‘The surroundings bursts into life’: making Scotland wild once more | Scotland holidays

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By Stacy Connor

Birdcall breaks the morning silence as I potter previous the stretching Scots pines and historic oaks of Dundreggan, the rewilded property of the charity Timber for Life in Glenmoriston within the Scottish Highlands. Woodpeckers drum and cuckoos name from on excessive, whereas across the path, finches and thrushes flutter from tree to tree, avoiding beard lichens dripping off the branches.


I’m the primary one out within the forest this morning (or the primary human, a minimum of), a feat simply achieved when you will have spent the evening right here. The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre, the primary of its type on the planet, opened in April and contains An Spiris, an L-shaped lodging block with 20 double/twin rooms and a spacious communal space.

“Nature shouldn’t be unique,” Laurelin Cummins-Fraser, the director of the rewilding centre, informed me over a brew the day earlier than. “It is a gateway to the panorama.”

The Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston.
The Dundreggan property in Glenmoriston. {Photograph}: Paul Campbell

Dundreggan is Timber for Life’s 4,047-hectare (10,000-acre) instance of “rewilding” in motion. The tree nursery grows hundreds of saplings for planting, from uncommon aspen to montane tree species, and the panorama has modified dramatically because it purchased the property in 2008, with nature flourishing and ecosystems restored. Again then it was (like a lot of the Highlands) closely overgrazed by deer, the numbers of that are saved unnaturally excessive on many Scottish estates for sport capturing – a development relationship again to Victorian instances.

After 15 years of rewilding at Dundreggan – and a discount in deer numbers from about 16 a sq km to 5 (the perfect quantity for pure woodland regeneration is 2 to 5 in every sq km however in some elements of Scotland it exceeds 60) – there are actually greater than 4,000 species of crops and animals right here, together with uncommon globeflowers and pink squirrels. Golden eagles even returned for the primary time in 40 years in 2020 after an eyrie was constructed by the ecologist Roy Dennis – and chicks adopted.

The again door of An Spiris opens on to the strolling trails. I stroll alongside Ceum a Fhraoich (the Heather Path), studying from the informative signage how Scots pine helps Scottish crossbills, and wild boars – reintroduced right here in 2009 – dig up soil, permitting new life to take root.

Red squirrels are among the 4,000 species now present on the Dundreggan estate.
Crimson squirrels are among the many 4,000 species now current on the Dundreggan property. {Photograph}: Mark Hamblin

By the point I return from my stroll, the rewilding centre has opened. It tells the story of a previous the place we lived alongside lynx, eagles and aurochs (extinct large, wild cattle), amongst mountains inexperienced with timber and close to rivers wealthy with salmon, the place elk grazed in willow meadows birthed by beaver dams.

It additionally tells of a modern-day Highland panorama that, regardless of its magnificence, has been severely degraded within the centuries since, not least due to the Highland Clearances within the 1700s and 1800s. Huge areas had been reworked from locations of Gaelic-speaking subsistence farming to sparsely populated areas used for large-scale sheep farming, disastrous for wildlife and other people. By the Fifties, solely fragments of the Caledonian pinewood forests remained, and at present, Scotland ranks 212th (twenty eighth worst) out of 240 nations and territories within the Biodiversity Intactness Index.

A volunteer planting trees for Trees for Life.
A volunteer planting timber for Timber for Life. {Photograph}: Timber for Life

“The Caledonian forest and the Gaelic tradition and language each was widespread,” says Cummins-Fraser. “Now they solely exist in remnants – however they are often introduced again.” Accordingly, all signage round Dundreggan is printed in English and Gaelic.

In addition to restoring absolutely functioning ecosystems – timber, crops and animals – in large enough numbers to fulfil their ecological position, rewilding can also be an opportunity to convey again individuals. Final 12 months, Timber for Life welcomed about 1,000 guests to Dundreggan, largely volunteers. Now the infrastructure is constructed, they’re hoping 30,000 will pop in for a espresso or tour of their first 12 months. There will likely be storytelling occasions, and bushcraft, foraging and images workshops, too.

The organisation has definitely expanded so much because it was created by the ecologist Alan Watson Featherstone in 1986, with the intention of restoring the Caledonian forest in Glen Affric, certainly one of Scotland’s most lovely glens, about 15 miles north of Dundreggan. Nearly 2m timber have been planted since, and Timber for Life’s work continues there too. As we speak, it’s on the geographical centre of the Affric Highlands, a much bigger collaborative venture with Rewilding Europe launched in 2021, with a 30-year imaginative and prescient to rewild an enormous space stretching from Loch Ness, within the central Highlands, out to Kintail within the west.

Dundreggan tree nursery.
Dundreggan tree nursery. {Photograph}: Timber for Life

Working with landowners and native individuals, the thought is that livelihoods will likely be boosted alongside nature regeneration – and “sluggish tourism” will play a component. The 44-mile Affric Kintail Manner, which opened in 2015, already gives a waymarked route by means of the center of the Affric Highlands, operating from Drumnadrochit, on Loch Ness, to Morvich in Kintail.

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“The trail shows the diversity of the landscape,” says Stephanie Kiel, Affric Highlands team leader. “It takes you through a glen that is fairly agricultural, with livestock and forestry plantation, and then to the wilder areas of Glen Affric, with lots of trees. Then it takes you through a spectacular landscape with mostly short vegetation, where deer numbers are much higher.”

To see the restoration work in action, I walk the route over four days, starting on the forest trails near Drumnadrochit. It’s on day two, after climbing to a hidden viewpoint over Glen Affric, that the scenery bursts into life. Behind a mosaic woodland, Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin glimmers, with a backdrop of Munros. It’s the messiness of the rewilded forests that strikes me: the mix of sizes and shapes and species – old pines interspersed with little birch trees; the crooked oddities you don’t get in monoculture plantations.

The sun shines mercifully as I walk the 17 miles to Glen Affric youth hostel – one of the UK’s most remote hostels (the quickest route in is a three-hour walk) leaving Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin and joining Loch Affric, where a line of Scots pines snake beneath An Tudair Beag and reflect a mirror image back on the water.

Dundreggan Rewilding Centre.
‘A gateway to the landscape’ … Dundreggan Rewilding Centre. Photograph: Paul Campbell

Golden sand beaches lead me to the River Affric, and as I round a bend, the 2-metre wingspan of a golden eagle cruises into sight. The hostel is idyllic; no internet or phone signal here, but there is a log fire. “You’re brought back to nature,” says Marc Phipps who runs it. “It’s like time stood still – in the most beautiful way.”

The final day takes me past towering mountains with bare slopes and round the powerful Allt Grannda waterfall. Deer watch from a ridgeline as I descend to the picturesque Glen Lichd. Then it’s a short stroll to Morvich.

I saw the theory of rewilding in Dundreggan, and the complexities of modern land use on the Affric-Kintail Way, from pasture and plantations to wet deserts and vibrant, regenerating forest.

“In 30 years I hope I’ll be tottering through a regenerating area,” says Kiel. “You’ll still have those beautiful views and mountains, but with more complex and diverse nature; more animals and birdsong, and more people in the landscape, enjoying all of that. That would be my vision.”

Accommodation was provided by An Spiris, where doubles start at £125 (two-night minimum stay), including breakfast in the rewilding centre and £10 towards an activity/tour, visitdundreggan.co.uk; and by Glen Affric youth hostel (£26 a bed a night), hostellingscotland.org.uk.

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