In the Affric Highlands of Scotland, co-ownership of rewilding is ensuring everyone benefits from nature recovery.
The 12,000-hectare Attadale Estate in Scotland has just become the thirteenth estate to become an official partner of the Affric Highlands rewilding coalition, signing a memorandum of understanding in early September. Official Affric Highlands partners now cover 41,700 hectares of land, while discussions are ongoing with four additional private estates totalling 22,900 hectares.
The Attadale Estate is typical of many estates in the Affric Highlands rewilding landscape in Scotland. There is already a focus on the recovery of natural forest here – all of the non-native conifer woodlands have been felled and are being replaced with a mixture of Scots pine, birch, hazel, aspen and willow. A collaboration with our rewilding partner in Scotland – Trees for Life – has seen red squirrels reintroduced, while the estate is part of the Lochalsh Deer Management Group, which assesses and regulates deer populations and records their impacts on the landscape.
“We wanted to join Affric Highlands because we appreciate this is an initiative working towards a better, more collaborative future for the landscape,” says Joanna Macpherson, who runs Attadale on behalf of her family, together with her husband Alec. “The rewilding team are looking at what’s here and what should be here, and how everyone can work together to enhance nature – not just for the benefit of nature itself, but local communities too.
“I think other estates will be interested in joining Affric Highlands because this bigger picture approach is the best way forward. We have to work together to make the most of what we have here.”
Scaling up rewilding
Rewilding Europe welcomed the Affric Highlands into its expanding rewilding landscape portfolio in September 2021. Together with local partner Trees for Life, which has been rewilding the Scottish Highlands for over 30 years, we are now working to upscale and amplify rewilding efforts across 200,000 hectares – from Loch Ness in the east to Glen Shiel in the west.
Efforts to recover nature in the Affric Highlands are primarily focused on woodland, peatland and riparian restoration. In 2022, much of the work carried out by the Affric Highlands rewilding team involved identifying wild trees that already exist in the landscape – fragments of the ancient and highly biodiverse Caledonian Forest, which once extended across most of Scotland, but now covers less than 20,000 hectares.
“There is very little of the forest left, but what remains is incredibly valuable,” explains Affric Highlands enterprise manager Marian Bruce. “Our focus is to ensure those trees survive, and that we protect them against overgrazing by deer, so that natural regeneration can take place, as it already is at Attadale. This helps to maximise genetic and natural diversity, and the resilience of trees in the landscape to variables such as climate change.”
Carrying out ecological surveys has allowed the Affric Highlands rewilding team to engage many estates across the rewilding landscape, such as Attadale.
“We bring in ecologists for free, conduct wild tree and peatland surveys, and make a general ecological assessment of the estate,” explains Bruce. “We then make recommendations as to how the owner of the land could move forward with nature recovery, which includes looking at potential funding sources. There are various schemes and grant funding mechanisms available.”
Protecting trees and supporting forest regeneration in the Scottish Highlands typically means putting up fences. It may also mean controlling deer numbers. Every landowner is different, which means discussions about rewilding are a very bespoke process.
“We encourage owners of estates to think about the future,” says Affric Highlands team leader Stephanie Kiel. “Do they want to continue with lots of deer, for example, or can they visualise moving towards a healthier, naturally regenerating landscape with lower numbers of deer. This is the journey we are trying to take them on.”
“At Attadale we’re planting broadleaved native trees for the future,” adds Joanna Macpherson. “Not for harvesting, but to enhance biodiversity and help to absorb and lock up carbon for the long term. The Affric Highlands team have been very helpful with their expertise on regeneration. In 20 years, I’d like to see the hillsides on the estate less bare, and I expect there will be fewer deer.”
In 2023, the joint efforts of Trees for Life and the Affric Highlands rewilding team continue to put people at the heart of restoration in the landscape. The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre, which opened its doors in April, continues to act as a nature recovery hub, driving nature-based tourism and boosting outreach through its educational and recreational experiences. There are plans to establish a network of nature-based businesses, while a growing number of landowners within the landscape are starting to receive public and private investment to help fund woodland, peatland and river restoration efforts.
“Our vision is to create a rewilding landscape with a long-term difference,” explains Stephanie Kiel. “To bring about lasting change, we need to involve people. This is why we are working to form a broad coalition of partners – from landowners such as Joanna and entrepreneurs, right through to students and community members. We want to use the common interests of people in the Affric Highlands as the basis for a progressive and shared agenda. An agenda that not only enhances nature, but strengthens local economies and enriches lives too.”
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Much of the text for this blog is taken from a longer story entitled “All for one and one for all”, which featured in the Rewilding Europe Annual Review 2022.