For two decades, Mark Hamblin and his partner Gale Lee looked at the view that stretched beyond the bottom of their garden and wondered how much better it might be. 

Where there should have been broadleaf trees, birds, bugs, pools and diverse species of plants, were bare fields and a summer flock of sheep, chomping down on tufts of grass. 

It wasn’t the worst view. But when the land over the fence became available – bringing the threat that it might end up becoming something they really didn’t want at the bottom of the garden – the couple set about figuring out how to buy at least a little corner to call their own. 

What they ended up with, however, is far from a minor garden extension. Instead, they became the proud – if at first a little overwhelmed – owners of 50-acres of land in the heart of the Cairngorms. 

Rather than creating a simple wildlife garden on the edge of their property, they have ploughed their savings into a grand ‘rewilding’ vision which has involved a rapid introduction to animal husbandry, and overcoming the challenges of planting 750m of hedgerow, 4,500 trees, a wildflower meadow and creating a new wetland.

It is, agrees Mark, a slightly larger garden project than originally expected. 

“We thought we’d just buy an extension of our garden with a little wildlife patch,” says Mark, 55, a wildlife photographer.

“We bought our old farmhouse in 2002 and it had a good-sized garden with around three quarters of an acre of land. But we were surrounded by farmland with a lot of sheep and not a lot of wildlife. 

“There wasn’t much to look at and we hankered after buying a field and doing something with it.”

When the landowner died, the couple were told they would need to buy the entire 50-acres or nothing at all – bigger and more expensive than they’d ever thought of. 

While many might have baulked at the idea, they ploughed on, scraping together savings and trying to figure out how to rewild a corner of the Cairngorms. 

“The land was far more than we anticipated,” adds Mark. “But we thought ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ 

“A side issue was what if someone else buys it? They might put in a conifer plantation or heavily farm it. We started to think of the impact of someone else having and how it would impact on us. 

“We knew we’d regret it if we didn’t do it, so we raided the piggy bank to get it done.”
Having bought the land at Ballinlaggan, close to Carrbridge on the outskirts of Aviemore, they faced the challenge of figuring out how to kickstart the ecological restoration process. 

“We weren’t interest in farming in the traditional way, we were interested in planting trees, wildflowers and creating wetlands but we didn’t know how to go about it,” adds Mark.  

“Plus, we’d used up all of our cash buying the land.”

Their plans to create four and a half hectares of broadleaf woodland bordering the River Dunain were helped by funds from The Woodland Trust.

As luck had it, Cairngorm National Park Authority was seeking projects to fit an application for biodiversity funding from NatureScot when the couple asked for advice regarding their wetland restoration plans. 

Soon an excavator arrived to exhume seven shallow pools, removing rank vegetation and enabling new life to thrive. 

“Come spring we had lapwings, curlews, oyster catchers and snipes using the pool,” adds Mark. “Some birds bred, we had little lapwing chicks and pink footed geese in winter.

“It was fantastic. We created this wetland area and straight away saw the benefits. There were dragonflies and wildflowers in places where the vegetation had stopped the flowers coming through. 

“Within such a short space of time, we saw big changes.”

While the idea of ‘rewilding’ has been taken up by some of Scotland’s larger estate owners - including Danish billionaire Anders Polvsen - the couple are among a growing network of much smaller landowners working together to restore land and wildlife in their own corner of the countryside.

Launched in April, the Northwoods Rewilding Network brings together a diverse collection of 25 farms, estates and community lands covering 5,500 acres. It aims to create a network of ecologically productive ‘stepping-stones’ across the landscape, helping species to recover, expand and disperse.

Operated by rewilding charity, SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, it was created in response to a growing number of enquiries from landowners keen to contribute to Scotland’s role in reversing global ecological decline, but without the knowledge and resources to proceed.

At Ballinlaggan, there have been other helping hands to get the process going: volunteers arrived to help the couple remove fences and plant 350m of native hedgerow – a further 300m will be planted later this year along with the daunting prospect of planting 4,500 mixed broadleaf trees. 

The couple even borrowed a small herd of belted Galloways to try their hand at husbandry – while the sheep have gone, grazing is an integral part of the ‘rewilding’ process, creating and maintaining habitat for waders, wildflowers and insects, and a healthy population of voles. 

“The biggest concern was having livestock responsibly,” Mark adds. “Neither of us come from a farming background, and we’ve never kept anything other than a pet dog. It was quite a daunting prospect to take that on.”

They have now acquired their own small herd, there are plans for hens and pigs to help create some income. 

“We are learning as we go along,” he adds. “We’re not afraid of getting our hands dirty and we’ve done a lot of work ourselves. 

“It’s our baby and we’ve no regrets - we love it. We have had our money’s worth, seeing the changes over the course of just a year has been great. 

“Almost every day I see something that makes you feel this is all worth it.”