THE rugged landscape of the Highlands is a place of loss. It has not been until relatively recently that we in Scotland, have properly started to perceive that. For years it was just synonymous with the wild, nature's domain. What was missing was rarely on our minds, as we focussed on sporting icons – the deer, the grouse, the heather.

But now the monarch of the glen, is being dethroned and emphasis is being given to the nurturing and return of other species – both those that are all-too rare and those that are absent. Many species have disappeared over centuries, even millennia, mostly as a result of human impact. We don’t notice their absence because we have never known them to be there.

Two new books, Roy Dennis’s Restoring The Wild and Andrew Painting’s Regeneration, are testimonies to the long list of flora and fauna that are missing and the project of bringing them back. At a time when rewilding is the buzzword, so commonly used its sometimes hard to get a handle on what it really means, pioneers like Painting and Dennis are at the forefront of creating restorative change. They bring us stories of hope as well as alarm – stories that are not just about the species themselves, but also we humans, and what our presence should or could be like on the land. For, among the species Andrew Painting feels is missing from the Highlands, or not quite in its rightful place, is homo sapiens.

Ornithologist and reintroduction pioneer, Roy Dennis, lists some of the large mammals which had roamed our lands since the last ice age but are now long gone: the wolf, the lynx, the brown bear, the wild boar, the elk, the beaver, the auroch. “There is a host of species missing,” he says. “There’s a lovely skull of an auroch in our local museum in Forres. These animals, a kind of giant wild cattle, were around in the early millennia following the Ice Age in Britain. It was in the 1980s when I started talking to people in other countries, I began to recognise that because significant animals weren’t there our countryside was damaged. The beaver was probably the most important because it had such an impact on rivers.”

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The 80-year-old is talking from his home in Moray, where he has just come in from his daily outing to check osprey nests to see if eggs have been laid yet. His email bears an automatic reply that says,, “Raptor fieldwork season started from now to end July - will try to answer asap".

Restoring The Wild is testimony to his long-running battle to bring species back and a lifelong attitude of stubborn persistence. “I’m a great believer,” he says, “in the idea that we just need to get it done. I’m afraid too many organisations now are just too big and they talk all the time. Talking rarely gets things done. No one thought we would be allowed to release white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Wight, nor did they think they could possibly live down there. And within two years that’s all changed. People are thrilled to bits having them there after 240 years of absence. One of my friends sent me a photograph today of one of the eagles lifting a fish out of a lake, a kind of coarse fish. It’s brilliant that these birds have learnt so well to catch these things.”

Often these days when we talk about rewilding the impression is given that the best answer is just for humans to step back and let nature do its own thing. But, Dennis points out, without help, the spread of animals like osprey and white eagles across the country is going to be infinitely slow. “We know that the natural spread is only 4km per year in that the male birds want to nest where they were reared. So when they come back from Africa after several years, they want to be near their natal sites. With white eagles it’s a bit more, about 10km – that means it could be 100 years for them to get back.”

The Herald: Roy Dennis with osprey

Other species are still less likely to return on their own. “With species like the lynx and the beaver there’s no way they can come back to Scotland unless humans bring them back. But you need to be able to demonstrate that you can do it properly to those who live and work there. And the farmers and landowners and foresters should have the respect that you know what you’re doing and you get on with them.”

From youth, Dennis recalls, being aware of the loss in British nature. He recalls how growing up in Hampshire, a nature-loving kid who loved to roam, he got into birdwatching and collecting eggs, as well as reading natural history books. On one occasion, he even took a trip to Culver cliffs on the, a location he knew had been, in 1780, the last breeding site of the white eagle along the south coast of England. When, at 19, he was field ornithologist at the Fair Isle Observatory on Shetland, he heard stories of how there had once been two pairs of “ernes”, sea eagles, on the island. They had last bred there, on Sheep Rock, before 1840.

On Fairisle, he would be involved in his mentor George Waterson’s first failed attempt to reintroduce white-tailed eagles to the island, and, since then, he has been instrumental in introducing white-tailed eagles, red kites and beavers to the UK, as well as increasing osprey numbers.

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As much as his book is a chronicle of the marvels of successful reintroductions and translocations, it's also a catalogue of attempted projects that got blocked at some stage or another. What’s clear is that he expected far more animals to have been reintroduced by now. “It’s still a disgrace that the Scottish government is not allowing us to restore the beaver to all river systems. And then of course looking at some of the predators like wolf and lynx. Lynx is the easiest one to do. We’ve known that since the early 1990s and we’ve not been able to get on with it. They have an impact on the animals like badger and fox and marten and so on, the middle predators whose numbers get so high that they damage things like lapwings and oystercatchers and curlews and woodcock.”

Often we talk about biodiversity loss, we focus on the more charismatic mammals, but one of the biggest stories of loss is not so much of an individual species, but of a whole ecosystem – the Caledonian pine forests. Vast stretches of it, which once blanketed the land have, have been replaced over centuries by moor and heather, and with it the homes of many a native species. Andrew Painting’s book, Regeneration, is about one of the many experiments taking place across Scotland, to bring them back – the restoration of the woodlands at Mar Lodge estate, where he is assistant ecologist.

The Mar Lodge story is a fascinating one that I was drawn to when working on my own book, For The Love Of Trees. Since the 18th century the estate had been managed for the sport of hunting deer. As a result, Painting says, “people were cleared from the land to make way for deer to hunt and there were so many deer for such a long time that it was really more than the woods could cope with.”

“Red deer really are a woodland species ultimately," he says. "You find them in woods. But there were so many red deer at Mar Lodge for so long that the woods weren’t regenerating. Whenever a pine tree or a young birch tree would raise its head above the heather it would be nibbled back – and that happened for 200 years. Combine that with forestry events that happened in the 19th century, early 20th century, particularly in the second world war large areas were lost, and you’re looking at a steady attrition of what were once large, connected Caledonian pinewoods”

Then, in 1995, the estate was taken over by the National Trust and a 200 year plan was developed with three pillars of management “environmental conservation sport and access for everyone”. Key in this was the restoration of woodland.

What it started to do then was something quite extraordinary. The largest national nature reserve in the country, a formerly iconic sporting estate with royal connections, as Painting puts it, “just down the road from Balmoral”, began in to operate what it called a zero tolerance campaign. It began to shoot not just a few of its deer, but a lot.

This was at first hugely controversial - especially because at first there seemed few signs of the expected regeneration. It seemed like nothing was happening. But then after ten years signs became clear of the woodland returning. Since the start that deer control policy numbers in the area have been reduced from 3500 to less than 2000.

The aim, Painting says, was not to totally get rid of red deer. “They are really important woodland animals and of course it’s the largest nature reserve in the country, we want to have the UK’s largest land mammal on the estate.” It was just, a he points out, there were far too many.

“It took a long time to get that whole process right and the trust got a lot of criticism from both sporting interests and conservationists. The sporting interests were saying it was the end of red deer sport and they were saying some pretty nasty things. On the other hand you had conservationists saying why aren’t you pushing faster? It’s a really tricky one because environmentalists don’t want to kill things. We really like red deer. They’re one of my favourite species and you’re left in this horrible position where you have to reduce their numbers.”

The Herald: Mar Lodge Estate, Braemar. Seasonal ecologist Andrew Painting with one of the older trees on the estate. STY
Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times

He has never shot a deer himself, but he has, he says been out stalking with the keepers. “They don’t trust me with a rifle," he laughs. "They’ve seen me with a shotgun at the clay pigeon grounds and they’ve decided, 'Nah he’s not good enough.' I sort of made a point of going out with them though because I feel like you can’t go round advocating reducing deer numbers and not know what goes on behind that.”

Painting was not there for those early years of criticism. He first came to work at Mar Lodge, as assistant to ground-breaking ecologist Dr Shaila Rao, in 2016, at a point when the impact of the deer control was starting to result in a significant regeneration and increase in biodiversity. At that point, he started to ask, “Why aren’t people talking about this as much as they should be? I thought we were sitting on quite a big landscape scale story, that the time had come for it.”

He felt this was a story of cultural significance, that spoke of how Scotland’s approach to the land could evolve. “This was one of the first estates which you could call a Highland sporting estate – and one with royal connections just down the road in Balmoral. With all the history it has I just thought the story had a lot of relevance for what the rest of the Highlands could look like in the future, if we want them to.”

Mar Lodge, he notes, is managed for the people of Scotland. “I would like to see more land managed for the nation rather than for whoever happens to own them at any given moment.”

His own hopes for the future, not just of the estate, but of the Scottish landscape are, he says, "I'd like to see a more joined up approach towards managing our landscapes. I’d like to see the word managing go out of fashion as well. And a move towards living with our landscapes rather than living on them or managing them. Going into the future, I would really like to see us bringing nature back and creating a landscape that is for nature and for people as well.”

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The remains, he observes, of hundreds of shielings, and eight illicit whisky stills have been found by archeologists in glens there that were cleared. We too have disappeared in this area. “Archeologists have also found mesolithic presence of humans going on at Mar Lodge. Basically we can say that since the last Ice Age, deer, Scots pine and humans have been at Mar Lodge for the same amount of time.”

What’s interesting about the kind of restoration that Painting is talking about, is the way that it envisions people as part of the system. What he says he would like to see is us there, but working “with” the land, rather than managing it. “It’s about people living with nature rather than on top of it or against it. I think it’s a case of shifting the goalposts of how you perceive the environment and our place in it. The ultimate end goal for the Mar Lodge woodland is to see trees, deer and people reunited." ”

He describes what is being done at Mar Lodge, not as rewilding, but “landscape-scale ecological restoration”. He even calls it “prewilding”. “It’s what you do before you start rewilding and also the plan here started before rewilding was a term. I guess the problem with rewilding as a term, to its detractors, is that it suggests another level of Highland clearances. And I can absolutely see why people would think that – wild does have connotations of danger and absence of people. But done properly it can do the opposite. You just reframe people as being part of a wilder landscape.”

He also hopes that Mar Lodge, as well as being a showcase for woodland restoration and also demonstrate “what a deintensified sporting landscape could look like.” Part of the estate, after all, is still managed for sport – but with a light touch. “We’ve stopped muirburn there," he says. "We don’t do much intensive management of it at all. That’s quite challenging for some sporting folk because a lot of management is tied up in what the landscape looks like. So I think gamekeepers are very keen on muirburn because people have always done it, it’s part of the sporting landscape. But if the SNP go through with their plans for licensing of grouse moor and changes to deer management legislation then basically Mar Lodge is sort of showing what a deintensified moorland and sporting landscape could look like into the future. I think that’s something Mar Lodge is showing – that you can have sporting landscapes sitting alongside woodland regeneration, carbon sequestration, water retention. Waders, hen harriers. You can have grouse shooting and you can have hen harriers on the same moors.”

Talking to Dennis and Painting, what comes across is both alarm and frustration, but also hope. Painting, at 31 years old, is one of a new generation of ecologists involved in shaping our future, and one of the delights of chatting with him is in hearing his positivity. It's there in descriptions of new orchids found on the estate or the growth in montane scrub. “I forget," he says, "about the declines in other places when I’m out and about. I was out this morning looking at hen harriers. I thought oh this is brilliant, we’ve got hen harriers everywhere and then you start to look at raptor and find out that another two have been shot. This was another reason I wanted to write the book. Stories of hope are really important. It’s important to know how bad the situation is, but it’s equally important so that you don’t despair to know that there is hope for the future and that we can turn things around.”

The Herald: The plans have been widely debated.

Roy Dennis meanwhile, at 80 years old, with a conservation career behind him of immense achievement – though clearly he is frustrated that more was not pushed through. He shares a few of his hopes and fears for the future. “I think the situation over biodiversity and climate is critical. I think Scotland in that time will be a much more greatly wooded landscape. We won’t have those bare hills. But they won't be replaced by Sitka spruce plantations, I’m talking about mixed woodlands which include Scots pine and other things that can be harvested for wood. What I think we need is for 50 percent of the land to be managed to help with climate amelioration, preventing floods, holding water, creating oxygen, creating clouds, creating insects, all of that. I believe that 50 percent of the land and 50 percent of the seas need to have that special management."

There's a faith there that this will happen. “I do see that coming about and I  also think beavers will be in all rivers on the mainland, lynx will be there, wolf will be back as well.”

Regeneration: The Rescue of A Wild Land by Andrew Painting is published by Birlinn

Restoring The Wild: Sixty Years Of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods And Waterways by Roy Dennis is published by William Collins