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March 26, 2024

Proportionate rewilding 

The concept of rewilding differs from other forms of ecological restoration because it aspires to reduce human influence on ecosystems. And this   Many believe that we should focus more on repopulating remote areas rather than turning them into protected wildernesses. It’s also contentious because Scotland’s largest landowner happens to be passionate about rewilding and buys up any land that is contiguous to his already sizable land holdings to serve his passion for rewilding. But there is another side to rewilding which seems more proportionate both in scale and ambition.

Ben Martynoga, The Guardian

Established 24 years ago, the Carrifran Wildwood has been credited with inspiring the current surge of rewilding projects across the UK and beyond

About 6,000 years ago, most of southern Scotland was covered by broadleaf woodland, interspersed with patches of rich scrub, heath and bog. In stark contrast, the landscape today is dominated by close-cropped, severely nature-depleted hills, punctuated by sharp-edged blocks of non-native spruce plantation.

Now, thanks to the Carrifran Wildwood, one of the UK’s first community-led rewilding projects, patches of habitat resembling Scotland’s primeval forest are staging a comeback.

Carrifran, now nearly a quarter of a century old, gives us a glimpse of a world that once was. But it also shows what large parts of this land could be: a sink for climate-heating carbon, a flood-mitigating sponge for freshwater; a generator of biodiversity, and a source of wonder, identity and hope for people, locally and globally.

Carrifran’s revival began on 1 January 2000, when the project’s founders and their friends – including me, then a local biology student – broke the thin soil and planted the first 100 saplings.

Nearly a quarter of a century and 750,000 planted trees later, the project is achieving ecological lift-off. The valley is now shaggy with diverse native trees. Freed of grazing pressure, wildflowers are flourishing: even on a cold early March day, the first primroses, wood anemones, coltsfoot, and emerald green honeysuckle leaves offer bursts of colour. On the high ground, peatbogs are healing and rare arctic-montane scrub and heath are thriving. The whole place now echoes with birdsong, and golden eagles can often be seen wheeling above the crags.

Philip Ashmole, a zoologist, was one of the visionaries who launched the project in the mid-1990s. “We wanted to make a small repayment of our debt to nature,” says Ashmole, 90. “We just felt there should be somewhere people could go to see an undisturbed woodland ecosystem, looking and functioning as it did over much of Scotland before humans made a significant impact.”

Ashmole, his wife, Myrtle, and a group of local friends – environmentalists, artists and ecologists among them – set about turning that vision into reality. This grassroots, volunteer-led initiative can lay fair claim to several innovative “firsts”.

Almost all the funds needed to buy the 660-hectare (1,600 acre) Carrifran valley were crowdfunded, nearly a decade before that term was coined. A largely pre-internet fundraising campaign inspired about 600 people to donate a few hundred pounds each to become founders of Carrifran Wildwood.

With less reliance on institutional funders from the start, the group, supported by the Borders Forest Trust (BFT) – a charity established, in part, to own and manage the project – have been able to operate with an unusual degree of independence ever since.

And though the group tend to avoid the sometimes inflammatory word rewilding, that is essentially what they set out to do, 13 years before George Monbiot’s book Feral popularised the term.

The group’s decisions have been guided by a rigorous, science-first approach. Ashmole says habitat restoration plans were informed by soil and vegetation surveys and the results of meticulous analysis of peat cores, in which preserved pollen grains reveal the shifting plant and forest cover at Carrifran over the past 10,000 years.

Long centuries of livestock grazing had erased almost all trees, except a lone rowan, the “survivor tree”, so waiting for natural regeneration was not an option. Over the years, scores of volunteers have stepped up to plant and nurture the trees that now breathe fresh life into the valley. “There’s just been so much love for the site and it has really paid off,” says Andy Wilson, the BFT’s project officer, responsible for daily management of this site. “It wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all of us,” concurs Ashmole, with characteristic understatement.

Since establishing Carrifran, the BFT has acquired two further significant landholdings in the vicinity, key steps toward the charity’s mission to “revive the wild heart of southern Scotland”.

A catalyst for community-led rewilding

Kevin Cumming, the rewilding director of Rewilding Britain, cites Carrifran as one of the triggers for the recent increase in community-led rewilding efforts across the UK. “A group of people driven by a common interest to make a difference – how could that not be inspiring?” he says. “It certainly inspired me.”

Cumming previously led the Langholm Initiative, which in 2022 completed the south of Scotland’s biggest community buyout to establish the 4,100-hectare Tarras valley nature reserve.

Cumming is hopeful that rewilding will drive what he calls “a just transition for rural economies, [that creates] the sort of green jobs that can come from restoring nature and natural processes”.

Peter Cairns, the executive director of Scotland: The Big Picture, agrees. “Pioneering rewilding initiatives such as Carrifran demonstrate that rewilding is for everyone and delivers benefits to people as well as nature and climate,” he says.

His organisation runs the Northwoods network, which ensures rewilding is done by local communities rather than wealthy landlords.

Last week the Scottish Rewilding Alliance launched a campaign to make Scotland the world’s first “rewilding nation”. Its charter urges the Scottish government to commit to nature recovery across 30% of its land and seas “for the benefit of nature, climate and people”.

Carrifran is one of the seeds that this movement has grown from. It is a reminder of how meaningful change usually unfolds in practice: pioneers must first challenge the status quo, then, gradually, momentum can build.

For Ashmole and Wilson, one urgent priority is the establishment of more wildlife corridors that could weave Scotland’s growing patchwork of rewilding sites and nature-friendly farms into a continuous, ever-shifting wild tapestry. Like them, I look forward to the day when many more landscape-changing mammals – including beavers, wild boar and, eventually, lynxes – can move freely across the country.

Carrifran has become a mecca for would-be rewilders from the UK and beyond. They come here for practical knowhow and an injection of hope. “I just love seeing the excitement on people’s faces,” says Wilson. “They look at the valley and just go, ‘Wow!’”

Ashmole says: “That word ‘inspiration’ comes up, again and again. It’s what we always hoped this valley would offer.”