Affric Highlands | Afraig Mhòr

A place where nature, people and livelihoods support one another to thrive. The regenerating landscape will become alive with biodiversity, creating new jobs and community opportunities.

Working with local people, Trees for Life and its partner Rewilding Europe have a vision to create a rewilding landscape with a long-term difference. This 30-year initiative brings together communities, businesses and landowners to restore woodland, peatland and riverside habitats. It’s an ambitious proposal to form a broad coalition of partners whose common interests can be the basis of a progressive and shared agenda to strengthen the local economy and enrich people’s lives.

Affric Highlands is an epic landscape situated in heart of the Scottish Highlands. Its boundaries are ancient. To the east lie the immense waters of Loch Ness, fringed by rare wet woodland and complex river systems. To the west are the coastal inlets of Loch Duich and Loch Hourn, where tiny fragments of temperate rainforest give way to great spines of rugged mountain. Dropping from its high peaks are deep glens, where Caledonian forest, peatland and riverside habitats support an abundance of wildlife.


Culture and community

In the Affric Highlands landscape, culture runs deep – the area has an incredible history of people living in harmony with the land and celebrating its power through song and storytelling. People have been a fundamental element of this landscape for thousands of years and remain so today.

This is a Gaelic landscape. In its villages and small crofting communities, people once learned to read and write using an alphabet of trees: a for ailm (elm), b for beithe (birch) and c for coll (hazel). The Gaelic names of mountains, glens and rivers tell us of the lost species that used to thrive there – rivers banked by aspen, crags topped with juniper, and glens run by boar and wolves, once hunted by medieval kings.

This affinity between identity, culture and landscape is celebrated at Dundreggan Rewilding Centre in Glenmoriston – the first place of its kind dedicated to the celebration of rewilding and its cultural connections.

Guided by natural processes and working with those who know and love the land, Affric Highlands is enabling a more inclusive social landscape to emerge. With the return of nature, we hope to enable the return of more people – a process of ‘re-peopling’ in a region that has so much to offer those who make it their home.

A rewilding landscape

Rewilding is a holistic approach to today’s complex environmental and social challenges. Rewilding puts its trust in nature and its inspiring capacity to self–heal. From fragility to strength. Monoculture to multitude. Absence to abundance. Affric Highlands seeks to create a more resilient physical landscape, where the return of nature enables positive change.

Rewilding efforts will see the gradual expansion of scattered trees, thickening in places to woodland, remaining open in others. As greater habitat diversity emerges, so will the range of food sources and shelter conditions for wildlife, allowing more species to arrive and contribute to the ecosystem. Affric Highlands’ great mountains will no longer divide the land but connect it – a patchwork of montane habitats that create natural corridors for animals. Silent skies will slowly shift towards a horizon that vibrates with life: eagles nesting, black grouse lekking, dragonflies racing.

Landowners continue to make their own decisions on how to manage land, determining when and where to make interventions that help nature. Not everywhere needs to move at the same speed. Although change in land cover is a fundamental part of the proposal, how quickly the change happens and how far it goes varies. Indeed, if we get it right, the resulting diversity will be ecologically beneficial.

The area’s high density of deer presents an opportunity to integrate more venison into the local food chain, creating more jobs in landscape management that depend on the skills, knowledge and traditions of stalking.

Expanding woodland

On Affric Highlands’ eastern boundary, on the shores of Loch Ness, lie some of Europe’s best examples of ancient wet woodland. Lichens and lungworts are generously draped among oak, alder, bird cherry and willow. River systems and woodlands are entwined. On the west coast, the woodland is even wetter – tiny areas of temperate rainforest, where the clean air conditions have over millions of years created an incredibly rare – and under threat – habitat, home to moist-loving mosses and liverworts. And in Affric Highlands’ central glens stand astonishingly beautiful fragments of Caledonian forest – studded with old Granny pines, ancient matriarchs under whose canopy grows a beautiful diversity of birch, juniper, oak and aspen.

Building on our 30 years of woodland restoration work in Glen Affric, we are collaborating with landowners to save these woodlands. Trees are being teased out of their refuges, initially protected by fencing to enable natural regeneration – and existing exclosures connected and better protected. Where natural regeneration isn’t possible, we are saving local species’ genetics through seed collection and tree cultivation on our specialist nursery.

Creating riverwoods

The Affric Highlands team is working with landowners and local fishery boards to restore river woodlands – or ‘riverwoods’. Increasing the size and connectivity of the area’s riparian habitat  will increase the landscape’s resilience to climate change, stabilising riverbanks, slowing the flow of water after heavy rainfall, and providing vital shade and shelter to the wildlife that lives in and around the water.

Riverwoods can also be powerful carbon soaks during their early growth period, due to the typically nutrient and moisture-rich environment of riverbanks. They further add nutrients to the river via falling leaves, and create dappled shade from the summer sun, while the woods themselves create a cooler microclimate. Below the water’s surface, woody debris that falls into the river shelters young fish and diversifies stream flows, creating and protecting vital spawning beds for species such as trout and salmon.

Restoring peatland

Peatland habitats are an important feature of the Affric Highlands landscape. When in good condition, peatlands actively capture carbon, storing it for thousands of years. Their power to hold carbon in the earth presents an incredible natural solution to climate change.

The benefits of this habitat, however, go beyond carbon. Peatlands, crowned with lushly wet sphagnum moss, store vast amounts of water too. They can prevent flooding and water drain-off from higher ground, while also improving water quality – benefiting people, as well as the wildlife and fish that live downstream.

With more than a third of Affric Highlands comprising of peaty soils, the restoration and preservation of this unique habitat is a priority for the initiative. The value of restored peatlands also presents landowners and communities with an opportunity – economic and cultural. The sheer scale of peatland carbon sequestration is astounding, something that we can take pride in protecting.

Working with landowners and managers within the initiative area, as well as at our own Dundreggan estate, we are surveying peatland habitats to identify restoration potential. Peatland restoration is a process of rewetting. Gullies and man-made drainage ditches are blocked and peat ‘hags’ reprofiled. Bare peat is stablised by revegetating. And over time, the land heals. New peat accumulates just a milimetre per year; Affric Highlands is a long-term journey towards recovery, but improvements in carbon emissions, water quality and wildlife will happen quickly.

Over time, these wetter, healthier peatlands will become increasingly nature-rich, supporting a host of life. Plumes of purple moor-grass, delicate tufts of bog cotton (once an invaluable material for people), ling heather, blaeberry and glittering wood moss will once again flourish. Invertebrates, dragonflies, damselflies will dart and dance among the insect-eating butterworts and sundews. The recovering peatlands will support more wading birds, hen harriers and red kites, while providing a vital breeding ground for the threatened lapwing.

Affric Highlands is made possible through generous funding from Rewilding Europe, Scottish Power Foundation, NatureScot – Nature Restoration Fund, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, FedEx Foundation, British Science Association, Halleria Trust, Mazars Charitable Trust, Support in Mind Scotland, and Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.