Riverwoods: Scottish film about efforts to save wild salmon and boost nature hits TV screens

The salmon need the forest. The forest needs the salmon. And Scotland needs them both.

This is the message in a fascinating Scottish documentary which is shortly due to hit TV screens for the first time. Riverwoods: An Untold Story explores the interconnection between the health of Scotland’s watercourses and the wildlife that lives in them and the landscapes through which they flow.

Created by the team at rewilding charity Scotland: The Big Picture, the film shines a light on the perilous state of Scotland’s salmon and the degraded river catchments which have become accepted as ‘normal’. It shows how once bountiful rivers have been greatly diminished, but also how they could be reborn through restoration.

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Wildlife photographer and filmmaker Peter Cairns, chief executive of Scotland: The Big Picture, hopes the documentary, which is narrated by Scots actor Peter Capaldi, will highlight the need and help drive momentum for large-scale restoration of riparian environments. “We wanted to work out how we use the perilous plight of Atlantic salmon in Scotland to tell a broader story around river catchment health,” he said. “It’s a film about salmon, of course, but actually the real story is about a complex set of relationships and interdependencies across a whole catchment. Salmon is the lead character, the protagonist, but this is really a story about the state of Scotland’s wider landscape.”

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It’s easy to dismiss how people also depend on a healthy environment for a good quality of life, he says. “I think we do as a society assume that nature is somehow different or separate from us as a species. But if you think about it logically, even at a very basic level, you might not give a hoot about salmon or pine martens or pine trees but you do give a hoot about your kids drinking clean water and you do give a hoot about your business being flooded every couple of years.

“So rivers and salmon are the focus of this film but actually the story is one of ecological decline and how that ecological decline is ultimately going to affect us all – all of this stuff is interlinked. It’s not so much an environmental story as a societal story.”

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Cairns admits much of the conversation around the state of nature can seem bleak, but he remains positive about the prospects for improvement. “I think you have to be an optimist otherwise you would never get out of bed in the morning,” he said.

“Are we going to be able to do enough, quickly enough? I don’t know the answer to that, nobody does. But the way I see it, every day you do one of two things: you do your best or you do nothing. That’s it. These are the choices.

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Wild Atlantic salmon are the protagonists in the documentary Riverwoods: An Untold Story, made by the team at rewilding charity Scotland: The Big Picture. Photograph: Linda Pitkin

“So we’re doing what we can to inform and inspire and influence the conversation with films like Riverwoods. You only hope societal change in mindset comes quickly enough and at an appropriate scale so that we don’t destroy the living systems on which we all depend. I think that penny is dropping but it’s a tough gig politically, socially and culturally. However, I’ve seen enough over the past 15 to 20 years to give me hope.”

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Riverwoods airs at 8pm on 7 November on 5Select

Restoration of whole river catchments has widespread benefits -- not just for salmon, but for a huge range of wildlife and also for people. Photo: Peter Cairns
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According to Riverwoods director Peter Cairns: "Salmon is the lead character, the protagonist, but this is really a story about the state of Scotland’s wider landscape.” Photo: Mark Hamblin

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