The freshness of a spring day as I walked through the hidden glen of Findhorn Valley, a secretive corner of the Highlands. A magical place where towering hills with cliff-edges overlook a chattering river. A trio of mountain hares looked up then scurried away. A weasel took more of an interest in them than me. Skimming the river was a courting pair of common sandpipers, curious wading birds, the male’s flight like a butterfly.
That’s where I saw one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the natural world: a golden eagle, powerful with broad, angular wings and piercing eyes, soaring close above me. I was dumbstruck. Wowed by the sheer splendour of a bird I’d longed to see since childhood.
Although 25 years ago now, the memory gives me goosebumps. When I return to Scotland’s countryside, I still feel that same sense of uplifting energy, being amongst rugged scenescapes and life-enhancing wilderness.
Yet, those same sweeping valleys and soaring mountains belie a lingering sadness. Uplands and craggy glens covered by close-cropped grass tell a story of nature in retreat.
Too many sheep and deer
Much of Scotland used to be covered in forest. Today, native woodland covers but four per cent of the total land area. The demise of our once-wooded land led David Lloyd George to say in 1919 that Britain “had more nearly lost the war for want of timber than of anything else”.
Scotland’s Caledonian Forest contains some of our rarest wildlife and is considered one of Britain’s last remaining areas of wilderness. Home to the wildcat, pine marten, red squirrel, crested tit, capercaillie and golden eagle, its magnificent Scots pines can reach ages of 150 to 300 years, representing living monuments in the countryside. With their flaking-bark appearance and smoky foliage, Scots pines are a primal building block in one of the most important ecosystems, Scotland’s temperate rainforest.
Long gone are the aurochs, brown bears, lynx and wolves that once roamed the ‘Great Wood of Caledon’. Since Viking times, the Caledonian Forest has been under siege. More recently, the pace of change has quickened. Between 1960 and 1990, half of what remained was destroyed. Today, 98 per cent of the original native pinewoods have gone.
Less than 20,000 hectares of the once mighty forest remain in isolated fragments, pegged back by too many sheep and deer, which nibble the saplings and prevent much-needed regeneration.
Looked at through the lens of what has been lost, Scotland’s world-famous green vistas and treeless hills have been described by leading conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone as a “devastated landscape”.
Featherstone’s charity, Trees for Life, has recently launched an ambitious 30-year recovery plan to rewild a majestic sweep of the Scottish Highlands, bringing back a great swathe of Caledonian Forest.
The Affric Highlands initiative aims to establish a vast nature recovery area, covering half a million acres from Loch Ness, across the central Highlands, encompassing Glens Cannich, Affric and Shiel. It’s an exciting plan on a huge landscape scale.
As a lifelong nature enthusiast, rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – is hugely invigorating. It is also a vital component of what is needed if we are to hand over a liveable planet to future generations. Thriving ecosystems provide the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
As well as bringing back the wild by regenerating ecosystems such as Scots pinewoods, there is another major opportunity to restore our countryside – by ‘renaturing’ farmland.
Like the Caledonian Forest, much of our farmland has been ravaged. Agricultural intensification has led to bigger fields, chemical-soaked arable monocultures, the depletion of our soils, and many of our farm animals either disappearing into industrial farms or being banished to the uplands. The age-old wisdom of mixed farming, where both crops and animals are rotated in a way that maintains nature’s balance, has largely been swept away.
Farm animals living as if wild
Renaturing holds the key to a new future for the countryside, as demonstrated by pioneers of nature-friendly farming.
Approaches differ wildly; from those reinstating wildlife edges on their farms – “20 per cent at the edges for nature, 80 per cent in the middle to feed the world” – to those like Simon Cutter, award-winning regenerative farmer in Ross-on-Wye, who abandoned the chemicals and restored cattle, sheep and pigs as rotational grazers and foragers. Wildlife and soil health bounced back as a result.
Then there is the audacious approach of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, where the battle to make a living from difficult farmland has been won by letting nature run riot.
Fields that had been intensively farmed have been given free rein to get back to nature, establishing a thriving woodland pasture where farm animals can live as wild among returning wildlife. It’s an inspiring tale told brilliantly in Isabella Tree’s book, Wilding.
The beauty of ending the forced segregation of crops and farmed animals so characteristic of intensive agriculture is that it can help us move away from overgrazing in the uplands and soil-destroying nature-depletion in the lowlands.
By returning farm animals to the land in the right way – as rotational grazers or foragers, interspersed with crops – amazing things happen. They can express their natural behaviours – running, flapping, grazing – making for happier animals with better immunity, which reduces the need for veterinary antibiotics.
It cuts reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, so reducing costs to farmers, and creates a varied landscape, bursting with wildflowers that lure back pollinating bumblebees, as well as providing food and lodging for birds and other wildlife.
To me, renaturing the countryside offers a way to provide truly sustainable food and a lifelong inspiration akin to that memory of my first Scottish eagle.
Philip Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming International and United Nations Food Systems Champion. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf