The media narrative around rewilding, said Peter Cairns executive director of Scotland: The Big Picture, is in danger of holding back nature recovery.

The tale all too often being told of “capitalists running amok” in the Highlands, of “green lairds” disregarding communities, misrepresents and misses out a key part of rewilding development – that some of it is being done by small farmers, small holdings and communities.

It also, too often, paints a picture of a rewilded landscape in which people are pushed out and eliminated from the story, when there are increasing number of projects which show the opposite.

“Historically, there has been this notion of rewilding equalling depeopling. In other words that there is a binary choice between nature and people. And that’s always been a fallacy and, I think, a convenient, almost weaponised trope that people have used.”

Scotland: The Big Picture, he said, has always been “keen on dispelling the notion that there has to be a choice between the needs of nature and the needs of people”

“The optics,” he said, “have been that rewilding is only for wealthy philanthropists or big conservation bodies. The notion is that it’s unreachable: inaccessible for normal communities or individuals or small farmers or estates.”

One of the ways in which Scotland: The Big Picture is trying to make it more accessible is through the Northwoods Rewilding Network, whose partners range from landholdings of 100 -1000 acres. They include farms, crofts, community woodlands and small estates.'Northwoods is an opportunity for many more people to play their role in rewilding' said Cairns.

Amongst Mr Cairns concerns is that the issue is not “politicised” – especially at a time when key bills are being brought forward in the Scottish Parliament: the Agricultural Bill and the Natural Environment Bill.

“This is an opportunity to recognise the challenges that we all face collectively. I think very often with these policies they tend to be watered down and try to be everything to everybody. From a rewilding perspective we would ask, ‘Is there room for compromise in a nature and climate emergency?’

"I would hope that there’s ambition in these new bills. But also the recognition that rewilding isn’t just the domain of big private landowners, whatever their origin or motivation is. Everybody has to play a role in nature recovery.”

Among the ways that rewilding is politicised, he said, is in the lambasting of some of the finance mechanisms, especially those involving carbon credits, used to enable such projects.

Particularly strongly criticised  has been the Scottish Government’s announcement of its £2 billion private finance deal of funding for nature.

For instance, author land rights campaigner, Alastair McIntosh wrote, in a paper titled the Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Carbon, that one of the deal’s unintended consequences could be that it could “land Scotland’s rural communities with a fresh driver of upheaval, disempowerment and depopulation”.

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“There is a lot of talk in the land reform community,” said Mr Cairns, “about what’s wrong with rewilding. But there are not many solutions, other than the blanket solution of ‘we need land reform’. At the moment, rightly or wrongly, we haven’t got it. And we as an organisation, a movement, a community, arguably as a society, have to deal with the cards we have in front of us right now.”

Scotland does, he noted, have a finance gap (the shortfall in funding required to meet nature-related goals). It was estimated by the Green Finance Institute report, published in 2021, that Scotland needs £20 billion to meet this.

“We live in a free-market economy,” said Mr Cairns. “Rewilding is not responsible for that. That’s just a fact of society. You deal with the cards that you’ve got and we absolutely need private sector investment. And that means organisations like ours working with very small landholders and medium-sized landowners, the likes of which exist in Northwoods, but also the larger, private owners because nature recovery is a requirement across society.”

The Herald: Ballintean Farm in the Cairngorms National Park, part of the Northwoods networkBallintean Farm in the Cairngorms National Park, part of the Northwoods network. Image:

“A hot topic”, he said, “has become this notion of pillaging by the private sector of our natural resources for profit. I do have some sympathy with that concern. I think there are some ill-judged examples of that – and they attract the headlines. But equally, there are a lot of private sector investors or donors who just want to give something back. Increasingly that 'giving back' isn’t confined to ecological recovery. It’s also conditional on social revitalisation.”

Northwoods, for instance, he said, has a corporate investor that insists that 30% of their contribution, every year, goes directly to community benefit.  “You look at all the significant players in that rewilding community – all of them mention community. More often than not, they mention community before nature recovery.”

Increasingly, he said, local communities are getting involved in rewilding – whether through community landholdings or woodland, for example, leased off Forestry and Land Scotland.

“There are," he noted, "an emerging range of models where people are navigating land-ownership or land management in a range of ways to enable them and their community, to effect nature recovery, but also bring benefits to the local communities.”

This “accessible, democratic face of rewilding”, he said, is nothing new. He pointed out that among the early pioneers of rewilding was the Carrifran wildwood, a project driven by volunteers which in the 1990s began work to reestablish native woodland in the Moffat Hills.

“This was not a movement born from the billions of an overseas investor; this was one couple, Philip and Myrtle Ashmole, and one very small community, recognising the level of nature depletion in their particular area, and rolling their sleeves up and doing something about it. Grassroots rewilding if you want to call it that.”

“This democratic face been around for a long time. It’s just that the headlines have been dominated by the big players and the big wealthy philanthropists.”

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But even where there is investment in communities alongside rewilding, he observed, private investors are being criticised. “Rewilding has become the whipping boy for everything from land reform to social injustice, to the clearances.”

“But it’s not this idea of pillaging capitalists running amok across the Highlands. It is investors taking advantage of an opportunity in a free-market economy – and, yes, sometimes doing it in a way that is ill-conceived or ill-judged. But I genuinely don’t think there are many cases of what you might call exploitation.”

Mr Cairns admitted there were risks, including the impact on property prices. “But again,” he said, “is a consequence of the free-market economy.

“I do have fears around carbon credits, absolutely, and I recognise that there are some examples out there that bring those fears home. There are some bad practices. They’re not always intentional.

“But do we just shout at these corporates? Or do we embrace the good stuff that they bring and try to create an environment where the best that the corporate sector can offer and put that into nature recovery, conditional upon that nature recovery working in tandem with community benefit? That’s the sweet spot. That’s the holy grail.

“If we can get to a situation where private investors fuel nature recovery and add  benefits to local communities then surely that’s a win-win.”

Mr Cairns also believes that there are lessons to learn for land-based rewilding from the Scottish government's recent HPMA debacle. The plan to restrict fishing and other activities in 10% of Scotland's seas met with a furious backlash and has now been dropped. 

“Physically,” said Mr Cairns “the marine environment isn’t our territory, but ideologically, what happened with the HPMAs is.” 

One of his earliest experiences of rewilding, he said, taught him something about the importance of engaging with communities. In the 1990s, he had been working as a photojournalist, covering wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone.  

“When I went out there," he recalled, " I thought it was going to be a wildlife story, but very quickly it turned into a people story, about people’s attitudes.  

“Fundamentally, the barrier was that ranchers and hunters and people living in rural communities felt that wolves were being done to them by some distant, bureaucratic machine that they had no control over, and that machine was effectively dictating not only their livelihoods, but also was an affront on their very cultural identity.” 

The problem was that they were being told what to do, having something imposed on them.  

“You could swap that story of wolves,” he said,  “in Yellowstone for the story of deer control or the HPMAs in Scotland. The characters in the backdrop change, but when a community feels that they are having done something done to them without their consent – then whatever the subject is, it becomes a real challenge.” 

With the HPMA legislation, Cairns observed, many felt that it had come out of the blue and that the establishment was imposing its will on fragile rural communities. 

“I think we all need to get a little bit better at having what can be quite difficult conversations, with honesty, with a progressive outlook and with respect.” 

Mr Cairns believes there are ways to defuse the tension around  that conversation, and cites what has happened in the deer sector, where there a project called Finding the Common Ground has sought to create mediation.  

“What the deer sector recognised," he said, "was that there was an impasse between a traditional approach and a new ecological approach, and the two were butting up against each other and had been for 10-20 years. Where do you go from there?” 

"Their answer was that they brought in civic mediators and conflict resolutionists. These people didn’t know anything about deer – but they did need to know about people and their values and their systems.

"The conversation around deer over the last 12 months has completely changed and as much as anything else it’s because I believe, the voice that’s driving it is not a voice with a badge on it, it’s an impartial voice - and I think that’s exactly what they should have done with HPMAs. They didn’t. And now we’ve got the outcome that we have got.”