It’s now widely agreed by scientists that we are living through the 6th mass-extinction event, with species extinction rates being well above what is considered to be the normal, ‘background’ level. At the same time, in many parts of Europe, conservationists are heartened by the population growth of key mammals. Wolf, bear and lynx numbers are increasing and they are reclaiming territory where previously they have been hunted and driven out.
This apparent contradiction is explained by the urbanisation of Europe’s human population. Despite accelerating habitat loss around the world, in some areas of Europe, as more and more people move to the city, more land is returning to a semi-wild state. Is this a good thing? What are the social and cultural implications of Europe’s dying villages? Is land a commodity, with its value dependent on what can be extracted from it? Or do we have a moral duty to preserve and increase habitat for non-humans?
These questions apply in Scotland just as in any other part of Europe. Indeed perhaps more so, given both the controversial history of land ownership in this country, and the enduring attachment to, and affection for, rural Scotland that many feel – whether we live there or not.
The issues have been discussed previously on Bella, with good articles by Domhnall Iain Domhnallach and Fraser MacDonald. Land-reform campaigner Andy Wightman is also a frequent contributor to the debate and it’s never far from the mainstream news, whether it’s the latest controversy over a wind farm development or the recent poisoning of at least 14 red kites in Ross-shire.
All this is to say that land, and what we do with it, matters; that it’s a serious and emotive subject; and that our relationship to it is crucial to our own and to our society’s psycho-spiritual development. It was no surprise that one of the earliest pieces of legislation passed by the new Scottish Parliament was the Land Reform Act. Westminster was never much interested in what happened to remote Scottish communities, or whether or not Scots might enjoy unhindered access to hills and glens. Holyrood understood differently and the Act, as much as anything, is a fine symbol of the kind of civic engagement that devolution has encouraged. It is of course, like devolution itself, unfinished business.
Away from the politics of it, last autumn I spent a week walking in the woods in and around Glen Affric in Inverness-shire. Glen Affric is one of the oldest ecosystem restoration projects in the UK. It’s also one of the most nourishing places I’ve ever been. Pinus Sylvestris, the Scots Pine, fits well its ecological niche and has an iconic role in our culture and our deep sense of place. Walking in an expanse of it is to be transported: the woods of Glen Affric give a sense of how Scotland might have looked in an earlier era. There’s nothing like the fauna of course, the lynx and bear and wild boar, the wolves. But it’s the kind of place where you’d expect such creatures to be and, being there yourself, it’s very easy to imagine their return.
This idea of ‘rewilding’ the land, whether it’s happening naturally in depopulated parts of Europe, or by design in places like Glen Affric, has become a key concept for many conservationists and wildlife experts. As someone who inclines towards a ‘deep ecology’ perspective, I see this as a real opportunity for redress, as a positive movement in the face of ongoing environmental crises.
But I’m mindful that others are wary, especially if they happen to live in areas being considered for rewilding, and I take to heart the sentiments expressed by Norman MacCaig in A Man in Assynt. The poem is a love song to the land and wildlife of that part of the N.W Highlands, but it’s also a celebration of human culture and its contribution to an enriched ecology of place. The poem ends by lamenting the historic and continuing clearance of people, suggesting that “man becomes, / in this most beautiful corner of the land, / one of the rare animals.”
I offer no conclusions. Instead, in this wonderful year of change and possibility, I invite you to join the debate. Carrying the Fire is a weekend gathering held annually at Wiston Lodge in South Lanarkshire. It runs from 16th-18th May and this year’s programme will delve into some of those ideas behind rewilding, exploring the links between large-scale wilderness restoration and the need for wildness in our own lives. To help with the delving, there will be contributions from the likes of Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, and writer and activist Alastair McIntosh. There will also be music, poetry and performance, and, more than anything, there will be the chance to gather in the woods round a fire, to share our own stories at the hearth, to listen and be listened to.
If you’d like to join us, do visit our website here and book your place: www.carryingthefire.co.uk
* from In a Dark Time by Theodore Roethke