Bringing the wilderness back to Scotland

Is the reintroduction of large mammals realistic? This is the question Gyda faced in her presentation at the 2015 Conservation Science Conference. To answer this question, we need to fully understand what rewilding aims to achieve, and the consequences that go along with it. As a general term, rewilding is the restoration of ecosystems to their natural state without human influence. This involves the restoration of the landscape’s natural greenery and reintroduction of keystone species, such as top predators or ecosystem engineers.

Gyda discussed these goals in relation to the Scottish Highlands, which has been transformed by human activity from a forested landscapes supporting wolves, beaversx, and red squirrels, to a region dominated by agriculture. However, this land is actually fairly poor for agriculture, instead being an ideal location for rewilding due to the large area of land it includes, and its relative remoteness from human habitations.

Recently in the Scottish Highlands, beavers have been reintroduced and these ecosystem engineers have successfully returned their territories to a natural state, supporting a new diversity of species. A further project, the Trees for Life restoration of the Caledonian Forest, has started to bring back the native forest habitat that was removed by human deforestation, giving endemic Scottish species a place to thrive.

Gyda identified wild boar, bison, lynx, wolves and brown bears as candidates for reintroduction. All of these species have suffered human persecution which drove them to extinction in Scotland, but prior to this had great importance to the ecosystem they were part of.

But reintroduction doesn’t come without its problems. Many species, especially top predators, face opposition from the public and landowners. Wolves and bears, famed for their ferocity, are the least popular as they are viewed a threat to public safety and to the economic livelihood of grouse moorland owners and livestock farmers. Gyda came to the conclusion that the most suitable carnivore for reintroduction to the Highlands is the lynx, as it inhabits high mountain tops, avoiding human contact.

The wolf (left) and lynx (right) could be reintroduced to the Scottish Highlands in a bid to return the area to natural wilderness.

However, safeguards must still be put in place to ease the acceptance of these wild animals in our landscape. Examples of this can be seen in Norway and Sweden where famers are compensated for the loss of animals to wolf packs. A similar tactic could easily be applied in the Scottish Highlands, but to add some difficulty, it would need governmental support to fund the compensation. The situation becomes more complex in the case of grouse, as the profitability of the land doesn’t depend on individual grouse, but instead on the attractiveness of the area as a hunting resort. In this case, compensation schemes would be hard to promote among the stakeholders.

All in all, the reintroduction of large wild animals to Scotland is a topic that will never be fully agreed on. In spite of this, the cause has garnered some unexpected support from the public and landowners alike, making further reintroductions a possibility in the near future.

By Margaret Bolton

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