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Rewilding in the Scottish Highlands

THE PURPLE of the Highlands in early autumn can drive the dourest of Scots to poetry, but Renwick Drysdale, who with his brothers will inherit an estate in Fife, can’t see the landscape as beautiful any more. “Rolling through all these valleys,” he says, should be the “rich, biodiverse woodlands” that were there 5,000 years ago.

To Jamie Williamson, the 73-year-old owner of Alvie and Dalraddy, an estate near Aviemore, it is as lovely as it ever was. “What is more natural,” he asks: “moorland, which we’ve had for the last thousand years, or dense woodland?” Scotland’s tree cover, he points out, had fallen to 4% by as early as 1350.

Behind this disagreement lies the idea of “rewilding”, which is gaining traction. Boris Johnson promised on September 27th to protect 30% of Britain’s land “to support the recovery of nature”, and the most extreme interpretation of this is returning the land to its pre-human state. That is happening in small ways in bits of England; but Scotland, with its vast uncultivated Highlands, has greater potential.

The main obstacles to the revival of woodland are deer, which browse on saplings and so stop trees from growing. The wolves, bears and lynx that used to keep their numbers down are long gone, and although the idea of reintroducing them has been mooted, the prospect of wolves and bears...

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