Would rewilding work in Scotland?

As part of the annual Scottish Game Fair earlier this month, I was delighted to chair a discussion, involving representatives from both sides of the divide, on the highly controversial subject of rewilding in rural Scotland.

For the uninitiated, rewilding is the act of restoring areas of land to their natural uncultivated state, which often includes the reintroduction of once native species of flora and wild animals which had been driven out or exterminated. In Scotland, this involves the potential reintegration of wolves into the countryside, as well as lynx which disappeared from these shores over 1,000 years ago.

Rewilding is a hugely emotive subject in Scotland with the debate often hijacked by ideological land reformists and animal rights campaigners on one side and by passionate Scottish gamekeepers and farming groups on the other. But in amongst the hyperbole generated on this issue, genuine concerns have also been raised.

I do, however, believe it is possible to find common ground in developing a workable plan that will ensure sustainability for Scotland’s countryside and deliver economic benefits for the people and communities who reside within it.

Designating areas of Scotland that could, over time, be encouraged to return to self-regulating ecosystems is an appealing proposition. Those who favour rewilding argue that expanding natural habitats, repairing eco-systems where they are broken and reintroducing forms of extinct wildlife will deliver both an intrinsic uplift, by reconnecting people to the countryside, and economic benefits through enhanced nature tourism opportunities. While it would take at least three to four generations to deliver, few would dispute that rewilding is an aspirational goal.

The question is, however, whether it would be workable here within our existing land management regime. Even Scotland’s most remote areas are sculpted and managed by some form of human activity, including land that is currently managed purely for conservation purposes. There are various models that can be used, but true rewilding requires large land masses that are generally under single ownership so, as things currently stand, a paradigm shift in our approach to land use would be required.

There are also questions about the economic case for rewilding. Both wolves and lynx tend to shun contact with humans so it’s unlikely their reintroduction would be a viable means of boosting rural tourism and a significant benefit to local communities without significant government subsidy.

Contrast that with the contribution currently made by gaming estates, which play a key role in the approximately £2bn Gross Value Added (GVA) which shooting generates for the UK economy. The conservation focus of many private managed estates, including those which are run as shooting estate businesses, needs to be considered carefully within this debate.

Grouse moors, for example, offer support for a broad range of otherwise plummeting populations of ground-nesting birds, in particular the curlew. While many of these diverse habitats are flourishing on managed estates, the biggest losers from rewilding can often be vulnerable species that benefit from human intervention, intentional or otherwise.

With Brexit now on the cards and Scotland poised to depart from the Common Agricultural Policy, I would expect the UK’s equivalent model to be increasingly weighted toward agri-environmental schemes. Pilots for introducing what were once local wild animal species are also increasingly a reality but, while the media spotlight on bringing back wolves and lynx represents a glamourous romantic scenario, is this really the best way forward in terms of protecting the species that are currently within rural Scotland?

There’s a compelling argument that before we can seriously consider rewilding and the introduction of new species in Scotland, we must first look at all aspects of the existing natural food chain to determine if this would be sustainable.

Over the longer term there may be potential to introduce small numbers of such predators in isolated pockets of rural Scotland, but to maintain the existing synergy within rural Scotland this must be done in conjunction with farming and land owning groups.

We must also not lose sight of the positive contribution towards conservation made by existing estates across Scotland. While this does not sit comfortably alongside the rewilding agenda, it does have a proven track record in delivering many of the same aims, namely sustainability and economic opportunity for rural communities. Both sides of the rewilding divide would support that outcome.