Land Use: Rewilding



Land Use


Tree planting is often associated with the principle of “rewilding”, whereby an area of land is restored to its former wild state, before it was changed by human activity. But it is a false assumption that the whole of the Highlands was covered in forest until comparatively recently, as is shown by maps from as far back as the 16th century.[1]

In fact, pollen analysis projects (e.g. Davies, A.L. 1999 High spatial resolution Holocene vegetation and land-use history in west Glen Affric and Kintail, Northern Scotland. Ph.D. thesis, University of Stirling) have shown that in fact there have been comparatively few trees in parts of the West Glen Affric and Kintail area for at least the last 4000 years, probably as a result of climate change and human agricultural activity from the Bronze Age onwards. It must then be asked, what merit is there in trying to return the land to its state in a distant past before human settlement, and is it sensible to try to plant trees in areas where they have not flourished for thousands of years?

Rewilding also includes attempts to reintroduce wildlife species which are extinct in an area where they formerly lived. This has been done in recent years in Scotland with birds such as the red kite, the capercaillie and the sea eagle. If success is measured by the establishment of successful breeding populations, then red kites and sea eagles have been successfully reintroduced, the capercaillie less so. But there may also be a negative impact on existing species in the environment which must also be taken into account.

In the Affric National Park area there are currently proposals (by Trees for Life, with the agreement of some landowners) to reintroduce beavers, which became extinct in Scotland in the 16th century. The reintroduction of beavers in other European countries and in other parts of Scotland has been problematic, with their activities causing flooding of farmland.

Before a decision is taken to introduce what after 500 years is effectively a new species, some questions must be asked:

  • How has the landscape changed since they last lived here?
  • Has the climate changed since they last lived here?
  • What effect would they have on vegetation?
  • What effect would they have on flora and fauna, especially those occupying the same habitat and ecological niche?
  • What effect would they have on present land use?

While beavers might have some beneficial effects on rivers and river banks, it would be incredibly difficult to model accurately their effect on every aspect of the environment, and we are not aware of any attempt to do so, but all these questions must be answered satisfactorily before any reintroduction of beavers proceeds; the same applies even more so to the large predators such as lynx and wolves which have also been suggested for reintroduction.