What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another
A rewilded Scotland — from restored forests to the return of predators such as the lynx and wolf — is the vision of acclaimed writer George Monbiot and award-winning conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone of Trees for Life.
Their shared dream was presented recently at the University of Edinburgh as part of a Rewilding the World event, which echoes the theme of WILD10, the 10th World Wilderness Congress held in Spain last year.With enthusiasm for the large-scale restoration of damaged natural ecosystems spreading quickly in the UK, the event highlighted the significant benefits that this could bring to Scotland, together with a discussion on its global and ethical implications.
George Monbiot said: "Rewilding offers us a big chance to reverse destruction of the natural world. Letting trees return to bare and barren uplands, allowing the seabed to recover from trawling, and bringing back missing species would help hundreds of species that might otherwise struggle to survive — while rekindling wonder and enchantment that often seems missing in modern-day Britain."
Alan Watson Featherstone, Trees for Life's Executive Director, said: "Rewilding offers an exciting vision of hope, through the positive and practical work of renewing and revitalising ecosystems. In the Highlands we have the opportunity to reverse environmental degradation and create a spectacular, world-class wilderness region — offering a lifeline to wildlife including beavers, capercaillie, wood ants and pine martens, and restoring natural forests and wild spaces for our children and grandchildren to enjoy."
The latest thinking on rewilding — including recent and remarkable scientific discoveries — has been captured in George Monbiot's acclaimed book, Feral, that lays out a positive environmental approach in which Nature is allowed to find its own way.Today few areas of the world are truly wild and Scotland is no exception. Long-term deforestation and overgrazing by too many deer and sheep has left the land depleted and barren, with much wildlife in retreat or missing altogether. The Caledonian Forest — Scotland's equivalent of a rainforest — is now one of the UK's most endangered habitats, with many of its rare species in danger of extinction.
Yet action across Scotland in recent years has offered signs of what could be achieved by restoring natural processes and protecting wilderness areas, and by reducing human interference in ecosystems.
In the Highlands considerable efforts to restore and expand native forests have led to the establishment of a new generation of trees — and their associated plants, insects and other wildlife — at many sites. High-profile successes include the re-establishment of healthy populations of birds of prey such as the sea eagle, osprey and red kite, and the trial reintroduction of European beavers at Knapdale in Argyll.George Monbiot and Alan Watson Featherstone argue that far more needs to be done and outline how a more ambitious approach could bring wide-ranging benefits to wildlife and people, while putting Scotland on the map as a wildlife tourism global hotspot.
Scotland is also ideally placed to be a world leader in an international drive to slow, halt and reverse global forest loss. In a major announcement at the UN Climate Summit in September, world leaders, companies and campaigners pledged in the New York Declaration of Forests to restore 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forests by 2020 and end deforestation by 2030.
Future rewilding could involve the reinstatement of missing species, including apex predators such as the Eurasian lynx and even the wolf, both of which play a crucial top-down regulatory role in ecosystems.
While the reintroduction of predators is often proposed as a means of reducing excessive numbers of red deer in the Highlands, its main impact would likely be in disturbing deer populations, causing these animals to move more frequently so that their grazing is less concentrated in specific areas.
The lynx — already reintroduced to areas of Europe such as the Alps and Jura mountains — offers little threat to sheep, with no record of the animals ever attacking humans. It is a specialist predator of roe deer, a species which has multiplied in Britain in recent years and which holds back the natural regeneration of trees through intensive browsing.While there would be many benefits resulting from reintroduction of the wolf, realistically this is a longer-term project because of its fierce reputation and the social and economic issues it poses. The reality is that it is a shy, intelligent and elusive creature that avoids contact with humans.
Leading volunteering conservation charity Trees for Life is restoring Scotland's ancient Caledonian Forest, and has pledged to establish one million more trees by planting and natural regeneration by 2018. To mark its 25th anniversary this year, it is offering expanded opportunities for volunteers to support its work and gain conservation experience.
George Monbiot — well known author and columnist for The Guardian who has praised the pioneering rewilding role of Trees for Life – is currently setting up an organisation to catalyse the rewilding of land and sea across Britain.