Rewilding in the Scottish Highlands
THE PURPLE of the Highlands in early autumn can drive the dourest of Scots to poetry, but Renwick Drysdale, who with his brothers will inherit an estate in Fife, can’t see the landscape as beautiful any more. “Rolling through all these valleys,” he says, should be the “rich, biodiverse woodlands” that were there 5,000 years ago.
To Jamie Williamson, the 73-year-old owner of Alvie and Dalraddy, an estate near Aviemore, it is as lovely as it ever was. “What is more natural,” he asks: “moorland, which we’ve had for the last thousand years, or dense woodland?” Scotland’s tree cover, he points out, had fallen to 4% by as early as 1350.
Behind this disagreement lies the idea of “rewilding”, which is gaining traction. Boris Johnson promised on September 27th to protect 30% of Britain’s land “to support the recovery of nature”, and the most extreme interpretation of this is returning the land to its pre-human state. That is happening in small ways in bits of England; but Scotland, with its vast uncultivated Highlands, has greater potential.
The main obstacles to the revival of woodland are deer, which browse on saplings and so stop trees from growing. The wolves, bears and lynx that used to keep their numbers down are long gone, and although the idea of reintroducing them has been mooted, the prospect of wolves and bears roaming the Scottish suburbs appeals to few. In March Lynx UK applied to NatureScot, Scotland’s environmental agency, for permission to reintroduce those elegant cats, but the response was lukewarm; so for now, keeping deer numbers down means organised culling.
But deer-stalking is an important source of income for Highland estates. Landowners can charge up to £1,000 per stag shot and many times that for accommodation and catering. Asking them to cull their deer is like asking a farmer to burn corn. And these vast estates are not generally separated by fences, so when deer numbers drop on one estate, the neighbouring estate’s deer move in, and its income falls.
Sometimes the argument over deer- culling pits older people who like the familiar Highland landscape, such as Mr Williamson, against younger people who have bought into a newer, green agenda, such as Mr Drysdale. Wealth is another faultline. Among Scotland’s most enthusiastic rewilders are very rich people with unlimited funds, who sometimes find themselves in opposition to the less wealthy.
Anders Povlsen, the Danish owner of ASOS, a clothing company, is now Scotland’s biggest landowner. Tom MacDonell manages Glenfeshie, Mr Povlsen’s 45,000-acre estate near Aviemore. Since 2004, he has cut deer numbers from 45 per square kilometre to two. Keeping the numbers down, says Donald Rowantree, who manages Corrour, a 57,000-acre estate owned by Lisbet Rausing, another Scandinavian conservationist billionaire, is a full-time job. Fences, he says, are not the answer: they are expensive to maintain and defy the principle of “natural” restoration.
On both estates, the sharp outlines of the moorland are now softened by birch, rowan, alder and willow. Something like woodland is, slowly, growing. But running an estate is expensive. Corrour is subsidised by newly installed hydro plants. Glenfeshie loses £3m a year. The estate will probably never turn a profit, says Mr MacDonell. In Victorian times, the mega-rich bought Scottish estates for bloodsports. Today, conservation is more popular.
With a 13,000-acre-estate, Mr Williamson does not claim poverty, but he is not mega-rich, either. Alvie, which has been in his family for a century, is not a conservation project but a business. It needs to make money, so Mr Williamson eyes Glenfeshie nervously. Over the past decade, since Mr MacDonell’s team started culling all year round, Alvie’s annual stag bag has gone from 30 to 20. Another estate next to land owned by Mr Polvsen has fared worse, with stag numbers falling from 45 to seven. Now it is up for sale.
Pressure on deer populations is mounting not just from the rewilders but also from the Scottish government. The government offers grants to keep numbers down, and in 2016 Scottish National Heritage (now NatureScot) got powers to fine those failing to hit annual cull targets up to £40,000. Earlier this year, an independent review into deer management commissioned by the Scottish government called for deer numbers to be limited to ten per square kilometre. Some areas now have 20.
Rewilders argue that restoring Scotland’s natural fauna and flora will encourage tourism, which will generate jobs that can replace traditional employment in hill-farming and deer stalking. Bear and lynx could be an attraction: Germany’s national parks have used their lynx populations as a marketing tool, even though the chances of seeing one are negligible.
Others argue that a burgeoning carbon market will make rewilding economic. “Ecosystems services” which were previously deemed worthless, such as habitat creation, “are now being given monetary values”, says Mr Drysdale, who as well as being a prospective landowner runs KF Forestry, a green consultancy. In future, he believes, carbon credits produced by planting native broadleaf trees will be more profitable than commercial timber or traditional farming.
In the long run, they may. In the short term, deer are a better bet, but making money from them is getting harder. Mr Williamson shares many of the rewilders’ green ambitions—he wants to build wind turbines at Alvie—but is bewildered by their desire to return to a prelapsarian idyll. “For what purpose?” he asks.■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "In their sights"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/10/03/rewilding-in-the-scottish-highlands
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