WOLVES and lynx might never be brought back to Scotland in a rewilding project, the head of a new group set up to promote the idea of rewilding here has admitted.

Such suggestions have regularly grabbed headlines, but Steve Micklewright, convener of the newly-formed Scottish Rewilding Alliance, believes they have unfairly taken over the debate about rewilding.

Instead, he said, the focus must be on rebuilding the environment from the ground up – “baby steps” – and in convincing landowners and managers, and people living in areas where rewilding is proposed, that it can bring positive benefits to their economy and lives.

The alliance, which has its launch today, is made up of conservation groups including Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Royal Zoological Society Scotland, the John Muir Trust and Mountaineering Scotland.

Micklewright, chief executive of woodland charity Trees for Life, says improving woodland, protecting peat, and restoring habitats for the smaller, less controversial creatures and plants that have disappeared from much of Scotland, are the alliance’s priorities, alongside using rewilding to boost and secure rural human populations.

He was a key speaker yesterday at Scotland’s first-ever conference to promote the rewilding concept. Publicity for the event said that, with a backdrop of “crashing global biodiversity and climate breakdown”, Scotland can become a “world leader in restoring its land and seas to good health”.

It suggested a “bold” approach but Micklewright, speaking exclusively to The Herald on Sunday, urged caution.

He said the time was right to lobby for rewilding, with a Scottish Government that wants to be seen to be progressive: “We need to work on how we talk about rewilding, and how we communicate about it effectively and how we get Scottish Government policy to enable rewilding.

“We need to be clear about what it means.”

What it doesn’t mean, he is clear, is “extreme rewilding” where large tracts of land are completely unmanaged. That’s because of invasive alien species, which would take over, and the lack of large predators.

As a result, under any rewilding scheme for the foreseeable future, plenty human management of deer and plants such as rhododendron will be needed.

“Rewilding in Scotland is about baby steps. We’re not ready in many ways to let nature fully take over some parts of Scotland, therefore we need to intervene for a very long time,” he said. “The idea has been suggested that rewilding is another form of Highland Clearances, getting people off the land so we can bring back a wilderness. Rewilding isn’t that at all: humans are a vital part of the landscape and enabling rewilding.

“If rewilding happens there will be more jobs here in land management and showing people what’s here, in tourism, and in sustainably using what the land’s providing. It’s about repeopling as well as rewilding – the two are very compatible.”

Asked about apex predators – animals at the top of the food chain – he said: “Introducing wolves is the last thing we want to do because we’re not ready ... and the landscape needs to be prepared for something like that.

“More importantly, these animals aren’t going to come back on their own so it’s a conscious decision to bring them back and we’re not ready for that conversation yet.

“It’s a major distraction and cause of division, whereas most of what rewilding is all about, most people would buy into.

“Apex predators are a long, long way down the road. Just by doing preparation for the land to be wilder doesn’t mean we will ever bring back predators because there may never be the will to do that.”

He said returning the lynx was more likely than the wolf, but added: “We would have to work out exactly what the concerns are and what we need to do to make sure those concerns are dealt with.”

The organisers of this weekend’s conference, Scotland: The Big Picture, is a group of film-makers, writers and photographers who campaign for rewilding. Director Peter Cairns backed Micklewright’s approach, saying he felt some charities and campaign groups are nervous of talking about rewilding: the word has become “toxic.”

“From a UK perspective it has become synonymous with the return of large carnivores and farmers being evicted off their land,” he said. “Reintroduction is an element but only one element.”

Landowners’ organisation Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) was represented at the conference. Sarah-Jane Laing, its executive director, said: “Using the term ‘rewilding’ can cause problems because it means many different things to different people.

“It is crucial, before any change in land use begins, to consider robust, scientific evidence and to consult with those who will be directly and indirectly affected, including those who live and work in rural Scotland.

She said many SLE members do “rewilding” work: “There’s already lots of activity taking place in Scotland supported by SLE and our members, from wildcats and red squirrels to peatland and pinewood projects.”