Case studies in rewilding and large-scale nature restoration

Many of us have heard about ‘rewilding’. There are some excellent examples of exciting rewilding projects in Scotland, such as on our Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve. Rewilding is about working with natural processes, guided by people at least in the early stages, to restore functioning ecosystems. Often celebrated for restoring nature-rich landscapes, rewilding can be perceived by some as potentially detrimental to their local communities and ways of life. NatureScot Land-use Policy Officer, Cecile Smith, tells us more about this important work…

Scots pinewood natural regeneration at Glenfeshie Estate, Cairngorms National Park. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot.

In NatureScot, we decided to have a closer look at some of the projects which aim to restore nature at scale and see what’s really happening. We did not limit our choice of projects to those that identify themselves as rewilding. We decided to include projects at various points along a spectrum, to include both projects focused on wilding most of the land and those including a higher proportion of land managed for agriculture or commercial forestry. This is why we sometimes talk about large-scale nature restoration in addition to rewilding, to encompass various types of projects.

We commissioned Land Use Consultants (in collaboration with ABPmer, Matt Rayment and Accelar) to develop case studies, identify barriers and opportunities to large-scale nature restoration / rewilding and lessons to be learned. This included a detailed review of ten nature restoration stories in the UK and Norway*, in rural and coastal contexts, with staff interviews. Some excellent initiatives were not included due to the limits on the projects that could be considered within the budget.

Vibrant rural communities in a regenerated landscape in SW Norway © Kate Holl

Common to all projects, there was an understanding that people had to be front and centre in planning the project and in its implementation. Engagement with local communities, land managers, and other stakeholders is critical and never ceases; it is essential in the early stages and ensures that resources are set aside to deliver successful communication and engagement long-term. It is all the more important as restoring functioning ecosystems means there is not a set of clear end objectives at the outset.

There is evidence of local socio-economic benefits including the creation of new jobs to do with nature restoration, though previous jobs (e.g. in agriculture) can also be lost. Large-scale nature restoration created new opportunities for engagement with nature, volunteering, and citizen science, including through opportunities for school visits, research collaborations, and the provision of study and field centres for visitors. However, there was no systematic monitoring of the socio-economic impacts, which creates a gap in terms of understanding the implications for local communities and the public at large (e.g. including visitors).

The South West Norway case study was different from those in the UK, as this was not a project. Instead, nature restoration through woodland regeneration took place over time thanks to changes in the socio-economic context. Having many similarities with the north of Scotland in terms of climate and landscape, Norway makes a useful reference area. The region now is more nature-rich and supports vibrant rural communities, with higher population density than in Scotland. Key factors that shaped this outcome include owner-occupation, diverse farm (and non-farm) incomes, more equitable distribution of land and local communities who have agency over the land.

Traditional conservation and regenerative farming alongside rewilding at Wild Ken Hill, © Dominic Buscall.

Towards the end of the project, we felt it would be interesting to compare the findings with the 10 rewilding principles suggested by Steve Carver et al. These in effect provide criteria to assess where a project is on the rewilding spectrum. None of the projects aligned with the 10 principles. While some aspects such as landscape-scale planning or engagement with communities certainly featured in the projects reviewed, others were missing. For example, in none of the projects was there a trajectory toward restoring trophic interactions towards a self-sustaining ecosystem. Though the current move towards nature restoration to bring back functioning ecosystems shows an evolution in values, there isn’t as yet a paradigm shift in how we envisage co-existence with the natural world towards more harmony.

Eddleston Water remeandering © Colin Maclean

In Scotland, deer management to maintain low deer density and reduced grazing pressure will be essential to the expansion of native woodlands. Direct human intervention will be necessary for the foreseeable future in Scotland due to missing trophic interactions and the absence of some keystone species.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to rewild ourselves: to see ourselves as a part of nature. For centuries, we have seen ourselves apart from nature, which ultimately is a fallacy. This way of thinking has been a major contribution to the nature-climate crisis. Reviving nature, at pace and wholescale, and connecting with it meaningfully is critical to our future.

*The case studies are South West Norway, Cairngorms Connect, Forsinard Flows, Tweed Forum, Holnicote, Wild Ennerdale, Wallasea Island, Wild Ken hill, Northern Upland Chain, Pumlumon.

The Key Findings and Full Report are available on the NatureScot website.

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