Rewilding areas of Scotland could be seen to benefit and enhance in many ways, yet could also be destructive with adverse effects on species, land use and communities. Essentially, there has to be compromise, common sense and a want to assess and await outcomes of tested practices in order to achieve a harmonious balance within the countryside, benefiting farmers, landowners and communities alike.
Wolves, bears and lynxes once roamed the UK as the top predators and the concept of rewilding the countryside with these carnivores has been much discussed. However, we live in a very different world, no longer sporting the same suitable habitats and lifestyles and as with these and many other examples, truly wild integration could still be some way off. Beavers, sea eagles and Scottish pine forest restoration are all areas of contention and discussion but is the pure excitement and thrill of resurrecting certain species enough to allow it? As St Francis of Assisi noted, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” We certainly have the capacity and want to reintroduce these species, but can it work in the present day?
Beavers are a main topic of discussion for reintroduction. Projects where beavers have been reintroduced all over the UK are showing huge favour and benefits, recognising the beneficial effects to the wetlands and encouraging biodiversity. Master engineers, they transform insignificant streams into pools, dams and wetlands all of which provide new homes for many sorts of native wildlife such as dragonflies, fish, frogs, otters, woodcock and wading birds. Hunted into extinction for their fur, meat and scent glands, the loss of beavers meant a loss of intricate structures of sticks and mud and burrows in banks all of which had huge environmental benefits. In large wild wet areas the beavers, through their engineering, can slow the water flow, both filtering and oxygenating it and storing it in times of heavy rainfall resulting in cleaner water and reducing flood risk. Beavers with their creation of dams and systematic engineering of river flow, help to shape it and prevent flooding; in short, they can rebuild an entire ecosystem that has been lost.
Concerns over beaver reintroduction are several, including that fact that without natural predators, the beaver population could rapidly expand. Also because they alter riverbanks, remove trees and flood areas, local landowners and residents are worried the erosion could place homes and businesses at risk. Farmers are concerned over damage to crops and the threat of disease spreading to livestock, while anglers are uneasy over the impact on their fish stocks, though they are mainly herbivore eating animals and do not eat fish. Despite the expense in beaver trialling, which the NFU have branded as a costly luxury, do the benefits of working beavers in the countryside outweigh the cons?
Wolves, another species in discussion for rewilding in the UK, is one that would have to be exceptionally well planned. In Yellowstone Park, United States, this has been successful with this top predator significantly lowering red deer numbers reducing the need for costly deer culls and allowing the natural regeneration of the lower meadows where the ecosystem is flourishing due to the fact that the deer are heading higher and not eating out the grasslands. Butterflies, dragonflies and nesting birds are more plentiful. Wolves would also benefit the grouse moors by reducing number of foxes and small predators. Benefits to the tourism industry, we can assume it would be a positive effect, but there are many concerns too. Both the emotional response to wolf predation and the payment of compensation for killed livestock would add another cost to the general public. With free ranging sheep widely practiced across the Scottish Highlands, there is a real risk of attack, also killing of domestic dogs and threat to people. The rewilding of wolves needs to be carefully considered. Wild Lynx were allowed to roam the countryside for thousand years but hunted into extinction. There is much discussion of re-introducing Eurasian Lynx from Europe to the west coast of Scotland, with the benefits of culling red deer but with the threat to livestock and grouse.
Sea Eagles became extinct in Britain in the early 1900s and were reintroduced in Scotland in 1975 amidst much uncertainty. Pros and cons abound over the success of this rewilding. The eagle is adding the missing piece of the jigsaw, the top predator which should be in the wetland system and they have boosted the tourism industry with the Isle of Mull recording an extra £1.5 million to the local economy. Although hugely inspirational and majestic creatures, unfortunately they have been held responsible for lamb deaths and when introduced down in East Anglia, caused havoc within an open air pig farm, where the panic which ensued as the eagle soared overhead, meant many pigs were crushed by the sows. A similar complaint came from a poultry farm. These predators have recently been discovered dead after being caught in wind turbines, perhaps an indication that our lifestyle and tampering with the countryside is not conducive to rewilding.
Grass lands and woodlands are both key to our ecological network. Rewilding the grounds to restore them to former patterns and plantations is essential for wildlife and biodiversity. Grasslands are over-grazed in areas, have been converted to gardens or planted with trees and the meadows that do remain are cut early thereby damaging the wildlife that have made their homes there.
Major new pinewood restoration projects in the Scottish Highlands forge ahead. Plans to re-establish world class wild landscapes and to make them rich in wildlife, have seen Trees for Life planting 1.2 million trees, mostly Scots pine, with more to come. Volunteers plant the trees enabling huge swathes of the community to become involved in this exciting plan. Woodland during WW2 saw felling on a large scale and wildlife trusts are striving to remove plantation timber, using the wood as bio-fuel for local buildings such as schools and aim to restore them to former glory by planting up new trees.
The list of animals considered for rewilding varies and fluctuates depending on trialling and success. Carnivores are the most controversial for obvious reasons (who would be happy meeting a wolf on their doorstep?) but the idea of recreating natural landscapes and habitats from areas ‘despoiled’ by human activity is hugely favourable and exciting for the generations to come.