Rewilding notebook: our visit to Wildland
In August, we traversed the UK from the Cairngorms to Norfolk to visit a number of wilding projects. We wanted to put faces to the names we’d routinely come across, understand what exactly different projects were doing, who they were working with, how they were financing their work, and begin to sketch out exactly what the role of Youngwilders could be in the network of UK projects. The openness and generosity we were met with over the course of the trip was truly humbling, and we’re still processing much of what we’ve learnt. In each of the next few posts we’ll focus on one of these visits and try to share some insights.
On a day of undeserved warmth and fine weather at the start of our trip we met with Thomas MacDonell and Tim Kirkwood, respectively the conservation director and CEO for WildLand Ltd., at the 45,000-acre Glen Feshie Estate in the Cairngorms National Park. A conservation initiative of Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen’s, WildLand represents one of the largest land holdings and most ambitious private wilding projects in the UK, managed in accordance with a ‘200 year vision of landscape-scale conservation’.
Whilst patently not a model for widespread adoption elsewhere, Glen Feshie is a visually stunning and ecologically exciting example of bold, high-budget, large-scale wilding in the UK. Thomas, a man exuding quiet competence who doesn’t mince his words, was kind enough to present to us the history of the Estate, its ownership, management, recent developments and visions for the future, before he and Tim showed us around the estate.
Deer, Deer, Deer!
Stewarding Glen Feshie to its current condition, where natural regeneration of woodland and montane scrub is abundant and predator numbers are increasing, has been a tense and bloody affair.
Wilding is often associated with the reintroduction of large grazing animals like cattle, horses, and deer to generate ecological disturbance and maintain a mosaic of habitat types. This is generally not the case in Scotland, where intense grazing pressure and disturbance from deer can be the most significant barrier to vegetation regeneration.
Deer stalking, or shooting, is a significant land use as well as cultural and economic activity on the large upland estates of the Highlands. The main target species for these shoots, red deer, number around 400,000 across Scotland and are at the very centre of rewilding debates in the country. Estates are valued partly based on the number of stags shot in the previous season, which incentivises estate managers to maintain high deer numbers despite the damage this causes to the ecological value of the land.
The situation in Glen Feshie was much the same 20 years ago. Deer densities of around 45 per square kilometre (higher than anywhere else in Europe) kept most new vegetation growth at bay, and the ageing ‘granny’ pines on the estate were slowly dying off. In one particular encounter in 2003 with the then-owner of the estate, in a room filled with gamekeepers before a shoot, the deer issue came to a head. At the time the Deer Commission for Scotland was increasing pressure on the estate to change its deer management approach to protect what little vegetation was left in the Glen, and the owner, Flemming Skouboe, wanted Thomas to explain what this would mean. Ignoring a warning glance from his wife, also in the room, Thomas explained that deer densities would need to be drastically reduced to below 5 per square kilometre to permit any natural regeneration on the estate. The merry atmosphere in the room soured and after a brief pause the gamekeepers in the room, seeing their management practices questioned and possibly their livelihoods at stake, started an angry, escalating chant aimed at Thomas. “Deer...Deer...Deer!”
Reducing deer numbers so dramatically can involve extensive fencing and exclusion, or culling, or frequently both. Scottish Natural Heritage wouldn’t at the time permit the erection of a deer fence around the estate, and so the remaining option was to initiate an intensive annual cull. To do this efficiently, WildLand began using helicopters to drop hunters around the estate and to retrieve deer carcasses from the hill. These were initially sold as venison but then later (and at a higher price!) also for pet food. We felt saddened and unnerved by an image of limp deer bodies swinging on a rope below a helicopter in one of Thomas’s slides. “It’s not nice. There’s nothing nice about this”, he remarked.
The initial ire from the gamekeepers continued, and interest from other groups grew. Specific claims that there would be no deer left and a whole local economy was sure to collapse were joined by unfavourable coverage in major news outlets. Gamekeepers and other locals but also animal rights activists (our notes from this part of the talk read “Animal rights people from down south. Thomas fought his way out of pubs and kept a shotgun under bed”) amassed to protest outside the estate gates with signs reading ‘Reductions YES Genocide NO!’
In the face of this animosity, and after years of culling upwards of 500 deer annually, Thomas started to get nervous. There wasn’t much regeneration happening in the Glen. Had the land been so badly damaged that nothing was left to grow back? The new owners, the Holch Povlsens, were also anxious to see results. Fortunately, after a three-year lag, pine and juniper started to emerge above the heather, sentinels of change. More recently these have been joined by more palatable (tasty to deer) broadleaf species, a sure sign that culling is having a positive effect. Many of the pines now stand well above head height.
Thomas was keen to stress to us that we shouldn’t always listen and be swayed by those around us. Anne and Anders purchased the estate with a vision to revive Glen Feshie to a wilder and more ecologically exciting condition, but this would have been nearly impossible to realise following the advice and examples of neighbouring head gamekeepers and land managers. Little of what can now be seen and enjoyed by anyone visiting the estate (there are some amazing public paths and free basic accommodation at a bothy) would have happened. Instead WildLand has had to draw on examples and inspiration from further afield, which Thomas frequently cited as we left the estate offices to wander through the Glen.
Trees, tourism, and tracking
Natural regeneration on the estate is complemented by a painstakingly composed planting plan. This is divided into 0.5-hectare polygons, and displayed on iPads to the tree planters they employ. The plan is based on the upland habitats of southwest Norway which, owing to its similar climate and landforms, some consider to be a model for restoration in Scotland. At one point we passed a clump of aspen saplings planted at the foot of a steep, craggy slope. When fully grown these will be reminiscent of the aspen stands often found beneath avalanche chutes in North America. Thomas was keen to point out instances where things have happened contrary to conventional wisdom. Trees growing in blanket bog, veteran pines producing viable seed. When the estate moves out of what he terms the ‘hard landscaping’ phase and management is reduced, the surprising and unexpected things they’ve already seen will likely only increase.
Deer stalking by clients on the estate continues, although inquiries for this are sharply down compared to those for new offerings like ‘pony picnics’. WildLand doesn’t see a future without shooting on the estate, but rather that this will happen in a wilder and more challenging setting that clients would pay more for as a result. Whilst we might find this hard to accept from a position averse to elite blood ‘sports’, perhaps a shooting economy that promotes biodiverse landscapes and wilder, more exciting experiences as a result might help to reconcile competing land use visions into the future.
On a final note, WildLand have recently launched an exciting project tracking some of the raptors, particularly golden eagles, nesting in Glen Feshie. They hope to showcase their movements across the Highlands and increase their visibility to the public to reduce incidences of persecution by gamekeepers, still thought to be relatively widespread. Showing us how the app works, Thomas could see (a casual realisation for him, but hugely exciting to us) that one of the eagles was close by. We saw one on our tour, turning leisurely in the eddies high above the Glen. The tracking data and stories are available here.