Sunday, 27 December 2015

The re-wilding of Scotland

Should it be done?

The term re-wilding is has become the ecological ''in phrase'' of many wildlife conservation movements. It was first defined in the mid-1990s and has come to refer to the whole process of returning an ecosystem to a stable state of health not dependent upon human intervention.

In the context of Scotland this is understood by most people to mean the reintroduction of large predators such as wolves, lynx or bear. These are the creatures most ordinary Scots will have heard about when the subject of reintroducing a species which man - through the agencies of hunting and habitat destruction - was responsible for wiping out from an ecosystem arises.

Three wolves standing together
Photograph by Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0


Every so often sections of the popular press will run a story about plans to reintroduce one or other of the species mentioned above usually resulting in a flurry of ''letters to the editor'' on how such species would be inappropriate, unwanted or just plain too dangerous to bring back and let loose in Scotland.

Many objections come from sheep farmers who fear that wolves in particular will see their sheep are easy targets and concentrate on them as their prey in preference to that more natural and obvious prey of wolves, the deer. There is undoubtedly some basis to these objections - most predators won't pass up an easy meal if one is going.

Nevertheless, support for the re-introduction of wolves to Scotland is growing  and I have little doubt that one day it will happen. The inner Hebridean island of Jura (the wildest of Scotland's islands) has been mentioned more than once as a possible location for a wolf pack and an island would seem to be the ideal place for a trial introduction of a small number of wolves.

Jura, in particular has a large population of red deer to support a wolf pack and the island is sufficiently far from its nearest neighbour to make it unfeasible for wolves to migrate to the mainland thereby helping to allay any fear the public would about them being a danger to man (what the 200 or so inhabitants of Jura think about this apparently hasn't been considered!).

A fenced area in or near the Cairngorm National Park (where there is already a wildlife park) has also been considered as a site for an introduced wolf pack and this idea would have one big attraction - being on the mainland tourism would be easy to organise. That would bring big benefits to the local economy and a lot of positive publicity for the ecological movement. Provided the matter of security of the boundary fence(s) is guaranteed so that it is very unlikely any of the animals will escape this seems to be the best all-round proposal and would probably be acceptable to the Scottish public and the sheep farming community.

Successful introductions

There have already been successful re-introductions of previously extinct-in-Scotland species - the beaver and the white-tailed sea eagle being notable amongst them - but none of the species which have been brought back to Scotland are seen by the public as any particular threat either to humans or to livestock. Species such as the bear and the lynx are less likely to be re-introduced to Scotland. The public perception of these predators as being dangerous to humans is unlikely to allow their re-introduction any time soon - although plans are being made for a trial introduction of the lynx to an area on the Scottish border with England.

A beaver in its pond
Photograph by Marcin Klapczynski/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0
The re-introduction of the white-tailed sea eagle, the UK's biggest eagle is a particular success story. The last breeding pair was recorded on the Isle of Skye in 1916 but now, after their successful re-introduction in 1975, this magnificent raptor with its 2.5 metres wingspan can now be seen in many parts of Scotland (including a breeding pair in a coastal forest not 10 miles from my home in the Ancient Kingdom of Fife on Scotland's east coast which, sadly, I have not yet managed to observe).

The beaver has been introduced in two places in Scotland. One of them is the area of Knapdale, in Argyll and by all accounts this has been a roaring success with the beavers being shown to be both a benefit to the local ecology and a well-visited tourist attaction.

This ''Scottish Beaver Trial'' lasted five years and Scottish National Heritage, who were responsible for organising and monitoring the beaver trial, have published their final report which is now in the hands of the Scottish government who are considering the future of beavers in Scotland.

There are also a large group of beavers living in/on/near the River Tay in Perth and Kinross Region but no-one actually knows how they got there! Popular rumour has it that they are the result of illegal releases by parties unknown in an attempt to hurry up the process of the re-wilding of beavers in Scotland. This group of beavers have also been studied and are the subject of a report by SNH.

Should we do it?

We know that, given the will, the money and the right circumstances, we can reintroduce to Scotland those species which were lost to human activity but should we?

There is a strong case for the re-wilding of Scotland in that these lost species will help to re-establish a balance in the ecology of Scotland. Let's take just one example: the red deer. They are not an endangered species nor were they wiped out in Scotland but the loss of those predators which preyed on them (thereby keeping their numbers in check) has resulted in an increase in red deer numbers to the extent that the population of red deer in Scotland is about twice what the land can comfortably support.

This is why deer stalking is a big sport in Scotland. Leaving aside any feeling about killing animals for fun there are plenty of deer and plenty of people willing to pay large amounts of cash for the privilege of shooting a stag. Deer numbers are such that there are also regular culls of deer by the shooting estates in an effort to lighten the load on the landscape and the food supply and ensure that the deer herds don't have too hard a time surviving the winter - in fact, many estates actually feed their herds through the winter months.

Reintroducing predators like the wolf is one solution to the overpopulation of deer in Scotland. The last wolf in Scotland was reputedly shot about 300 years ago but the Scotland of today isn't the same country it was 300 years ago.

Red deer stag bellowing
CC0 image from Pixabay
Is it right for us to try to wind back the clock and bring back major predators to a Scotland which has changed in so many ways? Human population, livestock farming, land use and many other factors have resulted in a countryside far different from that known by the wolf, the bear and the lynx.

Scotland is a small country and, unlike the beaver and the sea eagle, any introduced large predators would have to be confined and restricted to certain areas and is that fair to them? These creatures are used to roaming free and hunting as they will, but in a modern Scotland that won't be possible for them. They would be confined to what is, in effect, a zoo. A bigger zoo than most, admittedly, but a zoo nevertheless for they would be subject to constant scrutiny from wildlife researchers and the inevitable tourists.

Do we have a moral obligation to the wolf, etc.? We wiped them out so do we have to put them back? Maybe we should think long and hard about that - and there is another aspect of the re-wilding of Scotland we need to consider:

What will we do about introduced species?

If we are going to re-wild Scotland back to the ecology of several hundreds of years ago what about all those species now present in Scotland which have been accidentally (or purposefully) introduced over the years?

Species like the mink, the grey squirrel and the sika deer and, almost unbelievably, the Australian wallaby, have been introduced to Scotland with dire results for some native species. Mink will take birds and their eggs, the grey squirrel carries the disease squirrel pox which is harmless to the grey squirrel but fatal to Scotland's native red squirrel and sika deer (native to eastern Asia) are known to interbreed with Scotland's red deer thus diluting the species.

According to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) more than 900 non-native species have been introduced to Scotland. Not all of these are harmful to Scotland's ecology (although none of them belong here) but certain species (Japanese knotweed and the signal crayfish to name but two) are having a devastating effect on Scotland's ecology.

Should the efforts of our environmental organisations not be directed towards eradicating these invasive non-native species instead of spending time and money on what are little more than ''vanity projects'' to introduce long-gone species into a landscape which bears little resemblance to the one from which they were made extinct?

Should those extinct species which used to live in Scotland but no longer do so not be consigned to the pages of history instead of being resurrected into a landscape no longer relevant to them? 

A special case

A Scottish wildcat
Photograph by Linda Stanley/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0
And now I plead ''special case''. This is the Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris grampia sometimes known as the ''Highland Tiger''. Slightly larger than a domestic cat it is the UK's largest land predator and is very rare. In my years of roaming the wilds of Scotland and climbing its hills I have never seen one. There are reckoned to be only about 400 left, scattered across the wilder and more remote areas of Scotland. Again, human activity and habitat loss have been the main cause of their decline but one other factor has had a major impact on this species - interbreeding with domestic cats which have gone feral.

This factor has caused some authorities to doubt if any pure bred Scottish wildcats still exist and, indeed, there is a real possibility that this is the case which would be a crying shame for, to me the Scottish wildcat epitomises the wilderness of Scotland.

I have never seen one but I have seen signs of their presence in the form of scat and the remains of their victims and just knowing that they exist and that one may be watching me as I walk through its territory is enough for me to declare that we should do all we can to save this symbol of wildness.

Losing this species would mean a lessening of the experience of wandering through a wild Scotland. Just look into the eyes of the one above and tell me you don't feel it too!



  1. Yes, i do think you should re-introduce wolves. it will help withthe deer population. As the old, weak, or sick deer will be taken out by the deer.

    In some states in the USA, the wolves have been re-introduced with much success.

    1. I know that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park was a great success and had many unexpected benefits such as the regeneration of woodlands close to river banks because deer stopped grazing there (it made them too easy for wolves to catch) but Yellowstone is a big place with virtually no settlements. In Scotland wolves could not be allowed to roam free in the same manner. Scotland is a small country and there is no large area of uninhabited wilderness for wolf packs to roam - they would have to be confined to islands or fenced-in areas thus negating their benefit to the ecosystem as a whole

  2. And all this time I thought you didn't care for cats. Or am I mixing you up with someone else? I'm a bit sympathetic to those who raise sheep, so I don't know how much they will lose if wolves are reintroduced near them. An ecological system, somewhat like Humpty Dumpty, may not be able to be put back together again, and sometimes trying can actually have unintended and unwelcome consequences.

    1. I used to have jocular sparring matches on Bubble Ooze with ''OldRoadsOnceTraveled'' and her cat Guiness (now sadly deceased) but in reality I am an animal lover (yes, even cats!). I like your analogy with Humpty Dumpty - yes, Scotland's ecosystem is broken and can't be put back to its original state.

  3. I can't speak for Scotland, yet reintroduction of species can improve, rather than damage, the immediate environment. Consider this video on the reintroduction of the wolf in one area:

    1. Yes, I know and I take your point - but I don't believe this would be possible in Scotland. Read the comment from Sandy KS (above) and my reply.