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article imageScotland’s wild spaces could see lynx and wolf return

By Robert Myles     Oct 8, 2014 in Environment
Edinburgh - Could these two long departed predators make a return to Scotland’s wild spaces? A leading writer and an acclaimed conservationist will today argue the case for their return.
Visions of a rewilded Scotland is the focus of a lecture hosted by the University of Edinburgh as part of the Rewilding the World event featuring acclaimed writer George Monbiot and award-winning conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone, Executive Director of conservation charity Trees for Life that has itself gained a number of awards, including UK Conservation Project of the Year.
The University of Edinburgh’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability organized today’s event, as part of Edinburgh World Justice Festival, recognizing a growing enthusiasm for rewilding — the large-scale restoration of damaged natural ecosystems — not just in Scotland but across the UK.
Rewilding the World will highlight the significant benefits that rewilding could bring to Scotland, together with a discussion on its global and ethical implications.
Tourism is already one of Scotland’s biggest business sectors employing over 200,000 people generating visitor spending of more than £4 billion a year according to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). That wide umbrella hides the contribution nature-based tourism already makes to the Scottish economy which SNH puts at £1.4 billion per year.
Adding rewilding to that mix holds out the prospect of a significant boost to the Scottish economy.
George Monbiot is best known as a writer and journalist contributing regularly to The Guardian and New Statesman. Less well known, perhaps, is Monbiot’s enthusiasm for rewilding as part of an integrated approach, not just for preserving the natural environment, but to ensure it flourishes.
Describing how rewilding fitted in to environmental conservation, Monbiot said, “Rewilding offers us a big chance to reverse destruction of the natural world. Letting trees return to bare and barren uplands, allowing the seabed to recover from trawling, and bringing back missing species would help hundreds of species that might otherwise struggle to survive – while rekindling wonder and enchantment that often seems missing in modern-day Britain.”
In George Monbiot’s latest book, “Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life,” the author sets out a positive environmental approach in which Nature is allowed to find its own way. Apart from his writing, Monbiot is currently setting up an organization intended to catalyze the rewilding of land and sea across Britain.
The world’s remaining wildernesses are themselves a threatened species and in this Scotland is no exception.
Long-term deforestation, coupled with overgrazing by having too many deer and sheep on the land, has left many of Scotland’s wild spaces depleted and barren. As a result, much of the wildlife indigenous to such areas is either in retreat or missing altogether. As an example, the Caledonian Forest — Scotland’s northerly equivalent of a rainforest — is now one of the UK’s most endangered habitats. Many species have already been lost while many of its remaining rare species are in danger of extinction.
But despite that bleak picture, various actions taken across Scotland in recent years demonstrate what can be achieved by taking an integrated approach combining restoring natural processes, protecting wilderness areas and reducing human interference in ecosystems.
Over that period, the Scottish Highlands has seen extensive efforts to restore and expand native forests. In the forefront of the move to reforestation is volunteering conservation charity Trees for Life that’s pledged to establish one million more trees by planting and natural regeneration by 2018.
Alan Watson Featherstone  Executive Director of Trees for Life pictured in a pocket of old Caledonia...
Alan Watson Featherstone, Executive Director of Trees for Life pictured in a pocket of old Caledonian woodland at Dundreggan Estate, Scotland
Image Courtesy Trees for Life
Trees for Life, now in its 25th year, is heavily engaged in a number of projects to re-establish the ancient Caledonian Forest of which, until comparatively recently, only a few scattered remnants remained. These projects involve establishing a new generation of trees along with their associated plants, insects and other wildlife.
Major successes include the re-establishment of healthy populations of birds of prey such as the sea eagle, osprey and red kite, and the trial reintroduction of European beavers at Knapdale, a remote part of Argyll that comprises the first ‘bone’ in the finger of land known as the Kintyre peninsula.
“Rewilding offers an exciting vision of hope, through the positive and practical work of renewing and revitalising ecosystems,” said Featherstone, adding,” In the Highlands we have the opportunity to reverse environmental degradation and create a spectacular, world-class wilderness region – offering a lifeline to wildlife including beavers, capercaillie, wood ants and pine martens, and restoring natural forests and wild spaces for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”
But today both George Monbiot and Alan Watson Featherstone will advocate building on those successes by taking rewilding a stage further. They’ll make the case for adopting an ambitious approach which, they say, could bring wide-ranging benefits to wildlife and people as well as putting Scotland on the map as a premier wildlife tourism destination.
Spearheading the pair’s ambitious aims is the reinstatement of missing species, including apex predators such as the Eurasian lynx and the wolf, both of which play a crucial top-down regulatory role in ecosystems.
Wolves pictured in Norway  but across the North Sea in Scotland  wolves have been extinct for at lea...
Wolves pictured in Norway, but across the North Sea in Scotland, wolves have been extinct for at least 125 years.
Taral Jansen / Soldatnytt (CC BY 2.0)
The date the last wolf is reputed to have been killed in Scotland varies from the 17th to the 19th centuries but one thing is sure, no wolves have prowled wild in Scottish hills and glens for some considerable time.
In the case of the lynx, however, it’s been absent from the British Isles since medieval times at the very latest. A recent study originally published in the Journal of Quaternary Science and noted on the Trees for Life website revised the date of the lynx’ waygoing forwards from about 4,000 years ago to around the 7th century.
In other areas of mainland Europe, such as the Alps and Jura mountains, the lynx has already been reintroduced with some success.
In the past, proposals to reintroduce predators to the Scottish Highlands have often been based on their constituting a direct action in reducing excessive numbers of red deer. But instead of a singular ‘who-kills-what’ approach, rewilding involves considering other factors that would come into play.
A previously absent predator is likely to have a major impact on prospective preys’ behavior. In the case of deer populations, for example, the mere scent of such a predator is more likely to disturb the deer, forcing them to forage more widely for food. As grazing becomes less concentrated in a specific area, so native species once more begin to flourish, in the process kick-starting ecosystems that would otherwise diminish and die.
Where lynx have already been introduced to Europe, they’ve offered little threat to sheep. The lynx is a highly specialized predator concentrating on roe deer, a species that’s multiplied in the UK in recent years. Roe deer’s propensity for intensive browsing is known to hold back the natural regeneration of trees.
The proposed re-introduction of top predator species to Scotland would also form part on an integrated approach to reversing global forest loss. At the recent UN Climate Summit hosted by New York, world leaders, companies and campaigners pledged in the New York Declaration of Forests (PDF) to restore 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forests by 2020 and end deforestation by 2030.
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