Rewilding Scotland: Local people must not be excluded by wealthy landowners who want to offset their carbon emissions – Magnus Davidson
Around 18 months ago, the term ‘green lairds’ was introduced to the news cycle as the trend of rich individuals and organisations interested in land acquisition for nature restoration started to become increasingly apparent. A trend which has been common among these new lairds is the move towards rewilding.
Rewilding is a progressive approach to conservation with the aim of rebuilding degraded ecosystems, using natural processes, to a near-complete ‘trophic system’. In layman’s terms, that means restoration of the environment from the lowest level of the food web through to the top, at times including the reintroduction of predators, some of which we’ve not seen for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years.
Two of the desired outcomes of rewilding are increased biodiversity and greater carbon capture and storage, both vital to Scotland in this time of the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis.
Community Land Scotland had been aware of this shift towards rewilding in Scotland and released a policy paper back in 2017 setting out our position. In 2022, with the increasing impact of green lairds on our land market, we felt that our previous thinking should be updated to include new policies, better related to the challenges and opportunities faced by communities across Scotland and we have now set out our thinking on rewilding and nature restoration.
Underpinning our position is the belief that Scotland’s unusually concentrated pattern of rural land ownership – in which just over 400 private owners (0.008 per cent of the population) have been estimated to own 50 per cent of privately owned rural land – has historically contributed to biodiversity loss in Scotland.
Community Land Scotland strongly supports the vision of the Scottish Government’s environmental strategy to restore nature and end Scotland’s contribution to climate change by 2045. This will see Scotland transformed for the better, for both the planet and for future generations.
Community Land Scotland is also highly supportive of biodiversity restoration as a means of making our natural environment and the lives of the people who live there more sustainable, including our urban communities. We want to highlight that these community-generated benefits contribute to Scotland’s overall sustainability.
Unsurprisingly for an organisation which promotes and supports community land ownership, we believe that nature restoration is best done by those communities that live with the land and that ownership of land is one of the best ways to achieve this.
Community landowners are already in the business of helping make the places where they live sustainable, both now and for future generations, and this work has been clearly documented in our report, Community Landowners and the Climate Emergency.
But we do not consider the term rewilding to be constructive as it can promote the myth that ‘wild’ rural landscapes have been historically untouched or unoccupied by rural communities.
Much of this topic has already been debated in Scotland since the release of NatureScot’s Wild Land Map in 2014, aimed at protecting some areas of Scotland from onshore wind development. But the movement towards rewilding and the consultation on Scotland’s Fourth National Planning Framework have reopened questions as to whether land is ‘wild’ or has seen its population lost, such as in periods like the Highland Clearances.
Community Land Scotland has been working with organisations involved in rewilding to promote community empowerment within the initiatives. We have welcomed the willingness of these organisations to deliver for their local communities and explore ideas around increasing community ownership of land through measures like shared ownership.
There are, however, organisations, businesses, and individuals looking to exploit Scotland’s concentrated land system and unregulated land market for rewilding measures who do not recognise the legitimate place of people in the landscape.
Our new position paper, therefore, sets out that we are strongly of the view that rewilding initiatives should complement the policy objective of re-peopling areas of rural Scotland, something that Community Land Scotland and community landowners continue to deliver. An increasing number of organisations involved in environmental protection and restoration are including repopulation as a core part of their work.
Our new paper also sets out that the economic benefits arising from rewilding initiatives should be retained by communities living within these places, helped by the emerging ‘community wealth-building’ agenda, and informed by our recent report, Community Wealth Building and a Just Transition to Net Zero.
The final position of the paper is that communities’ voices should be at the centre of shaping rewilding initiatives local to them, ideally delivered through community ownership of land. The work of the organisation and membership has shown time and time again that communities in control of their land can deliver for people and climate well beyond what other ownership types can.
The Scottish Government is currently consulting on the Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation Bill. Rewilding is not mentioned explicitly in the consultation paper, but it is implicit throughout.
Some of Scotland’s largest landowners, such as the Danish landowner Anders Holch Povlsen, have plans to rewild on a landscape scale. Some of Scotland’s newest landowners, such as Brewdog the brewers, have plans to rewild estates to offset business emissions.
Our new position paper will help to inform Community Land Scotland’s response to the bill, and it is hoped it will also be useful for other organisations doing the same.
Community Land Scotland continues to advocate for community-led action on the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. However, we will continue to be concerned over the use of the term rewilding when its proponents fail to recognise communities have a legitimate place in the landscape and where it acts as a barrier to their economic, social, cultural, and environmental sustainability.
Magnus Davidson is a director of Community Land Scotland
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