Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Rewilding Scotland

Over the New Year we visited the  Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie. where you can watch wild animals --- through a fence or from the safety of your car. The park is well designed, the animals have spaces to roam, are fascinating to watch, but they're not free.

Polar bear: "This isn't like the ol' land. Where's the ice?"

Here in Scotland I miss wild animals. We’re not talking about deer and pheasants --- known affectionately as “game”, but bears, lynx, boars, wildcats, wolves and eagles.  Back in the US you often catch a glimpse of them. In the UK, they’re not welcome. Not even eagles which are hunted by some gamekeepers as a threat to grouse. Somewhat typical was the draconian response to three wolves escaping from Colchester zoo last November. Rather than try to catch them, the cops shot them dead lest they gobble up someone’s grandmother. Back in Texas, where they shoot first and ask questions later, the cops nevertheless send stray wolves to Jean at the St Francis Sanctuary where they are cared for.

A Tayside beaver

The mere proposal to reintroduce beavers into Scottish rivers sent goosebumps through landowners, who warned of unspecified, disastrous consequences. Nevertheless despite the protests, the beavers are back in Tayside and Argyll, but not as a result of an enlightened decision. They escaped from captivity, and the prospect of recapturing or shooting them became a political hot potato.

Though I’m passionate about wild animals being in the wild, I liked the wildlife park because it allowed me to see animals like the lynx and wildcat that given their skittishness would be really hard to spot in the wild:. Two enormous polar bears wandered around their prison. They looked depressed. And yet, I sense that their presence there has caused many visitors to think about the plight of others in the wild --- endangered by global warming.

I wanted to climb the fence and have a chat with the wolves, one-on-one, but that will have to wait for another day.

The lynx -- extinct since 1500. Their reintroduction poses little threat to livestock, and could control the deer population.

The debate over re-wilding Scotland pits ramblers versus landowners, sheep farmers versus conservationists, pro-Europeans versus Eurosceptics. Old wounds and grievances are re-opened that go back to the Highland Clearances.  Just how complicated it is, became evident when Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Estate, announced his latest plans to reintroduce bears and wolves onto his land. Because it would involve fencing his property, his proposal immediately drew accusations that he was “creating a kingdom inside Scotland”. Many papers made an issue out his great wealth.  The issue that wolves tend to eat sheep of which there are plenty in Scotland didn't even figure in the debate. The complicating factor is a mistrust of large landowners who own over 80% of private estates, their motives versus the public's right to roam freely.

I admire Lister for sticking to his guns, building his case and trying to talk reason to the diverse groups. Personally, I hope that once he establishes his lynx and wolves, we'll be able to walk in and see them. Why not build some styles over his fence and let intrepid visitors take the risk of being eaten? I want to walk alone through his wood, listen to the wolf calls, even come upon one in the woods, look into its eyes. I could always travel for the experience to Spain where wolf numbers are on the rise, or to the Bialowierzy forest in Poland. But why should I have to travel so far?

 The Scottish hills need to find their own voice, one that we will one day be able to hear.



  1. A good article and a good final sentence!

  2. Nothing changes - maybe his next move will be to reinstate the Highland clearances (and abolish the Scottish 'Right to Roam' Act)?