Much of the landscape you see in the Scottish Highlands today was shaped by man. A huge forest once cloaked the mountainsides across much of the region. Wolves, bears and lynx roamed across the hills. Timber clearance to build the British Empire – everything from naval ships to fuel for the industrial revolution to railway ties across Africa – resulted in widespread deforestation. Only 5% of the original Caledon Forest remains. Widespread sheep farming and large country estates for shooting red deer prevented natural regeneration.
These were the long held traditions in the highlands — wealthy hunters come to these mountains to shoot a deer stag. Tweed suits, whisky flasks, the works. They’d pay good money for it. Sometimes several thousand pounds. Having thousands and thousands of deer was good business.
Some advocate rewilding of our landscape on a grand scale. This excellent article, and accompanying radio programme, goes behind the scenes at Alladale Estate and meets owner Paul Lister. He is on a mission to rearrange the current ecology of the area with the reintroduction of apex predators, like the wolf. He points to the success in Yellowstone, where wolves were reintroduced, changing the ecology and providing economic advantages.
However, the rewilding movement remains controversial. Opinions are split and local communities divided. Some see this as a crazy project driven by a rich incomer who doesn’t understand the Highlands. Others are worried about the impact of wild predators on their livelihoods, where sheep farmers already face huge challenges to survive. Those that cherish Scotland’s freedom of access rile at the thought of a high fence closing off a huge area from the right to roam.
The debate has only just begun and will continue for a long time to come.