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Rewilding requires new outlooks

Much of Scotland’s cherished natural beauty is muted

By Aidan Bridgeman

Image courtesy of James West via Flickr


The United Nations has declared this decade as the decade of ecosystem restoration, officially from 2021 to 2030, in order to breathe some new life into our ever-degrading planet. It arises on the back of the current climate emergency, for which scientists say the time to respond is getting shorter and shorter. Not only will the climate catastrophe that we are heading for devastate the planet itself, but it will affect people all over the globe (a sentence that should seem laughably obvious, but isn’t so to some).


While many incremental solutions are suggested every year, the main requirement for this to be a success is neither an economic nor political one. The change needed is one of outlook and perception.


This problem is especially clear in Scotland. Many Scots will paint beautiful landscapes in others’ minds when describing their home, likely highlighting the glens, bens, lochs, and wildlife. I hear often that we are incredibly lucky to live in this corner of the world. The Highlands and Islands especially appear untouched by human activity, but this could not be further from the truth.


Many of the desktop wallpapers and the framed landscape photographs are breath-taking at first, but if you look for long enough you’ll soon realise the incredible lack of biodiversity in the Scottish countryside. Reflecting back on my upbringing, it’s easy to now see this lie that we’ve been sold: Highland springs, organic farm fields, rich forests, liquid-crystal lochs. These are, in reality, few and far between. In fact, it’s impossible to say where the Cairngorms National Park really stops and starts. The muted landscapes of Scotland are mistakenly treasured.


For how immensely sparsely populated Scotland is, the footprint of man’s dominion reaches even the most remote places. Historically, the countryside has been mistreated; people and nature alike haven’t been the priority. The Highland clearances of the 16th and 17th centuries and then mass emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries have led to much of the country being deemed ‘inhabitable’, or at least somewhat undesirable to live in, in many a Scot’s mind, with poorer education, employment, housing, and limited access to public services common in rural areas. The for-profit driven degradation of Scottish land is largely to blame, and a normalisation of the limited biodiversity that surrounds us.


A new outlook is needed. Huge open fields separated only by hedgerows for grazing animals is not normal; it’s not nature. Draining and burning peatlands is not ‘management’, it’s destruction. Processes such as this destroy carbon capture pockets, wildlife habitats, and natural water purifiers. Forests that are planted to only later be destroyed are not forests. They need not only trees, but mosses, shrubs, and soil microbes, to name a few, for it to work as a habitat. As the Scottish Rewilding Alliance have said, nature is something to align and ally ourselves with, not something to resist.


Not only is a fresh outlook needed to move away from our current ‘ecological blindness’, but some misconceptions need to be cleared up before rewilding can take place. It’s not about putting the planet or wildlife before people, and it’s not to be restricted only to rural areas.


Humans can live alongside new creatures and new green developments, and we can create many green jobs out of it. Common Weal’s own policy papers have found that many, many new rural jobs would earn more in terms of income than current livestock production, and that’s not even mentioning the awful waste that is private shooting estates too: more jobs would exist with increased rewilding land management strategies. Ecotourism would skyrocket. People already love the red kits, white-tail eagles, ospreys, and bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth, as the Scottish Rewilding Alliance notes.


Moreover, although 73% of people support rewilding, only 52% support reintroducing wild lynx (a Survation poll shows); this in no way means animals are being given priority. In fact, this proposal often arises only because of people’s complaints about vast deer populations ruining forests that we enjoy. If beavers are being annoying, the solution is not to kill them, but to firstly recognise the great benefit they do have, and then consider relocating them.


It’s important that the benefits of rewilding are not only felt by the rural population, as green spaces in cities are equally important. Though, once again, it requires a mindset that nature is our ally, not our foe.

Changing people’s minds will be hard, but it is possible. Only a lifetime ago were red squirrels considered vermin, yet now they’re beloved creatures that are a thrill to spot. Attitudes and priorities can and will change, but the first step is realising that we’ve grown too accustomed to a landscape that is monocultural and flat, despite the colour-rich stories about our ‘lucky corner’ of the world.



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