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In Scotlandís search for roots, a push to restore wild lands

By Caroline Fraser - posted Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Ecologically, there is little left of Scotland. Lanced of danger, fully domesticated, the countryside has been kitted out as an English larder, a table laid with lamb and strawberries and clotted cream. Sheep and dairy cows crop the grass north of Hadrian’s Wall. Polytunnels full of “soft fruit” - raspberries and strawberries - gleam under the occasional sun. North of Flodden - where James IV and his Scottish troops were cut down by the English in 1513 - fields of potatoes stand ready to be turned into chips, and waves of barley bow to the inevitable meat pie.

The last wolf in the British Isles was said to have been killed in Scotland in 1743. Auroch, the enormous wild bovine that once roamed the Isle, is extinct. The European elk - known in North America as the moose - was wiped out several thousand years before the Romans arrived; lynx and brown bear were gone by 500AD; wild boar by the end of the 13th century. Beaver went missing 400 years ago. No one alive has seen the habitat where these creatures held sway: the great Caledonian forest of Scots pine, aspen, oak, and juniper that stretched across 3.7 million acres of the Scottish Highlands since the last Ice Age, whittled away to 35 isolated remnants. One per cent of the original woodland survives.

But while no one has yet seen it, the vision of clawing back a bit of that Caledonian splendour is very much alive. Biologists, activists, and hill walkers dismayed at the monotony of the landscape, tantalised by tales of budding ecological restoration projects around the world, have seen it in their minds’ eye and are plotting its return. Plotting and planting: unlikely as it may seem, sheep-loving Scotland has become a hive of restorationist fervour.


There are a few ruminants in the way. The coming of livestock created the landscape we picture as quintessentially Scottish - rugged, denuded hillsides covered in short grass. In the larger sense, hoofstock also wrought the country’s capitulation to its southern neighbour. In 1707, when the Scottish Parliament dissolved itself, voting for the Treaty of Union with England, it did so to preserve the market for hides, beef, and mutton. At the end of that century, the same class of landowners let loose their “factors,” property managers who drove smallholders off the land during the infamous Highland Clearances, burning their thatched huts, starving them out to create a sheep walk. Ecologically, the whole country is a kind of Culloden - the moor where British troops slaughtered Highland clansmen in a brutal 1746 rout - laid waste in an act of enforced national unity.

Thus, beneath the superficially peaceful surface of Scotland simmers a longstanding discontent. Politically, the country is roiled by nationalism, fully engaged in “devolution”, the process of hedged independence set in motion a decade ago, when citizens voted in 1997 to reawake their slumbering Parliament. On the ground, Scots are as restive with an Anglicised landscape as they are with Anglo rule. “Who owns Scotland?” cries Rob McMorran, co-ordinator of a group of activists known as the Scottish Wild Land Group. “Up until a few years ago, God owned Scotland. It was a feudal system of ownership.” It many ways - despite passage of land reform in 2003 - it still is. McMorran is echoing the title of a popular book and website, Who Owns Scotland? which reports that a mere 343 private individuals own half the country’s 19 million acres. Scotland’s two national parks, also created in 2003, are not nationalised: the majority of land within them is owned and managed privately, with continued sheep grazing and commercial forestry.

As they struggle to break free of the past, Scots find themselves immersed in pitched battles of a modern kind: debating the wisdom of wind farms or massive hydro schemes on their lochs, grappling with a ballooning population of deer that routinely bolt in front of trains and cars, causing accidents and delays. They are resentful of disfiguring conifer plantations grown and cut by the UK Forestry Commission, symbolic of outdated policies favouring cheap paper and pulp. As for the Highland Clearances, they might have happened yesterday, so raw is the memory. Another act of the reconvened parliament was the restoration of the “right-to-roam,” allowing every citizen to walk freely across the country, unchecked by fences or gates. The land has been taken back, at least symbolically, by the Scottish people. But the question arises: what will they do with it?

In this intoxicating atmosphere, environmentalists are determined to see how far they can go. Environmental groups are buying hunting estates to reforest; private landowners are experimenting with native planting; beaver have been reintroduced after decades of debate. Many such projects fall under the rubric of “rewilding” - the conservation method of restoring core wilderness areas, maintaining corridors between them for wildlife to migrate and disperse, and reintroducing top predators. But not everyone agrees on how to accomplish these goals, especially when it comes to carnivores.

“Wolves and bears are not going to be on the agenda in our lifetime,” Philip Ashmole says calmly. That kind of practicality has characterised everything about the project he helped organise, Carrifran Wildwood, from fund-raising to restoration. A biologist and expert in oceanic island ecosystems, Ashmole taught at Yale for some years, exploring the American park system during vacations. When he and his wife Myrtle, also a specialist, returned to the UK, they were dismayed at the comparative dearth of wild lands. By the mid-1990s, joined by friends who volunteered legal, real estate, and business expertise, they began searching for a valley in the southern Borders region that could be restored to its original suite of habitats, from native forest along the lower slopes to scrub and heath near the craggy summits. They wanted a complete catchment, and found it - along with some of the highest peaks in southern Scotland - in a narrow glen named Carrifran, “seat of ravens” in the ancient local language.

They helped to set up a dedicated group, the Borders Forest Trust, building relationships with established environmental groups and soliciting donations from committed supporters, including David Stevenson, past owner of Edinburgh Woollen Mill, who put up the money for half a million tree seedlings. Eventually the Trust raised £335,000 to buy the land, and on January 1, 2000, Millennium Day, 100 volunteers began planting the first trees. At 1,640 acres, Carrifran is one of the largest ecological restoration projects in Scotland, fully planted with 450,000 birch, yew, aspen, juniper, oak, pine, and hazel seedlings - many grown from seed collected locally in patches of surviving native woods. It is estimated to offset nearly 30,000 tons of CO2 over the next century. Patrolled by Wildwood’s “dirty hands” volunteers - its boundary inspected over a hundred times in the past decade by hill walkers - the Carrifran project has been hailed as a monument to community-based conservation.


The saviours arrived in the nick of time: Slopes stripped by sheep and goats, Carrifran’s few ancient trees clung gamely to rocky promontories perched over the stream, or “burn,” that bifurcates the valley. The stump of one of the last hollies in the glen collapsed after a storm, but cuttings sent out suckers and roots, contributing to the resurrection. While no one alive will see Carrifran in its reforested glory, a process that may take several centuries, the valley is already a stunning sight, covered in a thick pelt of vegetation.

As Philip Ashmole and I crossed the glen this past July, we were up to our knees in new growth: dog rose, bird cherry, downy birch, alder, juniper, and holly, which were flourishing and producing seed. Bare grass had been replaced by stands of willow and groves of hawthorn and hazel. Rare species of fern and anemone have been found. Black grouse, declining elsewhere, have been heard drumming in two leks high on the slopes. Once scarce woodland birds such as willow warbler, chaffinch, blackcap, siskin, and grasshopper warbler have been flocking back. Badger, fox, stoat, otter, weasel, mountain hare, and field voles are now common, and peregrine falcons are on the prowl.

The project has faced daunting challenges. An outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 required that tens of thousands of seedlings be quarantined for months before planting; many were lost. A 2003 fire burnt 10,000 newly-planted trees. The group had underestimated how bracken - ferns that colonise pastureland - suppresses regeneration, shading and crushing new growth; hand-cutting and spot-spraying of herbicides are dealing with that. Perhaps the most unexpected development occurred when residents of a nearby village protested the removal of feral goats. “They thought them part of their heritage,” Philip Ashmole said dryly. But Wildwood stood its ground, removing most goats alive, although three stragglers had to be shot. A deer “stalker” patrols once a week to ensure that no grazers penetrate fenced areas; sales of venison support the project.

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First published by Yale Environment 360 on September 16, 2010.

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About the Author

Caroline Fraser traveled on six continents to write Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution (Metropolitan Books). Her first book, God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church, was selected as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Review Best Book. She has written widely about animal rights, natural history, and the environment, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker and Outside magazine, among others.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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