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The Future of the Scottish Highlands

The Future of the Scottish Highlands

A visit to the new Dundreggan rewilding centre got me thinking about the choices we have for the future of land-use in the Scottish Highlands.

26% of Scotland’s land mass is maintained for commercial sport purposes, made up of many large estates, often foreign owned. In the east heather moorland is managed for grouse shooting; whilst the west has more grass suitable for commercial deer stalking.  The heather moorland is managed by burning patches to create a mix of new and old heather for grouse.  Even much of the ‘protected’ area of the Cairngorms National Park is managed for deer or grouse shooting.

40% of Scotland, mainly on poorer soils, is maintained for grazing sheep.  Like cattle, sheep belch out the greenhouse gas methane.  Even at low stocking densities, sheep grazing prevents any native trees from regenerating.  Sheep farming is subsidised, so it is a direct land use choices that we make.

23% of Scotland (there will be some overlap with the percentages above) is covered with blanket bog, a layer of peat that has built up from decaying vegetation since the last Ice Age.  This is an enormous store of carbon (170 million tonnes).  Current land management practices, particularly overgrazing and drainage, are causing most of these areas to ‘degrade’.  Rather than new peat forming and removing CO2 from the atmosphere, the peat is ‘eroding’ and releasing CO2

The consequences run deeper.  Bare hills lead to flooding and eroding peatlands reduces the purity of the rivers. Climate change is causing rivers to warm up. Salmon are in decline.

Ironically, this upland scenery is widely admired and romanticised. Visitors flock to see and photograph the open landscapes of the Highlands.  Clearly, they were not trained in ecology! 

The public are simply unaware of the ecological devastation caused by humans.  Scotland is ranked 212th out of 240 countries and territories for biodiversity intactness, that is the percentage of nature left from its pristine state (England is worse, ranking as 233rd).

An alternative land-use is large-scale forestry plantations, of sitka spruce, which cover around 10% of Scotland. This monoculture is highly ‘efficient’ for growing timber, and we do need some of this.  However, the dense foliage prevents light from reaching the forest floor, so from a biodiversity perspective these forests are not dissimilar to intensively cultivated cropland.

A new form of land-use is rapidly gaining traction.  Perhaps not what you’d expect?  This is the semi-abandonment of land.  These areas are often quickly colonised by invasive species, most notably rhododendron ponticum.  Again, ironically, many visitors enjoy their pink flowers in May. I cannot over emphasise the seriousness of this exponential unfolding disaster.  Rhododendron is everywhere you look.  Almost every glen has some, originally planted around estate houses.  It spreads slowly at first, then rapidly along road verges, then creeps up the adjacent mountain slopes.  It becomes an impenetrable monoculture and blocks light therefore it prevents other plant growth.  It is present across the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and is spreading particularly fast in the Argyll area, where it is displacing the few remnants of the once mighty Atlantic rainforest – a verdant landscape of deciduous trees, mosses and lichens.  This is not a future I want to see.

An alternative (better) future?

And so to rewilding, landscape restoration; call it what you like, it doesn’t really matter.  There are numerous small initiatives that aim to restore the environment for nature and people.  Duncreggan, near Loch Ness, is the first ‘rewilding’ visitor centre in Scotland – an encouraging sign of the times.  It is operated by a charity Trees for Life.  They have reduced deer numbers and fenced some areas to allow the forest to regenerate.  In some places this happens naturally, in others new trees have to be planted.  They have their own tree nursery to ensure the saplings are local and hardy.  A walk in the woods is an eye opener.  Unlike the bare hillsides, the landscape feels ‘alive’ and your senses are alert to the sound of bird song.  More trees, more birds, more insects, flowers and mosses.  The visitor centre provides opportunities for volunteering, community involvement, professional training and casual education of the passing visitor.  New jobs are created.

There are many pockets of rewilding going on in Scotland.  The Langholm Community has bought a 10,000 acre estate in the Borders, aiming to regenerate the land and to create local jobs.   Argaty farm reintroduced red kites and beavers and has become a popular visitor attraction.

At a larger scale, Cairngorms Connect is a partnership of neighbouring land managers covering 600km2.  They have a 200-year vision to restore the landscape, primarily through woodland regeneration, peatland restoration and recreating natural floodplains.   They have reduced the number of deer. Red deer are a native animal that used to live in harmony with the forest at a time when they were hunted by wolves, bears, and lynx.  At reduced deer stocking levels, the forest begins to regenerate naturally.  Meanwhile the remaining deer become healthier and larger.  Fewer starve to death during harsh winters.  Stalking continues, with venison sold to local butchers and hotels.

Of course, a truly rewilded landscape would require heavy grazing animals such as boar, bison and cattle, controlled by large apex predators.  For many this is a step too far and I will leave that debate to another day.

What about jobs?

The baseline is extremely low.  Sheep farming on poor quality uplands, deer stalking, and grouse shooting are extensive uses of land with few permanent jobs.  Rewilding creates jobs in tree planting, estate and visitor management.  Visitors then provide wider economic benefits for hotels and restaurants.  If sensibly managed, deer stalking can continue on restored land, fishing will benefit, and timber production is possible often aimed at higher value craft uses.

If you’d like to support, or learn more about rewilding, then please visit Scotland: The Big Picture

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