Is the current vogue for ‘rewilding’ not instead ‘de-wilding’ the Highlands, by forcing the landscape to match our preconceptions?
Ecology is a complicated, made more so if a time element is introduced, i.e. how ecosystems change over time. Because most people are not ecologists and prefer nice simple stories, it is much easier to jump unthinkingly onto bandwagons rather to delve into the ecological complexities involved. This is especially true with respect to the Scottish Highlands. Consider the following bandwagons:– Humans destroyed the original Caledonian forest and we must put it back– There should be a natural altitudinal treeline with montane scrub– There is overgrazing, particularly by too many deer– Grazing animals cause habitat damage– Peatbog erosion is caused by human mismanagement (i.e. is not natural)– Restoring the eroding bogs will restart peat growth– Planting trees, by storing carbon, helps mitigate global warming– Trees prevent flooding and erosion– Increasing species diversity of a location benefits biodiversity– Making rare species more common benefits biodiversityEveryone just knows these all to be true, so much so that they are mostly included in the new Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. However, although most have a kernel of truth, they are generally not supported by evidence, at least as far as the Highlands of Scotland are concerned; but exploring the evidence is difficult and may turn up unwelcome truths!As a result, much of the nature conservation action taking place in the Highlands, including the rewilding bandwagon, is actually destroying the naturalness of the hill landscape. Unlike the rest of Europe, the Highlands managed to escape modification of its vegetation pattern, at least until the beginning of the landowner era after the Battle of Culloden (1746), and also managed to retain a significant population of indigenous large herbivores (red deer). Recent research has demonstrated that one of the main impacts of humans over the millennia has been a significant reduction in the biomass of large herbivoes – the Highlands being an exception.The current vogue for ‘rewilding’ could, by converting a wild landscape into a designed landscape, result in the ‘de-wilding’ of the Highlands. I am, in fact, a great supporter of rewilding in regions where we have seriously depleted nature, particularly the lowlands. But in the Highlands? Why do ‘rewilders’ not take the time to understand the long-term ecological dynamics of Scotland’s vegetation instead of simply leaping onto bandwagons? Why do we all think there is a ‘nature emergency’ here? January 2023