In Scotland’s Search for Roots, A Push to Restore Wild Lands

As Scotland asserts its identity and its autonomy,
environmentalists are working to restore its denuded landscape, planting native forests, creating wildlife corridors, and reintroducing species that were wiped out centuries ago.

Ecologically, there is little left of Scotland. Lanced of danger, fully domesticated, the countryside has been kitted out as an English larder, a table laid with lamb and strawberries and clotted cream. Sheep and dairy cows crop the grass north of Hadrian’s Wall. Polytunnels full of “soft fruit”—raspberries and strawberries—gleam under the occasional sun. North of Flodden—where James IV and his Scottish troops were cut down by the English in 1513—fields of potatoes stand ready to be turned into chips, and waves of barley bow to the inevitable meat pie.

The last wolf in the British Isles was said to have been killed in Scotland in 1743. Auroch, the enormous wild bovine that once roamed the Isle, is extinct. The European elk—known in North America as the moose—was wiped out several thousand years before the Romans arrived; lynx and brown bear were gone by 500 AD; wild boar by the end of the 13th century. Beaver went missing 400 years ago. No one alive has seen the habitat where these creatures held sway: the great Caledonian forest of Scots pine, aspen, oak, and juniper that stretched across 3.7 million acres of the Scottish Highlands since the last Ice Age, whittled away to 35 isolated remnants. One percent of the original woodland survives.

David Geddes
The quintessential Scottish countryside has few trees and bare, short-grass hills.

But while no one has yet seen it, the vision of clawing back a bit of that Caledonian splendor is very much alive. Biologists, activists, and hill walkers dismayed at the monotony of the landscape, tantalized by tales of budding ecological restoration projects around the world, have seen it in their minds’ eye and are plotting its return. Plotting and planting: Unlikely as it may seem, sheep-loving Scotland has become a hive of restorationist fervor.

There are a few ruminants in the way. The coming of livestock created the landscape we picture as quintessentially Scottish—rugged, denuded hillsides covered in short grass. In the larger sense, hoofstock also wrought the country’s capitulation to its southern neighbor. In 1707, when the Scottish Parliament dissolved itself, voting for the Treaty of Union with England, it did so to preserve the market for hides, beef, and mutton. At the end of that century, the same class of landowners let loose their “factors,” property managers who drove smallholders off the land during the infamous Highland Clearances, burning their thatched huts, starving them out to create a sheep walk. Ecologically, the whole country is a kind of Culloden—the moor where British troops slaughtered Highland clansmen in a brutal 1746 rout—laid waste in an act of enforced national unity.

The Scottish people have taken back the land. But the question arises: What will they do with it?

Thus, beneath the superficially peaceful surface of Scotland simmers a longstanding discontent. Politically, the country is roiled by nationalism, fully engaged in “devolution,” the process of hedged independence set in motion a decade ago, when citizens voted in 1997 to reawake their slumbering Parliament. On the ground, Scots are as restive with an Anglicized landscape as they are with Anglo rule. “Who owns Scotland?” cries Rob McMorran, coordinator of a group of activists known as the Scottish Wild Land Group. “Up until a few years ago, God owned Scotland. It was a feudal system of ownership.” It many ways—despite passage of land reform in 2003—it still is. McMorran is echoing the title of a popular book and website, Who Owns Scotland? which reports that a mere 343 private individuals own half the country’s 19 million acres. Scotland’s two national parks, also created in 2003, are not nationalized: The majority of land within them is owned and managed privately, with continued sheep grazing and commercial forestry.

As they struggle to break free of the past, Scots find themselves immersed in pitched battles of a modern kind: debating the wisdom of wind farms or massive hydro schemes on their lochs, grappling with a ballooning population of deer that routinely bolt in front of trains and cars, causing accidents and delays. They are resentful of disfiguring conifer plantations grown and cut by the UK Forestry Commission, symbolic of outdated policies favoring cheap paper and pulp. As for the Highland Clearances, they might have happened yesterday, so raw is the memory. Another act of the reconvened parliament was the restoration of the “right-to-roam,” allowing every citizen to walk freely across the country, unchecked by fences or gates. The land has been taken back, at least symbolically, by the Scottish people. But the question arises: What will they do with it?

Carrifran Wildwood
Volunteers began planting seedlings at Carrifran in Scotland’s southern Borders region in 2000.

In this intoxicating atmosphere, environmentalists are determined to see how far they can go. Environmental groups are buying hunting estates to reforest; private landowners are experimenting with native planting; beaver have been reintroduced after decades of debate. Many such projects fall under the rubric of “rewilding”—the conservation method of restoring core wilderness areas, maintaining corridors between them for wildlife to migrate and disperse, and reintroducing top predators. But not everyone agrees on how to accomplish these goals, especially when it comes to carnivores.

“Wolves and bears are not going to be on the agenda in our lifetime,” Philip Ashmole says calmly. That kind of practicality has characterized everything about the project he helped organize, Carrifran Wildwood, from fund-raising to restoration. A biologist and expert in oceanic island ecosystems, Ashmole taught at Yale for some years, exploring the American park system during vacations. When he and his wife Myrtle, also a specialist, returned to the U.K., they were dismayed at the comparative dearth of wild lands. By the mid-1990s, joined by friends who volunteered legal, real estate, and business expertise, they began searching for a valley in the southern Borders region that could be restored to its original suite of habitats, from native forest along the lower slopes to scrub and heath near the craggy summits. They wanted a complete catchment, and found it—along with some of the highest peaks in southern Scotland—in a narrow glen named Carrifran, “seat of ravens” in the ancient local language.

They helped to set up a dedicated group, the Borders Forest Trust, building relationships with established environmental groups and soliciting donations from committed supporters, including David Stevenson, past owner of Edinburgh Woollen Mill, who put up the money for half a million tree seedlings.

Carrifran is one of Scotland’s largest ecological restoration projects, planted with 450,000 seedlings.

Eventually the Trust raised 335,000 pounds to buy the land, and on January 1, 2000, Millennium Day, a hundred volunteers began planting the first trees. At 1,640 acres, Carrifran is one of the largest ecological restoration projects in Scotland, fully planted with 450,000 birch, yew, aspen, juniper, oak, pine, and hazel seedlings—many grown from seed collected locally in patches of surviving native woods. It is estimated to offset nearly 30,000 tons of CO2 over the next century. Patrolled by Wildwood’s “dirty hands” volunteers—its boundary inspected over a hundred times in the past decade by hill walkers—the Carrifran project has been hailed as a monument to community-based conservation.

Carrifran Wildwood
Trees are taking hold beneath the grazed hillsides of Carrifran.

The saviors arrived in the nick of time: Slopes stripped by sheep and goats, Carrifran’s few ancient trees clung gamely to rocky promontories perched over the stream, or “burn,” that bifurcates the valley. The stump of one of the last hollies in the glen collapsed after a storm, but cuttings sent out suckers and roots, contributing to the resurrection. While no one alive will see Carrifran in its reforested glory, a process that may take several centuries, the valley is already a stunning sight, covered in a thick pelt of vegetation.

As Philip Ashmole and I crossed the glen this past July, we were up to our knees in new growth: dog rose, bird cherry, downy birch, alder, juniper, and holly, which were flourishing and producing seed. Bare grass had been replaced by stands of willow and groves of hawthorn and hazel. Rare species of fern and anemone have been found. Black grouse, declining elsewhere, have been heard drumming in two leks high on the slopes. Once scarce woodland birds such as willow warbler, chaffinch, blackcap, siskin, and grasshopper warbler have been flocking back. Badger, fox, stoat, otter, weasel, mountain hare, and field voles are now common, and peregrine falcons are on the prowl.

The project has faced daunting challenges. An outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 required that tens of thousands of seedlings be quarantined for months before planting; many were lost. A 2003 fire burnt 10,000 newly-planted trees.

The most unexpected development occurred when nearby residents protested the removal of feral goats.

The group had underestimated how bracken—ferns that colonize pastureland—suppresses regeneration, shading and crushing new growth; hand-cutting and spot-spraying of herbicides are dealing with that. Perhaps the most unexpected development occurred when residents of a nearby village protested the removal of feral goats. “They thought them part of their heritage,” Philip Ashmole said dryly. But Wildwood stood its ground, removing most goats alive, although three stragglers had to be shot. A deer “stalker” patrols once a week to ensure that no grazers penetrate fenced areas; sales of venison support the project.

With Carrifran maturing, the Trust has set its sights on the historic Ettrick Forest, where William Wallace rallied Scots to attack the British in 1297 and where the infamous Border Reivers—cattle rustlers—hid stolen herds in a glen known as the Devil’s Beef Tub. Grazed centuries ago, the Ettrick Forest is no more, but the BFT plans to do something about that, raising 700,000 pounds to buy a farm that includes the Tub. The property will forge a near-connection to Carrifran, less than two miles away, restoring three valleys and another major catchment.

In stark contrast to this carefully considered, incremental project is another approach, one that has been wildly controversial. In 2003, Paul Lister—English heir to a multi-million dollar furniture fortune—bought Alladale, a 23,000 acre Highlands estate. Scottish hunting properties have become a trophy acquisition for the super-rich. But Lister was different. Inspired by South Africa’s private game reserves, he brashly announced plans to turn Alladale into Great Britain’s first wilderness reserve, replanting native forest and reintroducing native predators, including the wolf. In 2006, he suggested the wolf reintroduction might be accomplished by 2009.

It hasn’t happened yet. Lister learned he would have to apply for a zoo license under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which he did late last year. But the plans remain mired in contradictory requirements: While EU regulations encourage reintroductions, the zoo licensure makes it illegal to keep predators and prey in the same area. Meanwhile, ramblers object to electrical fencing required to contain the animals, a violation of the roaming act. The British press has made a meal of it, gleefully reporting that locals call the place “McSerengeti.”

Conservationists have set their sights on historic Ettrick Forest, where William Wallace rallied the Scots.

But Lister has remained unfazed, consulting with biologists at Oxford WildCRU (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit) and wolf specialists in Romania, creating 18 jobs at Alladale, said to be the most on this land since the Clearances, where workers have built an unobtrusive hydroelectric plant to power the fully-restored lodge. A herd of Highland cattle have stepped in for the extinct auroch, and an 800-acre enclosure houses an experimental group of boar. The boars’ rooting destroys bracken, improving soil quality, so WildCRU undertook a study to establish the size of their territories. Two bemused-looking moose, Hercules and Hulda—immigrants from Sweden—have settled into another enclosure. While a previous owner began small-scale reforestation, Lister has planted 150,000 native trees—Caledonian pine, rowan, birch, oak, willow, and aspen—with an additional 250,000 planned. There are restoration plans for capercaillie, Britain’s largest game bird, and red squirrel.

Alladale may seem the opposite of community-based, but the land—vast stark valleys cut by torrents of peat-black water rushing over stone—has already claimed the dedication of the rangers who work it. They tackle everything from tree-planting to deer stalking (halving the number on the estate), guiding groups of local children who have never had a chance to fish or hike on the property’s rugged expanse.

Innes MacNeill, Alladale’s lanky reserve manager, has spent 19 years working at Alladale, where his father and uncle worked before him. He passionately defended the restoration efforts. “The land’s been raped and that’s a fact,” he said fiercely, as we stood in the open door of the garage, watching rain pour from the sky. “I don’t want to wait for things to grow. The scientists, the boffins, they say it will regenerate naturally. But that’s bullshit. For me, it can’t happen quick enough. That’s why I’m big into tree planting.” While granting that true wolf reintroduction into the wild would not happen in our lifetimes, he praised “the boss” for challenging the status quo. “Wolves,” he said, staring across the property. “Put them out there tomorrow.”

Ronnie MacLeod, a soft-spoken ranger with thirty years on the estate, was no less invested. After a visit to nearby Croik Church—famous for the messages scratched into its windows by homeless crofters who sheltered there during the Clearances—he described tree planting as a kind of solace. Sitting in a wooden badger hide set into the bank above a stream—an area where he himself had planted thousands of trees—he said, “It’s very personal. On hard heathery hills you plant Scots pine. Aspen like to grow by the river. You’re creating a forest as you go along. It’s very, very satisfying.”

This is happening across Scotland. Trees for Life has bought 10,000 acres west of Loch Ness, where more boar are hard at work, rooting and repairing soil. At Glenfeshie, 45,000 acres within the new Cairngorms National Park, deer are being culled and restoration is under way. In the end, it may take every kind of approach—from Carrifran’s deliberate march to the radical challenge of Alladale—to achieve “Caledonia! stern and wild,” a place that was a fantasy even when Sir Walter Scott wrote it, in 1805.