Scotland Wants to 'Rewild' Its Lochs and Glens

This modern approach to nature conservation could make it the world's first 'rewilding nation.'

Athnamulloch Bothy
Athnamulloch Bothy, Scotland.

Trees for Life

Think of Scotland and your mind may be filled with visions of magnificent mountains, sparkling lakes, and dark pine forests. Despite its reputation for nature, however, Scotland's landscapes have lost much of their biodiversity and wildlife over the past century. 

It has only 19% woodland cover (of which 4% is native), compared to Europe's average of 37% woodland cover. Despite a third of its seas being under some form of official designation, damaging activities such as bottom trawling and scallop dredging are allowed in all but 5%. 

"Scotland is an ecological shadow of what it could and should be," says Richard Bunting, a spokesperson for the Scottish Rewilding Alliance (SWA) and Trees for Life, to Treehugger. "Deforestation, deer and sheep grazing, burning moors for grouse hunting, exotic conifers and denuded seas have left it as one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, its landscapes supporting fewer people than previously as a result. And despite many superb initiatives, Scotland is lagging behind other countries when it comes to nature restoration."

Bunting spoke with Treehugger about a campaign the SWA has launched to rewild the country. Rewilding, which is defined as "the large-scale restoration of nature to the point it can take care of itself," would put Scotland in a better position to tackle the overlapping threats of climate change, nature loss, and diminished health, while boosting human wellbeing and sustainable economic opportunity.

pine seedling
A pine seedling at Binnilidh Bheag, Scotland. Trees for Life

Specifically, the SWA is calling on the Scottish government to commit to rewilding 30% of the country's land and sea over the next decade and to commit ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) slated to take place in Glasgow this November. It wants Scotland to become the world's first Rewilding Nation and is asking all major political parties to implement five key policy changes. These are:

  • Committing to rewilding 30% of public lands
  • Establishing a fund to support rewilding in towns and cities
  • Backing the reintroduction of keystone species, such as rehoming beavers and bringing back the Eurasian lynx where there is local support
  • Introducing a marine recovery zone where dredging and trawling are not allowed
  • Implementing robust deer population management, which will allow over two million hectares of peatlands to recover and native woodlands to regenerate

Bunting explains to Treehugger how rewilding differs from a traditional approach to nature conservation. He says: "Conservation has focused on saving isolated fragments of nature, as nature reserves or places of scientific interest. We could see where rare plants and animals were hanging on and we tried to save them. So for decades, we've been trying to save nature piecemeal—a rare bird or insect here, a fragment of woodland there. This was and is vital work. But it hasn't been enough to stop the decline in biodiversity..."

"Rewilding is looking to reverse catastrophic losses of biodiversity, and allow nature to flourish across much larger, better connected, and much more resilient areas," adds Bunting. "Less management is needed with rewilding, making it more affordable and sustainable than traditional conservation."

Environmental journalist George Monbiot, who has written a book on rewilding, explained in a 2013 article that traditional conservation takes the problematic approach of maintaining sites in whatever condition they were found when designated. "More often than not this is a state of extreme depletion: the merest scraping of what was once a vibrant and dynamic ecosystem," wrote Monbiot.

Rewilding, by contrast, involves doing less and waiting longer. Monbiot explained: "[It] should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants, taking down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, culling a few particularly invasive exotic species but otherwise standing back. It’s about abandoning the Biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world."

Osprey fishing at dawn
An osprey fishes at dawn in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. Scotland Big Picture via Rewilding Nation/Trees for Life (used with permission)

With that comes numerous benefits to people and animals alike. Rewilding reduces flood risk and soil degradation. It restores life to land and seas, which Bunting says "have become increasingly sterile and silent." It improves water quality, carbon storage, health, and wellbeing of Scotland's inhabitants, particularly the mental development of children. And it could make Scotland even more attractive than it already is for tourists.

"We’re already seeing rewilding’s potential for offering economic benefits and supporting communities, and for providing employment, including in rural areas," Bunting explains. "In Scotland, otters, deer, puffins, and sea eagles already support a growing nature tourism economy; ospreys alone bring in an estimated £3.5 million (US$5 million) a year. There's massive untapped potential here."

The SWA isn't alone in pushing for this. A poll it conducted last year found that three-quarters of Scots support the initiative—10 times more than the number opposing it. Bunting is right when he says the public appetite is there. 

"If we think bigger and bolder, Scotland could be a nature-restoration trailblazer," says Bunting. "It has the space and opportunity to take a fresh approach, with people working with nature instead of against it. It’s perfectly placed to be a rewilding world leader."

View Article Sources
  1. Keesstra, Saskia, et al. "The Superior Effect of Nature Based Solutions in Land Management for Enhancing Ecosystem Services." Science of the Total Environment, 2018, pp. 997-1009, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.08.077