With an often destructive land use regime and an absence of large predators, much of Scotlandâ€™s upland landscape is in an impoverished condition. No wonder there is now a growing appetite for rewilding, writes Richard Rowe.
Could wolves one day make a comeback in Scotland? The prolific nature writer Jim Crumley believes they could â€“ and should. In his recent book The Last Wolf, the author reflects on the possible return of the wolf to Scotland and specifically to Rannoch Moor â€“ that vast, wild plateau crossed by so many on the way to and from Glencoe. It is here, he is convinced, that the last wolf to roam the Highlands saw out its days some 250 years ago, and it is here that their story should begin once again.
The prospect of hearing the howl of a wolf carry over the moor is one to excite anyone intent on seeing the return of Scotlandâ€™s long-lost species. It would certainly make the many deer that graze with impunity sit up and take notice, not to mention adding a certain frisson to a walk along the West Highland Way.
But until man hunted them down with such efficiency, wolves were very much part of the scenery throughout the Highlands. There were bears, too, and lynx. Today, in the absence of top predators, it is deer that rule the open hill â€“ often with numbers kept artificially high to satisfy the needs of shooting estates.
With so many grazing mouths â€“ and thatâ€™s before we consider sheep â€“ itâ€™s little wonder that vast tracts of the Highlands look as they do; in many places, the trees that once harboured so much life are either long-gone or else grazed to within an inch of their lives. Instead, we have what the ecologist Frank Fraser Darling described as a â€œwet desertâ€ â€“ a barren, treeless landscape of closely cropped grass and eroded peat hags.
However, talk of wolves returning to Scotland any time soon appears fanciful; in fact, given the negative baggage associated with such an animal, itâ€™s hard to imagine when they might ever make a return. But with growing enthusiasm for rewilding â€“ essentially the mass restoration of ecosystems â€“ we are perhaps seeing the beginnings of a cultural change that may yet pave the way for the return of some of our native predators.
If rewilding is about returning habitat to its natural state, complete with at least some of the creatures that once populated it, then positive steps are already being made. From native woodland to peatland, habitat regeneration projects are under way in countless locations around Scotland. Conservation bodies are now also thinking big; gone is the traditional approach of managing small, disconnected nature reserves, replaced instead by landscape-scale ecosystem restoration projects â€“ initiatives that place people and communities at their centre as well as wildlife.
And, slowly, life is returning. Ospreys have come back under their own steam; once captive wild boar have escaped and become part of the scenery in some areas; while red kite and sea eagle have been formally reintroduced â€“ with numbers of the latter boosted by the most recent release of 85 birds in Fife as part of a five-year east coast reintroduction.
â€œFife is historically an area that sea eagles would have occupied,â€ explains Rhian Evans, East Scotland sea eagle officer at the RSPB. With the Forth, Tay and Eden river systems nearby, the habitat is perfect, she adds. The hope is that with a presence on the east coast to match that in the west following earlier reintroductions, the birds will gradually infill much of their former territory.
Meanwhile, in the Forestry Commissionâ€™s Knapdale Forest, in Argyll, there has been a closely monitored trial reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver, an animal last seen living in the wild in Scotland some 400 years ago. Led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the trial was established to evaluate how such a keystone species can enhance and restore natural environments, while also examining its impact on land use and communities living nearby.
Extensively studied elsewhere â€“ beavers have already been reintroduced in 25 countries around Europe â€“ the trial in Knapdale has essentially confirmed what was already known: beavers, which are supreme wetland engineers, modify the landscape by building lodges and dams, often enhancing habitat to the benefit of many other creatures.
They have also bred successfully and appear perfectly at home â€“ as do the 130 or so unlicensed beavers that now live wild on Tayside. Findings from studies of both populations are now being evaluated by Scottish Natural Heritage ahead of presenting a final report to the Scottish Government during the first half of 2015.
In a sense, with the beavers doing just fine, the Knapdale trial has been more about peopleâ€™s willingness to embrace change. â€œReally the conversation now should not be about whether they should remain, but how we manage living alongside them,â€ says Simon Jones, director of conservation at the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
But while action across Scotland in recent years has offered a glimpse of what could be achieved, be it through restoring species and natural processes, or simply reducing our interference in ecosystems, we are still only at the start gate. Countries across Europe have seen the reintroduction or return of beavers, European bison, Eurasian lynx, brown bears and wolves, the latter having returned under their own steam to former territories in Germany, France, Denmark and even the Netherlands.
Living on an island, we canâ€™t rely on terrestrial animals finding their own way back. We have to step in and then â€“ just as importantly â€“ learn to let go. There is also a political responsibility to do so: the EU Habitats Directive obliges member states to explore the feasibility of reintroducing extinct native species. The big question, given our own fractured relationship with the natural world â€“ a relationship, it seems, in which our dominion must at no time be challenged â€“ is whether we would accept the return of anything more than a tree-felling herbivore.
â€œIn some ways there has been good progress, but in others we have not moved forward at all,â€ says Alan Watson Featherstone, executive director at the award-winning charity Trees for Life. â€œSpecies and habitat are much reduced in Scotland … ours is a landscape frozen in time, a museum piece.â€
Much more ambition is needed, he believes â€“ a point stressed to those who crammed into a University of Edinburgh lecture theatre recently to hear Featherstone and author George Monbiot discuss the social and ecological benefits of rewilding. In a message familiar to those who have read his recent book, Feral, Monbiot stressed how large, keystone species such as lynx, wolf, boar and beaver drive the ecological processes that create habitat for other species to exist. â€œAn ecosystem that has lost the top levels of the food chain is one that behaves in radically different ways,â€ he told the audience.
For Featherstone, current rewilding efforts in Scotland come from such a low start point that itâ€™s as much about regeneration of vegetation as the return of specific animals. Trees for Life has done much already, planting more than a million trees in the glens west of Loch Ness as part of its effort to restore Scotlandâ€™s ancient Caledonian Forest.
But all types of habitat, not just forest, need to be restored, he says. Only then will we see a return of the ecological processes â€“ the succession that sees vegetation communities develop and change over time rather than just persisting as a grass monoculture, and natural predator/prey relationships â€“ that are required for a fully functioning ecosystem. â€œI was asked recently, â€˜why do you want to turn the clock backâ€™? But for me, itâ€™s not about turning the clock back, itâ€™s about starting the clock again,â€ he says.
The return of large predators is often cited as a means of reducing unsustainable deer numbers, but a more likely immediate impact in deer-rich Scotland would be simply moving the animals on so that their grazing is less concentrated. In perhaps the most famous example of predator reintroduction, the grey wolves that were returned to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s are now credited with dispersing prey species to such an extent that vegetation has been reborn, turning once bare hills green. Jim Crumley writes about this in his book, describing the wolf rather beautifully as a â€œpainter of mountainsâ€.
So, could and should the wolf return to Scotland? No, or at least not yet, believes Featherstone. A much more feasible candidate would be the Eurasian lynx, he argues. A solitary hunter of primarily roe deer, lynx are thought to pose little threat to domestic livestock, while attacks on humans are unheard of. The thinking is that if we were to learn to live with this particular carnivore again, it might just create the conditions that enable wolves to return at some point down the line.
When the respected ecologist David Hetherington, ecology adviser for the Cairngorms National Park Authority, wrote his doctorate on lynx reintroduction to Scotland, he concluded that even with current available habitat, the Highlands could accommodate 400 of the animals. â€œEcologically, they could be here next week, but itâ€™s down to will,â€ says Featherstone. â€œItâ€™s about making the case â€“ something that I would like to see happen in the next decade.â€
And if we could accept such a carnivore in our midst once more, the idea of wolves returning to Scotland might not be so far-fetched after all.
Find out more:
Trees for Life harnesses the efforts of volunteers to restore the Caledonian Forest.
Rewilding Europe works towards restoring habitats in seven regions, the latest being the Rhodope Mountains, in Bulgaria.
The Scottish Beaver Trial has completed its five-year monitoring phases and data is now being collected for presentation to the Scottish Government. See more here. Read how we reported on the trial when it started in 2010.