This opinion piece calls on our government and politicians to step up and ensure that Scotland’s commitments to nature and climate are delivered.
Over recent years, something remarkable has been unfolding across Scotland. Just a decade or so ago, few people were talking about rewilding. But the sea change since then has been dramatic.
Today, rewilding is everywhere – from dairy farms in Dumfriesshire finding new ways to live alongside nature, to community groups replanting seagrass in Argyll; from Sutherland crofters embracing wilder crofts, to estates in the Cairngorms National Park moving away from intensive field sports towards a wilder, richer future.
Few movements for positive social and environmental change have grown at this sort of pace. The reasons are varied, but a major one is that this is a groundswell of hope. Rewilding – large-scale nature recovery – offers one solution for tackling the overlapping nature and climate emergencies, together with a cascade of other benefits for people and communities.
These benefits include community wealth-building through jobs and economic opportunities, re-peopling rural areas, improved health and wellbeing, and multiple wins such as reduced flooding, urban cooling in our towns and cities, and ensuring pollination of our food crops.
Rewilding inspires people – individuals, communities, farmers, smallholders, charities, large estates and public bodies – to act. Some rewilding projects have been decades in the making, their landscapes now well on the road to recovery, while others are just emerging.
The rapidly expanding Northwoods Rewilding Network launched in 2021 by charity Scotland: The Big Picture, for example, already consists of 58 partners, including community sites, small farms, crofts and small landholdings. Rewilding Britain’s Rewilding Network, also launched in 2021, now brings together almost 100 Scottish rewilding projects, which are inspiring in their ambition, scope and diversity.
In the Highlands, Trees for Life has this year opened the world’s first rewilding centre at our Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston. Re-peopling and engaging people with wild nature are key aims here, as they are in our work with the local community and landowners in the Affric Highlands initiative – Britain’s largest rewilding landscape, stretching from Loch Ness to the west coast.
Because of all this activity and action, Scotland is often seen internationally as a rewilding trailblazer. Thanks to rewilding, for example, National Geographic named the Highlands as one of its Best of the World destinations for 2023.
Bizarrely, however, a key player has been largely and notably missing from this unfolding story of possibility and renewal. This rewilding absentee is the Scottish Government, which has so far rarely acknowledged rewilding’s existence, let alone provided active support.
But change may be in the air. In July, the Scottish Government’s chief scientific adviser endorsed a definition of rewilding for use by the Government and wider public sector.
This definition, accompanied by a report from the James Hutton Institute, was a significant step forward for a government that had previously avoided using the word “rewilding”. Could this be a watershed moment in the story of rewilding in this country? Let’s hope so.
Let’s hope so because the Scottish Government’s rewilding blindspot has had real impacts on the country’s ability to address the nature and climate crises – including playing our role in putting into action the commitment to protect 30% of the planet for nature by 2030, agreed by the world’s governments at the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference last December.
It’s true of course that the Government’s disinterest, caution or torpidity to date has not entirely held rewilding back. Rewilding inspires and empowers because we can all play a part, individually, in our communities, or by supporting rewilding charities, and without waiting for the gears of government to grind into action.
So yes, everywhere you look, Scotland is becoming wilder. Rewilders, often rooted in their communities, are helping to restore our peatlands, moorlands, wetlands, woodlands, rivers, lochs and seas.
But given the challenges that we face, this progress is not enough. Despite the growing praise around the world for Scotland’s rewilding ambitions, we still languish as one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. For a long time now, we have not even been holding the line when it comes to halting the loss of our habitats and species, many of which are globally rare or even unique.
As a nation, we have fallen behind other countries where vast rewilding landscapes are repairing nature’s dynamic processes while creating a diverse range of jobs for local people.
It’s clear that we need our government and politicians to step up and ensure that Scotland’s commitments to nature and climate are delivered.
If we want to turn the biodiversity crisis around – if we want truly bold and ambitious nationwide action to restore our damaged landscapes and seascapes back to health – then we need the Government to be fully in the game, working with and supporting local communities, restoring habitats on public land and delivering legislation to ensure and reward nature restoration.
To underscore the potential here, let’s remember that between them, our government bodies manage 10% of Scotland’s land. Imagine the positive impact, for example, if Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) – which alone manages 640,000 hectares of Scotland – was properly resourced and politically backed to restore nature on a vast scale.
Here there is huge potential, from increasing native forest cover to welcoming back vital native species such as beavers to FLS’s extensive landholdings.
Let’s hope that the Scottish Government is catching up with what rewilding practitioners have known for a long time – in Scotland, we are well-placed to seize and showcase the benefits of working with nature rather than against it, and for restoring nature on a big scale.
Scotland has the choice and the opportunity to lead the way internationally, with 30% of the country’s land and seas enjoying nature recovery by 2030, and with everyone sharing in the ensuing benefits.
By stewarding Scotland’s land and seas back to fully functioning health, we can create a country where our communities and nature thrive together. The Government’s new-found willingness to talk about rewilding is extremely welcome, but it needs to be a key step on our journey to becoming the world’s first rewilding nation.
Steve Micklewright is convenor of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance (www.rewild.scot) and chief executive of rewilding charity Trees for Life (treesforlife.org.uk). The Scottish Rewilding Alliance is a collaboration of more than 20 organisations which share a mission to enable rewilding at a scale new to Scotland.
This piece originally appeared in the Sunday National on 17th September and can be found online at http://www.thenational.scot/politics/23794255.change-may-air-governments-support-rewilding/
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