With SNP majority on a knife-edge and both Alba and Greens predicted to gain seats, the cause for a wilder Scotland has never been stronger.

Calls for a wilder Scotland are growing louder across the Scottish left. In March, Gail Ross of the SNP called on Holyrood to declare Scotland the world’s first ‘rewilding nation’. The motion gained the support of 22 MSPs, raising hopes that — should the SNP gain a majority on May 6 — Nicola Sturgeon will make such a declaration before the COP26 in Glasgow this year. What is more, the new independence party Alba, led by Alex Salmond, has joined the Scottish Greens as the second party to make an explicit commitment to ‘rewilding’ in their manifesto. Whilst the SNP prefers to talk about ‘restoration’, its commitment to restore 250,000 acres of peatland by 2030, combined with the imminent publication of a biodiversity strategy, is a commitment to rewilding in all but name.

Rewilding in Theory

So what is rewilding? George Monbiot, whose book Feral laid out a blueprint for a wilder Britain, has described it as the ‘mass restoration of ecosystems’. In real terms, this means ‘blocking up drainage ditches, enabling wildlife to spread’, and reintroducing ‘missing species which are keystone species, or ecosystem engineers’. Ultimately, it is about letting the natural world return to its natural state. In the Scottish context, this would not apply to productive farmland, which most environmentalists accept is necessary to feed the human population of the British Isles. It would, however, mean a wholesale change in the way the Scottish Highlands and many islands are managed. Whilst this would initially require extensive human input (reintroducing once native species and ending the increasingly unprofitable economy of upland grazing), the goal is an ecosystem that manages itself.

The Impact of the Clearances

To those familiar with the Scottish Highlands; the vast, treeless vistas and sparsely inhabited grouse moors, the rugged sheep and paucity of people appear entirely natural. Indeed, this rugged and expansive landscape is what makes many fall in love with it. Yet nakedness is not the Highland’s natural state. It has been denuded, both of foliage and of people. Following the Jacobite uprising of 1745, in which the Catholic, Gaelic-speaking clans of north-west Scotland rose up against the British state, the Highlands and Islands were decimated to prevent another rebellion. Clan chiefs were hunted down and pacified, and the people were cleared off their ancestral lands to make way for sheep grazing. Whilst sheep were not alien to the highlands prior to 1746, the majority of the population lived a subsistence lifestyle as crofters. Swathes of the Scottish uplands and entire islands were forcibly cleared of their inhabitants who were placed on boats to the Americas. In their place, largescale agriculture — a practice common in the lowlands but unsuited to the often harsh uplands — became the norm.

The Impact of Hunting Estates

The abrupt shift to livestock farming resulted in the felling of the Caledonian forest, which still covered parts of north-west Scotland. With it went the species that dwelled within. The pine martin, Scottish wildcat, and red squirrel were all reduced to tiny populations. With the arrival of English money, much of the uplands were turned over to hunting estates for the British upper-class to shoot grouse and deer. To do so, Highland estates burnt the land, robbing it of nutrients, tree saplings, and anything that could render it unsuitable for ground-nesting birds. Where sheep did not denude the land, the artificially large deer population did — and continues to do so. Birds of prey like eagles and elusive mammals like the otter were also persecuted by gamekeepers to protect the engorged grouse population. In short, the Scottish Highlands and Islands we see today are not the wilderness many believe them to be. They have been shorn like the sheep that have nibbled them bare.

A Rewilding Majority

Fortunately, the restoration of Scotland is now a political agenda with mass support. Whilst an SNP majority hangs in the balance, a rewilding majority is practically assured. The Alba Party, (whose manifesto makes a direct commitment to rewilding), looks likely to pick up one or two seats. Whilst the Scottish Greens — whose manifesto lays out a detailed plan for a wilder Scotland — are predicted to gain nine. With the SNP guaranteed to return as the largest party, the ability of their MSPs to push for ‘rewilding nation’ status will be reinforced.

Support for rewilding is, if anything, even stronger beyond Holyrood. An emphatic 76 per cent of Scots support rewilding at least 30 per cent of Scotland’s land and sea by 2030. With overwhelming public support, and now majoritarian political power, the time is right to restore the Highlands and Islands to their natural state. In fact, the process has already begun.

Rewilding in Action

To those with eyes accustomed to the treeless contours of the Scottish Highlands, the landscape of Alladale Estate in Ardgay is truly breath-taking. Its owner, Paul Lister, appears to have turned 23,000 acres of Scotland into verdant Patagonia. Typically bare mountains drop away to valley floors, which elsewhere in the Highlands would be speckled with sheep. Here, diverse forests of Scots pine, alder, aspen, rowan, willow, and birch line rivers and revitalised peat bogs. Above the valley floor, an Alpine planting initiative has seen the return of dwarf birch and willow to areas over 450 meters. The impact is mesmeric. Nothing could be further from the boxy and lifeless conifer plantations inflicted on the landscape by the Forestry Commission.

Alladale has planted nearly a million trees since 2003, and this, along with deer culling, the removal of sheep, and the restoration of peatland, has allowed for a revival of the wildcat and red squirrel populations. Both golden and sea eagles have returned to Alladale, whilst wild boar, elk, and Eurasian bison have all undergone trial introductions. Most excitingly, Paul Lister has openly discussed his desire to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands, 300 years since the last one was shot. Once one has seen Alladale, it is hard to gaze upon the rest of the Highlands — however striking — without dreaming of what might be.

Hey Scotland, Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Such a future for 30 per cent of Scotland is already promised, and it is entirely possible for much, much more. Rewilding should not be framed as an animal vs. people dichotomy. The human population of north-west Scotland was eradicated along with the flora and fauna, after all. Rewilding could provide jobs through nature tourism and outdoor activities; industries that already generate better and more egalitarian incomes than grazing and blood sports.

Scotland is at a crossroads. Perhaps one of those roads leads to independence, but the other must lead to a wilder future. Scotland has already taken the first steps down that path. The next can be taken on May 6.

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