The story of Scotland’s landscape is a familiar one. Once wild and unruly, filled with a diverse array of plant and animal wildlife, much of the Scottish Highlands is now barren and bare, tamed into submission by land use activities that plundered its natural capital at a pace that accelerated alongside people’s insatiable appetite for “stuff”. What remains has been termed a “biological desert” and the processes that were once balanced so deftly by nature have been skewed severely towards human consumption.
On a recent trip to our project-partners at Alladale Wilderness Reserve we spent some time with the Reserve Manager Innes Macneill. Within just a couple of hours had learnt so much about the current state of land across Scotland due to pressures imposed on it by human activity. One particular example of this that stuck with me can be summarised in the following chain of events:
Unchecked/unmanaged hunting = extinction of apex predators. Extinction of apex predators = soaring deer numbers. Soaring deer numbers = overgrazing. Overgrazing + excessive burning of moors = no natural regrowth of forest. No natural regrowth + draining of peat bogs = less carbon sequestration. Less carbon sequestration = one less natural climate solution (amongst many other downsides).
Of course this chain of events has countless factors, takes many twists and turns and can no doubt be explained, accounted for and/or excused but the result is still the same *buzzword alert*: biodiversity and ecological crisis.
Now whilst that’s quite a hefty amount of doom and gloom, the role of The European Nature Trust is to raise awareness of the environmental and conservation projects going on across Europe to solve these crises. Projects like those that we learnt so much about on our visit to Alladale, and from our conversations with Innes:
- Red squirrel translocation – improving species biodiversity
- Highland cattle initiative – improving physical disturbance to create a richer ecology
- Scottish wildcat breeding programme – bringing back a key predator to Scottish ecosystems
- Planting of over 900,000 native trees – reforestation of the UK’s oldest Caledonian pine forest
- Peatlands restoration – improving carbon sequestering potential
Highland Outdoor and Wilderness Learning
- HOWL offers a specially designed, and expert-led, environmental journey for school children during which participants not only improve their understanding about the natural world, ecology and conservation but also learn key life skills
There is so much going on at Alladale that sometimes things get missed out. On our visit we were shown a prime example of this: the hydro pump that powers the lodge. Whilst we were there, all the energy being used to heat and power the main lodge came from an on-site hydro pump. Unbeknownst to us all, we had been reaping the benefits of one of Alladale’s many environmental initiatives.
This lack of knowledge and understanding is one of the biggest problems faced by rewilding initiatives as it can be difficult for the benefits to be quantified. But a report published earlier this year by the Scottish Government provides a number of statistics that help to contextualise and explain the importance of the projects going on at Alladale Wilderness Reserve, and at other sites like it. Here are a few:
Over 2.7 million acres of land in Scotland is under agri-environment schemes – the second largest amount in the UK
- Agri-environment schemes require land managers, including farmers, to implement environmentally beneficial management and to demonstrate good environmental practice on their
land. The schemes aim to conserve wildlife; maintain and enhance landscape quality and character; protect the historic environment and natural resources; and promote public understanding of the countryside
Alladale’s 23,000 acres are home to schemes like this.
In 2015, the partial asset value of Scottish natural capital was estimated to be £291 billion – 30% of this asset value was attributable to non-material benefits
- Natural capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things used to benefit humans
Education initiatives like HOWL can certainly be classed as a non-material benefit – and a vital one if rewilding is to be sustained by future generations.
In 2017, five times as much energy was produced from renewable sources in Scotland than was produced in 2000.
The removal of PM2.5 from the atmosphere by Scottish vegetation led to overall avoided health damage costs of £52.3 million during 2017.
- PM2.5 means the mass per cubic metre of air of particles with a size (diameter) generally less than 2.5 micrometres (µm). The biggest impact of particulate air pollution on public health is understood to be from long-term exposure to PM2.5
Another vital, non-material benefit of rewilding initiatives is of course human health, but the carbon sequestering potential of this vegetation along with restored peatlands is enormous too.
The story of Scotland’s landscape *has been* a familiar one, but with the help of rewilding initiatives like those at Alladale Wilderness Reserve the story is changing. Hopefully, this journal post has done something to shed some light on what the benefits of rewilding the Scottish Highlands are and therefore why its so important that it is supported. In supporting it, the story of Scotland’s landscape has a much happier ending.
UK Biodiversity Indicators 2019 – https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/829517/UKBI-2019_booklet_rev.pdf
Natural Capital Forum – https://naturalcapitalforum.com/about
Scottish natural capital: ecosystem service accounts 2019 – https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-natural-capital-ecosystem-service-accounts-2019/pages/2/
Public Health: Sources and Effects of PM2.5 – https://laqm.defra.gov.uk/public-health/pm25.html