Restoring wildlife to its natural state...
The latest hot topic to sweep conservation circles is the concept of re-wilding. The practice – which essentially allows nature to take its course – has rapidly grown in popularity over the last decade following a wealth of success stories hailing from Yellowstone National Park to continental Europe.
Proposed plans to re-wild Scotland have been greeted with mounting enthusiasm. With support for the cause spreading rapidly across the UK, it seems like re-wilding is here to stay. But is Scotland ready?
What is ‘re-wildling’?
Reintroductions – the process of releasing species into an area they were previously eradicated from – is a common tool of conservation biology, typically used to help conserve threatened species. ‘Re-wilding’ aims to restore entire areas to their natural states through the reintroduction of key plants or animals.
Certain species - mainly top predators - are often labelled as ‘keystone species’ or ‘ecological engineers’, meaning their presence or absence can have a knock-on effect throughout the food chain. They have the potential to modify or create new habitats for other species and therefore have can have a strong effect on the structure of an ecosystem. For example, sea otters protect their habitat by consuming sea urchins. If these urchins were left unchecked they would consume all the kelp in the area, upon which many species rely. Furthermore, large carnivores have been proved to predate on nuisance invasive species – essentially an ecologically-friendly pest control service. These species can thus be used to restore damaged ecosystems back to their natural, fully functioning states.
Advocates of re-wilding see it as a chance for humans to rectify our past mistakes. In the human-dominated landscapes of the present day, extensive deforestation and urbanisation have reduced nature to tiny patches of untouched habitat. Isolation has pushed many of our most-loved species to the brink of extinction, and caused others to reside only within the plexi-glass world of your local zoo. In the words of Guardian columnist Monbiot, re-wilding offers us the chance to ‘reverse destruction of the natural world’ by stepping back from nature and allowing it to become ‘feral’ once again.
Many agree with this notion and feel a responsibility to restore some of the wilderness our predecessors stripped from the countryside, especially in Britain. With continuously growing urban areas and farmland, nature is constantly competing for space against an army of concrete.
Scotland is no exception. Much of the idyll depicted in the Visit Scotland adverts are man-made; landscapes transformed by centuries of over-grazing from deer and sheep. The popular recreational sport of grouse shooting requires land that is intensively managed, and occurs at the expense of numerous species of birds of prey. Furthermore, Scotland’s native habitat – the Caledonian Forest – is one of the UK’s most endangered, restricted to just a handful of nature reserves. Re-wilding has been heralded as the solution. Many believe the reintroduction of species that once roamed the Scottish wilderness will help expand its natural forests and restore natural processes to the area.
Unlike the wolf, the lynx is a solitary animal and notoriously elusive. In areas where it is still present (mainly northern Europe) there have been no reports of anyone being attacked by a lynx. Alan Watson Featherstone, the founder of Trees for Life, believes we could see the lynx in the highlands as soon as 2025, an option that could give people a chance to become accustomed to living alongside a carnivore once again. When speaking about re-wilding, Featherstone argues: “The wolf is not the one to begin with, because it comes with tremendous prejudice: the Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood; it gets the works thrown at it.” Perhaps after the lynx, the proposals for wolf reintroduction could be re-opened.
A wild future
The concept of a re-wilded Scotland is a great one which, done in the right way, could help Britain to re-connect with nature. But first we need to understand the conflicts that might arise from these reintroductions and how to mitigate them. By starting small and moving forward with care we can ensure that there still is room for wildlife on this crowded island, with the hope that people could learn to live alongside it. Some re-wilding has already taken place; tree-planting (mostly of the native Scot’s pine) has contributed to the restoration of the ancient Caledonian pine forest and has seen a return of many native birds and mammals. But still, we have a long way to go before Britain truly runs wild.
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