself, raising awareness amongst those with most disposable income and scope to do bad or good things with it. If it acts as a catalyst to get ecological restoration going faster over a larger area then we all benefit – the only issue is if the many are physically excluded from an area to help the few, legislation and the general nature of ecotourism would strongly dissuade any inclinations towards this.

        I feel that’s unlikely, but as well as business opportunities simultaneously things improve for those who can’t or won’t spend much money. Just by visiting an area I’ll have a dramatically better experience if there’s more wildlife to see, I don’t have to cough up for an eco guide, but it’s good some have that option at least. The bar gets raised for everyone no matter how thick your wallet, which isn’t difficult when you use the land for good stuff rather than shite like DGS. Incidentally on the council estate I come from there are people who’ve gone on wildlife photography courses where feeding stations were used so they’re not always that exclusive, and a boon to people with mobility issues and the elderly.

        1. i know this is a bit off topic, but I felt i had to reply to Les. I’ll keep it short.
          Check the nature of tourist investment over the past few years, what is has been invested in and the incomes of the targeted demographic. Individual success stories simply conceal the hidden rump.

          1. Was that the best you could do, rather false equivalency isn’t it? Well trickle down conservation (such as it is) is certainly a different animal than trickle down growth, or are you incapable of making the distinction? The former involves actively LOWERING resource use, the latter increasing it in the vain expectation a few crumbs will fall down to the hoi polloi. Not efficient at the best of times, ludicrous and suicidal on a small planet with finite resources. I don’t know about Thatcher still having a long reach, but common sense definitely doesn’t. Neither you or George actually countered ANY of the points I’d made, feel free to have a go. I’ve used this following illustration quite a lot, but that’s because I think it’s a good one.

            I will almost certainly never be able to afford to go on one of the courses/tours run by the Aigas centre. As far as I’m aware they’re run responsibly, they’re not luxury ‘eco’ holidays which is a contradiction in terms as far as I’m concerned. The money it brings in helps conservation work, the local economy and jobs. If the punters weren’t going to Aigas they might instead be spending their money on a golfing holiday, a fancy cruise or ski resort. How would it help develop a rewilding economy if Aigas closed down and that source of money from that group was lost? How would the less well heeled benefit from that exactly? How would ecological restoration be hastened? If I can’t afford to go on a wildlife photography course at least I’ll have more wildlife to photograph in the same area, the courses themselves being part of the economic catalyst that helped drive the original rewilding. As I say the bar rises for everybody – apart from the tweedies. If those ‘expensive’ photography courses came to an end so no one could go on them whether or not they had the money how would the wildlife or a skint person like me benefit in the way we definitely would if DGS and open hill deer stalking did? REAL ecotourism is not what went before, there are fundamental differences.

            I really appreciate everything Hoch Anders Povlsen has done for rewilding, but his plans for a five star resort and spa up north (which TBF he’s not referring to as an eco-development as far as I know) really flies in the face of the ethos behind rewilding which is about conserving nature and natural resources – it’s extremely difficult to see how a luxury resort which is essentially about conspicuous consumption can fit in with that. In fact it won’t. That’s the danger a bit of greenwashing over business as usual – that’s where valid criticism is needed. On the other hand undue pessimism, unwarranted criticism and petty mindedness aren’t going to help bring genuine ecotourism forward – it has enough people trying to undermine it. Judging from the Fieldsport Channel’s output recently they are REALLY nervous about rewilding which is a very good sign, all the more reason to push forward as best we can.

            1. ‘Trickle down’ was not about growth. It was an attempt to justify inequality and the idea that crumbs from the oligarchs were an acceptable substitute for people’s genuine participation in the economy and its benefits. ‘Rewilding’ itself (whatever that means) is not the issue here either. The issue is the ownership of the concept and participation in its delivery. In that sense rewilding so far can look a little like sporting estates with trees and a continuation of the same social and economic conflicts.

              1. You mention social and economic conflicts, but nowhere the fundamental responsibility and need to repair the massive damage that’s been inflicted on the land and wildlife. Environmental abuse by the many rather than by the few would hardly be progress, getting native woodland, healthy peat bogs, restored wetlands and wildlife back would be. Does it matter who actually ‘owns’ an ecologically degraded landscape? The core issue is restoration, and I would strongly suspect the more enlightened attitudes that make it possible are the same ones that allow for a more equitable society – there’s a reason philanthropy and conservation often go together.

                It would be very difficult for the same social and economic conflicts caused under the extremely undemocratic conditions created by driven grouse shooting and open hill deer stalking to continue under rewilding, I bet if they could the vast majority of ‘sporting’ estates would physically exclude the public. Rewilding will create far more recreational and employment opportunities for everyone than the estates currently do, they’ll want the public to come. Is the real, key issue social and ecological outcomes or what name, from Scandinavian philanthropist billionaire to community trust, happens to be on a bit of paper saying they ‘own’ the land? I’m not sure what difference that would make to the trees, eagles and pine martens on it or for that matter someone with a job there that previously didn’t exist.

                The charming hill farmers of Wales have effectively shut down real rewilding there, inflicting a dreary landscape on absolutely everyone else while substantially increasing the flood risk for many, many thousands of other people. This is underpinned by public subsidy to keep their highly marginal farms going when we’re chucking about 40% (12.5 billion quid’s worth) of our food in the bin every year on top of having an obesity crisis. That’s public money that could be going directly to the NHS, care of the elderly, emergency services and education to genuinely help people up to and including saving lives. But no it’s used to maintain a ‘traditional’ way of life somehow incorporating quad bikes, steel sheds and Sky Sports for the specific purpose of uuummmm….the sake of doing so. Where exactly is the social justice in this, I’m truly dying to know? To me it looks like blatant opportunism and selfishness – piss taking – which never seems to raise a squeak in protest because it’s committed ‘by the people’.

                On the other hand Hoch Anders Povlsen and the Rausings no matter what they do for conservation and local communities are still somehow tainted due to the very fact they are still technically landowners like the old Tweed lot. Is it healthy that so much rewilding in Scotland is dependent upon the personal interests of Scandi billionaires, and in fact should there be such a thing as a billionaire? Most definitely not IMHO, and I strongly suspect H.A.P and the Rausings feel the same. However, if it’s a straight choice between them and the Welsh hill farming community (or for that matter Lewis crofters) as to who is most beneficial for the environment and wider society I’m for the Scandinavians. Maintaining the old rhetoric that ‘landowner equals blood sucking parasite of the people/the people are the victims of the blood sucking landowners’ when things are changing and it was probably never that simple isn’t constructive at a time when the upsurge of interest in rewilding backed by serious money is a truly new development. That it’s clearly got the real sods frightened should be a spur to push rewilding even further, not automatically singing the same old song yet again.

  5. Hope Prince Charles reads about this and rewilds Balmoral, he’s an expert in telling others how to run their businesses more environmentally friendly, wonder if he burns his moors next season 🤔

    1. By the way I read about trees for life’s work in George Monbiots book “Feral” if you get a chance to read it I am sure it will allay any worries about the project

      1. One thing that does concern me is that even if the project is an overwhelming success (and it would be marvellous if that transpires) it will be relatively short lived. I say that because there is a rapidly growing threat to this planet that is being ignored …………. overpopulation. The earth’s population has risen from 1 billion to nearly 8 billion in only the last 200 years. If the human race continues to expand at a rate which is far outpacing the ability of our planet to support it then the outlook for most forms of life is bleak.

        1. Growth rates stabilise and even decline when people no longer live in poverty, when girls are educated along with the boys and when the ‘women’s economy’ is fully realised.
          Some countries with negative growth are taking measures to reverse this because a declining population leads to economic problems.
          Over the last century there has been considerable growth in the 60+ age bracket. When the oldest snuff it (I include myself in this) there may well be a decline in the world population.
          Though, I do hope to live long enough to see the results of these inspiring initiatives to bring nature back to us and, of course, for Ruth’s blog to be no longer necessary.

          1. A wee bit of a chicken and egg situation though – reducing poverty is a hell of a lot easier when you don’t have relatively explosive population growth to deal with as in many parts of Africa, having fewer babies helps women have careers/businesses. We can’t afford to sit back and think it’s OK it will sort itself out, not before avoidable problems and suffering will have been caused it won’t. Even just making sure people in poorer countries had access to the same family planning services the rest of us have would make a huge difference, even that’s wrapped up in ludicrous politics though – if you push for that you can be labelled as racist which happened to me a few weeks ago. For decades field workers for foreign aid/development NGOs – people whose motivation and first hand experience should be beyond question – have been warning about how population growth was being ignored, they were right. I remember in the seventies John Craven’s Newsround announcing when the world population had hit four billion, now nearly double that in less than my own lifetime.

            1. Good post, Les.

              Whilst the world population size is a major challenge that affects us all I have thoughts that are absorbed by the UK which has the densest population in Europe. There are unpopulated areas for sure, but this is a very small island and the wild areas are decidedly under threat.
              Here in Scotland we are blessed with some magnificent wild country, but the pressure from ‘civilisation’ is ever increasing (windfarms ……..Urgh !!).
              No one appears to have an answer and many have the problem that Freud termed ‘denial’. That occurs when people find a problem too uncomfortable to deal with and, therefore, reject it.

              UK population : approximately 70 million have been counted. 35 million would have been a much more comfortable limit.

              1. There are people who will come up with some argument or other that there’s no such thing as a population issue blah, blah. blah. However, I’ve never heard one of them say that we would have been worse off – people and planet – if we had a smaller population at this point. Everything, not least eradicating poverty, would be easier today if universal family planning and women’s rights had been established years ago when in fact we’re still waiting for them in 2021. I would love anyone to show me how the explosive growth in human numbers in places like Tanzania, Madagascar or the Philippines over the past few decades hasn’t been a disaster for cutting die poverty as much as protecting the land from ecological disaster.

                Years ago the Really Wild Show highlighted the wildlife of the Philippines and to their credit dealt with the issues threatening it. One of these was dynamiting coral reefs to catch fish which obviously doesn’t do the coral reef any favours or for that matter the long term basis for maintaining fish stocks! They interviewed a ‘fisherman’ who’d lost part of his hand due to his use of dynamite in his desperate attempt to feed his family – he had FOURTEEN CHILDREN!!! For religious/political reasons contraception is not as prevalent in the Philippines as it could be! I remember this incident whenever I hear anyone suggest that population growth in the third world isn’t an environmental problem because the people involved are not wealthier consumers (clearly a complacent, dangerous piece of wishful thinking), which also implies they will and perhaps even should continue to live in dire poverty to ‘help the environment’. People whose drinking water and sewerage system are sometimes one and the same thing might just possibly have something to say about that.

                1. We had our population explosion back in Victorian times so it’s quite convenient for us to be able to sit back now and point the finger at other countries currently experiencing high rates of population growth.

                  For whatever reasons (contraception, better health, nutrition, education) the European growth rate, through births and deaths, has almost stabilized. This pattern is likely to be repeated elsewhere.

                  I’m uncomfortable with the overpopulation argument because: it’s too simplistic, offers no solutions and is used to blanket other, more unpalatable issues which lie closer to home.

                  Wealthy countries have failed to deal with their own ecological disasters and they bear significant responsibility for the unsustainable exploitation of the world’s resources and the consequent ecological disasters in other countries (and their seas).

                  Take one example: food production. Currently, enough food to feed the world is produced. However, at least one third of that production is wasted. The amount of waste occurring between production and retail is fairly similar for all regions of the world except Latin America where it is relatively high. However, for Europe, Oceania, N. America and industrial Asia around 33% of their total food waste is caused by consumers. In fact, a recent major research project found that a whopping 53% of food waste across Europe came from households. This food waste itself is then further wasted by being dumped.

                  What can we do? There are hundreds and hundreds of small solutions which, when added together, will go a long way towards solving the biodiversity and climate crises. Many of these we can act on, and take responsibility for, as individuals. We can apply pressure as consumers and voters.

                  We’ve led ourselves into this imminent disaster – we now have to lead the way out of it.

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