Last week I climbed my 199th Munro, Sgurr Nan Each, in the Fannichs in Wester Ross. I had hoped to make my tally over 200, but facing horizontal rain and high winds on adjoining Sgurr Breac, along with my climbing companions took the prudent decision to turn back around 2,500ft. My double century will have to wait for another day.
There is nothing like getting out on the hills to appreciate the landscape of Scotland; mountains and lochs, rolling heather moors just coming into blossom, and open vistas from valley floors.
It is this natural beauty which draws visitors from all across the world, evidenced by the number of foreign-plated cars and camper vans on the roads.
The Scottish landscape has become so iconic that it is sometimes easy to forget that it is not a natural one.
Rather it is the product of extensive management, usually for sporting interests. And this has led to calls in some quarters for a “rewilding” of the Highlands, with a reduction in the number of grouse moors, and the active promotion of natural regeneration of native species. One high profile proponent of rewilding is the BBC’s Chris Packham, and it is an approach which seems to be attracting growing interest.
At first glance, there is much about the rewilding agenda that seems attractive.
There are few pleasures in the Scottish outdoors to match walking through a native Scots pine woodland, with its variety of flora and fauna. Where such areas have been recreated this does require an extensive reduction in deer numbers, and/or the installation of sturdy fencing to protect young growth.
It would be wrong to assume that there is no biodiversity on traditional grouse moors. As research carried out by groups like the Game Conservancy Trust has evidenced, moors managed for shooting support a wide range of bird and animal life. So we should not accept the claim, made by some, that grouse moors are simply barren wastelands created for the enjoyment of a few wealthy individuals.
What the management of land for sport in Scotland does do is create jobs, sustaining levels of employment in remote areas which otherwise would be very difficult to achieve.
It is this local employment amongst gamekeepers, ghillies, and estate workers, that sustains local communities, supporting rural schools, village halls, post offices and shops, and providing infrastructure for tourism which otherwise would be difficult to maintain.
Whilst a “rewilded” Scotland might well have a tourism appeal, it is hard to see how the direct employment that currently exists from sporting estates could be replaced.
One Highland hill farmer I spoke to last week expressed his concerns thus: “I’m really concerned about the rewilding agenda. We’re in an economically marginal situation here, raising prime cattle and sheep on high land. My son has just left school and wants a career in farming. It is hard enough as it is, but if these folk get their way I just can’t see a future for him”.
It wasn’t just the rewilding agenda that concerned him. Recent calls to reduce meat consumption to help tackle climate change may well have a long-term impact on Scottish agriculture where upland farms simply have no alternative but to grow grass to feed cattle and sheep. As Perthshire’s Martin Kennedy, Vice President of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, has been quick to point out, there is a world of difference between the high quality production of meat on Scottish hill pastures, where the growing of grass acts as a carbon sink, and what we are currently seeing in Brazil with the burning of the Amazonian rain forest to create more space for cattle ranching. And yet, when we see headlines about the need to encourage more young people to become vegans, it is little wonder that Scottish farmers become alarmed.
So how do we reconcile these issues? How do we take the good from the rewilding agenda, whilst at the same time protecting levels of employment in our fragile rural areas?
A model for this already exists on the Knoydart peninsula, which I visited recently on another Munro-bagging trip. The principal estate in Knoydart was subject to a community buy out two decades ago, and the community owners continue to let the sporting rights as part of their economic model. But the adjoining North Knoydart estate is in the ownership of the John Muir Trust, which has actively sought to reduce deer numbers to promote regeneration of natural woodlands. Of course there are tensions, but Knoydart demonstrates that it is possible to have a mixed economy, with traditional sporting estates existing alongside areas focussed on rewilding.
Another advocate of rewilding is the billionaire Anders Povlsen, owner of the Glenfeshie Estate, and now the largest individual private landowner in the UK. Povlsen is using his personal wealth to promote rewilding on the extensive parts of Scotland that he owns. His deep pockets give him the resources to do so, whilst other landowners rely upon the income from shooting, fishing and stalking, to pay the bills and sustain employment.
So for those who want to see Scotland rewilded, the model is already there. Whether private individuals, communities, or NGOs, when land becomes available for purchase it can be acquired, and rewilding promoted. But for those who want to continue the traditional model of sporting estates, or for hill farmers who fear for their future, we need to protect their ways of life, and avoid a “one size fits all” approach.
The one thing we do not lack in the Scottish Highlands is space. There is room for all: whether we climb, walk, fish, shoot, stalk, or simply look at the views. No one approach should be allowed to dominate others, and people should not be left fearing for their jobs because of an ideology.