Rewilding and why the Scottish mountains look the way they do

“Full uncut interview with land campaigner Andy Wightman discussing rewilding, land reform, trees and why the Scottish mountains look the way they do.” From @davemacleod09

Interested in how this plays with the (in my mind) parallel discourse about “re-peopling”.


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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Excellent interview, thanks for posting.
    The thoughts on the Scottish highlands could also apply to the moors round me here in NW England, where sheep farming predominates. We have a schizophrenic council, which do wonders for green spaces and tree planting, at the same time as allowing building developments on farmland and flood zones. At the same time national policies aren’t really creating viable alternatives for farmers to change practices, unless they live in the Forest of Bowland AONB.

    One farmer I volunteer with attended a meeting on government scheme for tree planting on farmland – the funding is based on the assumption that 100% of trees planted will survive! And the meagre maintenance funding after the planting is done has to be used to replace any trees that don’t survive.

    Andy’s comments at c18 mins is spot on – echoing Derrick Jensen of Bright Green Lies fame – find a local patch and get interested in it, find it’s history, tend it and defend it. Very often you’ll find like minded people, even if it’s only a handful of people but makes a great community.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Indeed! Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. In relation to public affairs, just as our national governments need to be disempowered in favour of our so-called ‘local’ councils, so our so-called ‘local’ authorities need to be disempowered in favour of civic groups and the real communities that act through them.

      I found Lorna Slater’s dismissiveness of him telling when Andy resigned the party whip over the Scottish Green’s intolerance over transgender and women’s rights: ‘[He] has very specific followers,’ I remember her telling the Scotsman, ‘but most people have no idea who he is.’

      BTW: whatever happened to the Scottish Greens? You hardly ever hear of them nowadays. COP26 has been and gone and hardly a chirrup… Anyone would think they’d been muzzled.

      1. Niemand says:

        He’s good isn’t he? Passionate, articulate and from this anyway, so reasonable! Such a shame we live in times where someone like him cannot be at home in the Green Party and even gets vilified for an issue that in essence has nothing to do with Green politics and is very much debatable anyway. Seems mad. I would suggest The Green Party needs to focus on what they were formed for and were originally called – The Ecology Party (I still have the badge). But that isn’t going to happen now; I fear they are lost to the usual political shenanigans and their power as a radical party primarily focussed on caring for the environment we live in, gone. One look at the Greens in England and the recent mindlessness of their party leadership elections as cast iron proof: ‘green’ issues weren’t even discussed.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Aye, I’ve got a lot of time for Andy Wightman. He’s been banging on about the fundamentality of land ownership and the commons for a while now. I particularly admire his work on the abolition of local government in Scotland in 1975, the confiscation of local common good assets by the district and regional government that replaced it, and the subsequent misuse of those assets by the latter.

      2. Frank says:

        Who is Lorna Slater?

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Landowners have made unholy alliances with other sectional interests of the public, for example mountaineers (“They make a desert, and call it peaks.”).

    I will have to return to Andy Wightman’s They Had No Lawyers, of which I only got a few chapters in.

    However, I think in the video Wightman rather stops short in his view of politics. Where is the discussion of what nonhumans have in common with humans? Humans can and do choose to bind themselves (collectively via codified constitutions, for example), and could assign legally-binding protections to ecosystems such as forests:

    I also think Wightman could have considered how ideology has played an important role, indeed how British royals have waged a war on Nature since Tudor times (which would address all the linguistic implications of classifying lifeforms as vermin, pests, weeds, savage and so on).

    1. Mark Bevis says:

      You’re not wrong, although he does mention it briefly indirectly early in the interview in that the landscapes we say today are not wild, but all outcomes of human activity going back much further than organised nation states existed.
      A recent UN survey shows only 3.5% of the planet is not by degraded human activityin some way which kinda reinforces that point.
      The degree of disturbance when populations were tiny would have been less, and back then possibly reversible, but not anymore.

      Alas the war on nature started long before our nobility got efficient at killing what was left.

      and see the book The Missing Lynx by Ross Barnett, which shows how modern humans exterminated much of the megafauna in Europe and America in a 9000 year blitz some 40,000 years ago.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Mark Bevis, well, I learnt a new word (kleptoparasitism) which I’m sure will come in handy sometime, although I think that study was a little speculative. But I meant something more than (over)hunting. Perhaps Henry VII killed off the wolf in England. Apparently the Tudor Vermin Acts spread to the USA:
        although the evidence base for hedgehogs ‘stealing’ cow’s milk might have been a little thin, and of course Henry VIII cut down lots of forests to build ships, as Horrible Histories recently reminds us. I don’t think we can blame Christianity directly for these superstitions, presumably all the animals on the ark got the seal of approval. Of course, paying bounties for animal corpses led to all kinds of corruption.

  3. Niemand says:

    Great video. Fascinating and so well expressed by Wightman. I would have liked a few more dates in the historical analysis but otherwise I really nice summary of the issue. I was very interested in the idea of a compressed zonality in Scotland compared to the Alps. One place that is nice to visit is Knoydart where you can find really ancient woodland still and deciduous trees really do extend right up to the tree line at 2000 feet. They are small but so old and beautifully gnarled. One thing I did wonder was about climate change in the past. I know that, for example, the Pennines were also wooded after the ice age but the climate got warmer and importantly wetter and this did for the trees on the tops and the peat began to form instead leaving the moors we know now. So I wonder if this was similar in the Highlands.

    1. David B says:

      Wetter climate would have played a part, but SW Norway has a fairly similar climate (temperature, rainfall) to the Cairngorms, yet the vegetation is typically richer and trees extend higher. A big difference is that Norway never had a feudal land ownership system. Even within Scotland the vegetation in eags, ledges and anywhere else that can’t be grazed or burned is normally richer than the surrounding moors with trees often present.

  4. David B says:

    Bella, you make a good point about re-peopling. For the foreseeable future, “re-wilding” will support a lot of rural employment. Deer control, woodland management, conservation grazing, peatland restoration, river realignment, ecologists, non-native species removal, captive breeding and reintroduction programmes, tree planting etc., plus all the admin and service jobs that this creates. Obviously the hope is that over time fewer interventions will be necessary. But as Andy said, the myth of a truly “wild” state of land is exactly that. I also doubt we’ll get to a stage where free-roaming wolves, bison and bears can be reintroduced (our landscape is too fragmented), so people will need to be employed to replicate or manage that. Imagine a herd of Eurasian bison crossing the A9!

    For me the big challenge is to ensure that jobs and income are equitably distributed, and come with affordable housing. At present many re-wilding jobs go to relatively well off middle class people from outwith an area. Housing is snapped up for second homes/ holiday lets. And as Andy says, carbon credits (along with a lot of tourist money) are hoovered up by the large landowners. Also local people need more of a say in whether their local estates transition from traditional to rewilding models.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      For me, the big challenge is to decommodify land, labour, and capital by ‘returning’ all three factors of production to ‘the commons’ or democratic control, whereby the use to which they’re put/the ends to which they’re mobilised is determined by the common interest, as expressed through the general will that emerges from the commonality in free and equal assembly, rather than by some private or special interest within that commonality.

    2. Niemand says:

      Yes he made a very good point about the ‘re’ in re-wilding. But the other issue is that the current barren landscapes are also seen by many as ‘natural’. I do a lot of voluntary tree panting and have done for 25 years in the valley I live in and it has had a major impact, and local support is fairly strong (all of us planters are local). But there is a surprising small minority who are anti as they see what we are doing as changing the landscape from what they are familiar with – barren, open moor, a millenia grass desert.

      One could argue that as the concept of re-wilding is a misnomer then is the current barren landscape any less ‘natural’? I would still argue yes, since left to its own devices, trees would return anyway though given the denuded landscape and lack of seed around, it would take a very long time, so planting trees makes that process happen quicker. The downside is that plantations are never quite the same as natural regeneration but it is hard to see any other way. The landscape Wightman is in in the video has been left for decades but it did not look like that much regeneration had happened.

      1. Mark Bevis says:

        “But there is a surprising small minority who are anti as they see what we are doing as changing the landscape from what they are familiar with ..”

        George Monbiot references this in his book Feral – it’s a psychological thing – each generation gets used to the environment it grows up in, so if you grew up in a treeless green desert of sheep wrecked land, you consider it normal, unless you learn otherwise. The powers that be generally like you think that way too, to not upset the apple cart of farm subsidies (before Brexit) and land ownership.

        “One could argue that as the concept of re-wilding is a misnomer then is the current barren landscape any less ‘natural’?…..”
        Totally agree with your last paragraph, I’ve been volunteer tree planting for 6 years now with a small local group of 6-10 people that is linked to the local council, who planted a million trees at the millenium – I’ve helped plant 5000 trees now, and we recently got grants for 16,000 more in 40 micro-forests in the borough. Some of the highest moorland has been rewooded, proving that it is fit for more than sheep. If we left it to nature to self-rewild it would take a lot longer – often leaving it to nature generates fields of thistles and dock! I’m all in favour of giving nature a nudge if necessary.

        However with the collapse of global systems well under way, looking at land use for food growing should be the highest priority.

        Has anyone read Hovel in the Hills by Elizabeth West? A couple in the 1960s took a west facing high farm in Wales where it took full brunt of the weather, and yet they turned it into a self-feeding food growing and nature paradise. Their secret? Intense composting, including their own manure. Again dispelling the narrative that is oft put out that bare moorland is only fit for sheep and deer and no good for food growing. (Because those that use the land that way have not seen it any other way either, on top of their vested interest) There is or was a veg box scheme in on the moors overlooking nearby Hebden Bridge at over 800′ asl, again proving the point.

        I’ve been to Knepp Farm which boasts rewilding, but they’re still at the end of the day a food growing business, starting from a relatively wealthy background. And what happens to rewilded land in Scotland? Does it then become fenced off and an excuse to keep visitors out?

      2. Mons Meg says:

        The whole discourse around ‘nature’ is problematic. It is usually taken in the context of this kind of discussion as that which has not been substantially altered by human intervention. Yet, there’s no such thing as this; ‘rewilding’ is a human intervention; the very act of perceiving is an intervention; conceiving ‘nature’ as an absence of human intervention is an intervention. Andy makes this very point when he says that every landscape is shaped by human activity. That activity is part of the process by which the land is conditioned or ‘scaped’ into a ‘landscape’. The idea – that nature is something apart from and independent of human activity and the purposes that guide that activity – is an incoherent one.

        I think it’s important that, as well as seeing ourselves holistically as part of the ‘natural’ world, we also come to see ‘nature’ holistically as part of the ‘human’ world, and that the dichotomy between the two is an estrangement or ‘injustice’. Democratising land management (‘returning’ it along with the other factors of production – labour and capital – to the commons; that is, ‘communism’) is key to overcoming that estrangement and establishing greater ‘justice’ in both the social and environmental aspects of our existence.

        1. David B says:

          Absolutely Meg. The separation of ‘man’ and ‘nature’ is to some extent a pre-Darwinian hangover.

        2. Niemand says:

          I think this true but would add one important point. When people talk about a place being ‘wild’ and ‘natural’, it need not mean some kind of place that is not shaped at all by man, but just not very much and not obviously. Such places matter to people because of the non-human dominance. I think this a better way of thinking about these concepts i.e. by degrees. Within that conception, ‘re-wilding’ means creating a space in which the non-human dominates. It can also, more radically, mean how we think of humans – the re-wilding of ourselves.

          1. Mons Meg says:

            Or we could seek to overcome altogether (or ‘unlearn’) the estrangement of our being in an environment (which presumes the separation of ‘humanity’ and ‘nature’, ‘domestic’ and ‘wild’) and behave as a holistic biosociety instead.

            Here’s a wee extract from a paper I made up in 2017 on decolonisation:


            Destructive human interactions within the biosphere have given rise to much discussion in the humanities around the fluid boundaries between humanity and nature.

            As a consequence of this discussion, a consensus no longer holds around the view that a dualistic understanding of humanity and nature as separate and monolithic entities can give a satisfactory account of the relationship between the two.

            At the same time, critical theory has encouraged the assumption that it is no longer viable to speak of a single determinate humanity or nature, that it makes much more sense to speak of multiple pluralities of possibility. (see, for example, Ingold and Palsson: Biosocial Becomings – Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology. (Cambridge, 2013).

            However, the traditional paradigms of technological utopianism and economic growth are still widely believed by policymakers to be the fixed and given ‘natural order of things’ rather than policy decisions themselves. This belief has produced the paralysis we see among governments in response to the current ecological crisis.


            A considerable body of critical scholarship within the humanities has pointed out that we have no fixed nature within a given order or nature. Rather, we are fluid beings, with flexible, porous, and indeterminate boundaries. ‘I’ am not a discrete individual; I’m existentially embedded in relations that are neither purely biological nor purely social, but which might be called ‘biosocial’.

            This biosociety (what Marx alluded to as man’s ‘species-being’ in his Theses on Feuerbach) is something that is constantly in the making and not a fixed, context-independent ‘human nature’.

            Yet, again, the traditional paradigm of humanity as a discrete and special mode of being persists as part of our culture or ‘self-image’.

            And, again, this paradigm is still widely believed by policymakers to be the fixed and given ‘truth’ of the matter rather than a policy decision itself, a grand narrative that provides an interpretive framework through which we can make sense of or ‘narrate’ our immediate life experience.


            Those guiding paradigms or narratives are inextricably linked to coloniality, defined not only as an unjust economic model, but also as a racialised, androcentric, and class-based hierarchy of knowing and being which still marginalises nonwestern cultures and histories (see Escobar: Beyond the Third World – Imperial Globality, Global Coloniality and Anti-Globalisation Social Movements (2004) and Quijano: Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality (2007)).

            Developing biosocial becomings or ‘convivialities’ (ways of living) that are less destructive and more socially and environmentally just thus requires us to unlearn what is presently deemed ‘natural’ within the commodifying discourse of globalised Western culture.

            As part of this unlearning, more holistic and spiritually-inclined forms of knowing and being-in-the-world have gained renewed prominence in contemporary ecopolitical debates. In particular, there is growing awareness among scholars from various humanities that storytelling and other poetic forms of thinking have long prefigured sciences of human nature and offer alternative constitutive paradigms for our understanding and praxis (see, for example, Williams, Roberts, and McIntosh: Radical Human Ecology – Intercultural and Indigenous Approaches (2012), and Vetlesen: The Denial of Nature – Environmental Philosophy in the Era of Global Capitalism (2015)).

      3. David B says:

        Niemand, Mark – yes ‘natural’ regeneration is generally preferable where an adequate seed source is present. However remnant isolated trees tend to have poor fecundity, and some fail to set seed entirely. Kick-starting the process through sensitive planting of local provenance trees is the right option in many cases.

  5. Frank says:

    As one wit said on a previous discussion on land ownership – “I am all in favour of private ownership, I just want to see lots more of it.” And a protest that dates back to the early clearances when the Lairds were claiming everything as their private property – “A stag from the hill, a fish from the river and a tree from the wood is the right of everyman.” Or as Gandhi put it – “The earth supplies enough for every man’s need but not enough for every man’s greed.” And there is the problem, the world is run by the greedy for the benefit of the greedy. Once upon a time a main plank of SNP policy was land reform but a few years ago McAskil complained that “we couldn’t get meaningful land reform because of our own and European laws.” Since it is Parliament that makes our laws I can only conclude that there is no interest in changing the laws protecting the status quo. “Meaningful” land reform would set the people at the bottom of the pile free, it would allow them to be relatively independent and no political party wants to lose their clients. In the long run meaningful land reform has the potential to produce a healthier and more confident and competent population and that in turn would save on welfare, the NHS and on the criminal justice system. But it appears that our politicians would rather keep things the way they are, taxing the landless to subsidise the large landowners to continue in the manner they have become accustomed to. I would like to think that I was wrong but time has made me a devout cynic. Still, you never can tell.

    1. Wul says:

      “…taxing the landless …”

      Good point! I’d forgotten about that.

      Much of the business of the landed and propertied classes over time has been to invent new laws which shift the tax burden away from land and property (which you can’t hide) onto income, profit and capital gains (which you can). Unfortunately “hard working families” don’t have access to fancy lawyers, accountants, tax evading vehicles and “wealth management” thus paying a greater proportion in tax than the already very well off.

      Land flipped from being taxable to tax avoiding. A bit like the way a grouse can switch from being wild animal to farm animal overnight, depending on which subsidy the Laird is claiming. It’s great being able to write your own rules…tally ho!

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