A NATURE restoration project is being launched covering nearly 800 square miles of the Highlands which it is hoped will help protect Scotland's precious landscape and wildlife, including the threatened Scottish wildcat.

The 30-year 'rewilding' project covers a network of landholdings covering an area of over 500,000 acres stretching from Loch Ness across the central Highlands to Kintail in the west, and encompassing Glens Cannich, Affric, Moriston and Shiel.

The nature recovery initiative, titled Affric Highlands, whose emblem is the wildcat, aims to restore habitat, woodland, moorland and peatland in a scheme that also includes seeding plants, wildflowers and tree planting. Organisers are also looking at renewable energy creation schemes.

It follows three years of consultation between Rewilding Europe, Trees for Life, and other groups.

It comes as Scottish Rewilding Alliance – a coalition of over 20 organisations – calls on the Scottish Government to declare Scotland the world’s first Rewilding Nation, with a commitment to convert 30% of Scotland’s land and sea by 2030.

They say it can be achieved by restoring native woodlands, peatlands, moorlands, rivers, grasslands and wetlands, and protecting our seas, with no need for loss of productive farmland.

HeraldScotland:

Richard Bunting of Trees for Life said: " The Affric Highlands initiative really is a much-needed vision of hope, for helping to tackle the nature and climate emergencies – and at the same time creating social and economic opportunities in the Highlands.

"Large-scale initiatives like this are hugely important, because rewilding – large-scale nature restoration – can boost biodiversity, create carbon dioxide sinks, and reduce the impacts of climate breakdown such as flooding.

"All while offering fresh opportunities for communities and local economies, and for people to connect with nature and wild places. It's an opportunity to restore and expand native woodlands and peatlands, and to benefit all sorts of wildlife.

"The region contains much suitable habitat for this vanishing species, so if wildcats are still clinging on here, there may be opportunities to reinforce their populations. And if they have been lost from the region, there may be opportunities to reintroduce them."

A diverse group of 20 landowners covering at least 25% of the total area and six organisations are already on board, with hopes that more will join.

Work is underway to further involve local people, with practical action to connect areas of rewilding land due to begin in 2023.

HeraldScotland:

During a ceremony attended by partners and stakeholders at Glenurquhart Public Hall in Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness on Affric Highlands was officially welcomed by Rewilding Europe as the ninth member of its network of large pioneering rewilding areas – taking the organisation one step closer to its ultimate goal of ten such areas in Europe.

Rewilding Europe’s eight other rewilding areas are Portugal’s Greater Côa Valley; the Danube Delta in Ukraine, Romania and Moldova; Romania’s Southern Carpathians; Croatia’s Velebit Mountains; Italy’s Central Apennines; Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains; the Oder Delta in Germany and Poland; and Swedish Lapland.

"All of this matters because Scotland could be leading the way in rewilding, but remains one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, Many of its habitats are in a bad way, many of its species are declining or already extinct, and its rural landscapes and coastal areas now support fewer people than they used to," added Mr Bunting.

"As Scotland gears up to host the UN’s COP26 climate summit in November – and with the United Nations warning that climate breakdown is code red for humanity, and experts warning that we have entered the sixth mass extinction – we urgently need big and bold initiatives like this.

Forest rewilding has been at the root of Trees for Life’s work for three decades.

The charity has so far established nearly two million native trees to restore the unique and globally important Caledonian Forest at its own 10,000 acre estate at Dundreggan in Glenmoriston, and at dozens of other sites in the Highlands, including Glen Affric.

“The Highlands have huge potential to help nature to come back and so help people to thrive, and to make a leading contribution to tackling the global climate and nature emergencies. We are delighted Affric Highlands is now one of Rewilding Europe's large rewilding areas that are inspiring hundreds of other rewilding projects across the continent," added Steve Micklewright, chief executive of Trees for Life.

Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe said Affric Highlands is a "bold, exciting and inspiring venture for nature’s recovery".

“Including Affric Highlands in our portfolio of major European rewilding areas will help magnify rewilding’s impact in the Highlands, and put it firmly on the global map," he said.