Committed to a bold and visionary new way of managing land, partners in the Cairngorms Connect project are working towards a wilder, more forested Scottish Highlands.
Seizing the opportunity
Despite its collection of stunning nature reserves, protected patches of Caledonian pinewood and growing network of Marine Protected Areas, Scottish wild nature is a much diminished fraction of what it once was, or could be. Only 70 square miles of Scottish Caledonian forest remains, while the capercaillie, one of Scotland's most iconic species, is one the verge of disappearing completely.
Yet today a growing number of inspirational rewilding projects are offering hope that Scottish nature can bounce back. As landscapes and natural processes are restored, so these projects are providing a timely demonstration of how rewilding typically brings a wide range of benefits to both people and wildlife.
One such project is the Cairngorm Connect initiative. Launched in 2016 as Britain's largest and most audacious habitat restoration venture, this has seen four neighbouring landowners - the Glenfeshie Estate, RPSB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Enterprise Scotland - come together to restore 230 squares of land within the Cairngorms National Park.
Underpinned by long-term herbivore control, which will keep grazing (particularly by red deer) to a low level, the pioneering quartet share a 200-year vision to restore forest, peatland and riverine habitat and grow nature-based tourism. With an emphasis on natural regeneration, the project was recently awarded £3.75 million by the Endangered Landscapes Programme.
It's safe to say most major Scottish landowners aren't working to a timescale two centuries long.
"Habitat enhancement is a process that will take generations here," says Jeremy Roberts, senior site manager at the RSPB's 13,000-hectare (50 square-mile) Abernethy Reserve. "By 2216 we want the tree-covered habitats on Cairngorms Connect land to extend well towards their natural altitudinal limit. We want them to collectively represent some of the finest and most resilient examples of oceanic boreal forest in the whole of northwest Europe."
An osprey clutches a freshly caught fish in the Cairngorms National Park. By Daniel Allen.
On the Glenfeshie Estate, red deer control has already seen previously denuded landscapes undergo an evolution. Saplings of Scots pine, birch, alder and juniper rise confidently through purple swathes of heather, while more established woodland inches its way up previously naked slopes.
"We're already seeing the effects of the ongoing culling that first started in the mid-2000s," says Thomas MacDonell, Director of Conservation and Forestry at Wildland Limited, a private company managing Glenfeshie. "From around 100 deer per square mile in 2002, we're now down to just five. Free from artificial grazing pressure, virtually every landscape is changing."
The regeneration of trees in Glenfeshie means local wildlife populations are growing too. There have been increased sightings of field voles, red squirrels, pine martens, tawny owls and other raptors. The development of riparian woodland is not only strengthening river banks, but helping aquatic animals such as fish and invertebrates by providing shade and underwater habitat. And as a more varied patchwork of forest and open glades becomes established, so populations of species such as the endangered black grouse and capercaillie are thriving as they feed on buds and shoots.
A red-throated diver takes flight on the RSPB's Abernethy National Nature Reserve,
part of the Cairngorms Connect project. By Daniel Allen.
The people perspective
While Glenfeshie is still some way from being economically viable, the aim is to generate profitable revenue for the estate and community as soon as possible. Glenfeshie itself already supports around 60 (mostly local) employees, with more jobs in the pipeline as the estate's natural comeback continues and renovated lodges and bothies open to the public. Those visiting the estate can now hike, bike, ride horses, swim and go birdwatching.
Drawn to the returning wild nature and improving infrastructure, more and more people are already visiting the Cairngorms Connect area, with active pursuits and nature-based experiences multiplying every year.
James Shooter is a photographer, filmmaker and guide who has lived and worked in the Cairngorms National Park for six years, running a series of wildlife photography hides for species such as osprey, red squirrel, crested tit and black grouse. He believes Cairngorms Connect should be a rewilding role model for other conservation initiatives in Scotland, across the UK and in Europe.
"These are exactly the progressive, landscape-scale restoration projects that we need if we are to improve the overall health of our habitats and wildlife," says Shooter. "With Cairngorms Connect developing and the wild gradually becoming wilder, so the local economy is really taking off. It's great to see more and more people reconnecting with nature here."
With only four percent on Scotland covered in native woodland, bringing back trees will be essential to Scottish rewilding. Steve Micklewright is CEO of Trees for Life, a charity working to restore the Caledonian Forest and its unique wildlife.
"As rewilding in continental Europe has already shown, Scottish wild places can flourish if we give natural proceses space and time to work," says Micklewright. "There would be huge associated benefits for people - from enhanced health and wellbeing and climate change mitigation through to new jobs in rural areas as nature-based economies develop."
Facts and figures
- Approximately 1100 capercaillie remaining in Scotland, with 50 percent of male capercaillie found in Cairngorms Connect forests.
- 70 square miles of Caledonian pinewoood remaining in Scotland.
- 230 square miles of land in the Cairngorms Connect project.
- 5000 species recorded within the Cairngorms Connect area.
- 1.87 million people visit the Cairngorms National Park every year (Cairngorms Connect covers 10% of the park).