An ambitious proposal to form a coalition of landowners and communities across a large area of the central Highlands covering Glens Cannich, Affric, Moriston and Shiel.
The proposal is based on the conviction that nature, people and businesses need each other to be sustainable for the long term. These common interests can be the basis of a progressive and shared agenda to strengthen the local economy and enrich lifestyles in communities.
Developing these three interwoven strands – nature, people and business – is the focus of Affric Highlands.
In 2021, Affric Highlands joined Rewilding Europe as one of its ten official rewilding areas. Rewilding Europe is a network of large-scale rewilding projects that together seek to show how a wilder natural environment can create modern, prosperous and healthy societies. Other project areas include Italy’s Central Apennines, Swedish Lapland, the Danube Delta, and Portugal’s Greater Côa Valley.
Affric Highlands was previously known as East West Wild. The new name will help give the project a stronger and more recognisable identity that, just like the project area itself, centres on Glen Affric – a place of inspiring beauty that Trees for Life has been working with partners to rewild for many years.
Over thirty years, Affric Highlands will create a landscape where natural processes are evolving at scale, bringing a surge of wildlife into healthy and resilient habitats.
This expansion of nature will strengthen existing land-based livelihoods and provide fertile ground for new commercial investment and activity, sustaining an energetic economy where money sticks and circulates within local communities.
As nature thrives and becomes more resilient, it will become a more significant partner in people’s lives here, as they come to live in closer contact with the land. Communities will grow in size, develop new skills, and share more of their existing knowledge and wisdom. A more socially vibrant and connected human landscape will flourish.
Allowing ecological processes to operate at a large scale will improve the health and resilience of our ecosystems while creating a broader set of opportunities and resources for land-based business activity. This in turn can strengthen local economies and help to underpin more vibrant communities, better able to sustain the facilities, services and sense of identity they need to survive and flourish.
The scale of landscape change is as critical to the social and economic ambitions of Affric Highlands as it is to its ecological aims.
Experience here in Scotland, across Europe and the rest of the world has shown that improving habitat conditions and reconnecting natural processes at a large scale triggers a surge in wildlife and a growth in the availability of natural resources for sustainable economic use.
The physical landscape will change, but not suddenly and not unrecognisably. We are likely to see a 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.
Landowners can choose from a wide range of options to build on the achievements of traditional land management to date. The intent is not to replace today’s land uses but to sustain their practical, cultural and economic benefits and to add other beneficial uses to them. Peatland restoration, regenerative livestock grazing, tree planting, deer control and fencing are some of the main management techniques that can contribute to increasing the potential in the project.
We do not envisage a project-wide land management plan, rather each landowner continues to make their own decisions on how to manage the land and progresses at a pace they are comfortable with. 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 can vary across the landscape. In fact, if we get it right, the resulting diversity will be ecologically beneficial.
People have been a fundamental element of this landscape for thousands of years and remain so today. We want to give people stronger economic ties to the land through nature-based employment which sustains more livelihoods and puts communities on a stronger financial footing. This in turn can help to maintain rural populations and reinforce the precarious facilities and services that are essential to community life.
At the same time, Affric Highlands will aim to celebrate the cultural connections that have existed with the land down through the centuries. The cultural legacy of the Highlands is expressed throughout the world in the arts and music, so why not explore that and make it a bigger part of people’s lives in these communities?
The interests and priorities of communities will determine the agenda for the People strand of the project. Through engagement and dialogue, Affric Highlands will seek to identify how its nature-based approach can best have a bearing on community priorities and benefit local social and cultural life.
Any change to the landscape needs to be economically sustainable. A variety of nature-based business activities will have greater potential from a more fully functioning ecosystem. Affric Highland’s approach is to identify and invest in those opportunities, some of which are outlined below:
The amount of carbon sequestered by native woodland creation and peatland restoration can now be calculated to an internationally recognised standard and then sold to corporations to offset the carbon impacts of their business activities. The demand for such carbon is high and is likely to increase over time. As a guide, a Trees for Life 132-hectare woodland at Dundreggan will sequester 50,000 tonnes of carbon and currently trades at £28/tonne.
In 2015, tourism expenditure in Scotland was estimated at £8.9 billion and the fastest growing part of the market is in adventure and nature-based tourism.
The net economic impact from wildlife tourism is highest in the Highlands and Islands which accounts for 50% of wildlife trips, 45% of wildlife tourism nights in the region and £124 million of expenditure by wildlife visitors, supporting 1386 full time equivalent jobs.
- Scotland: The key facts on tourism in 2015, VisitScotland
- International Ecotourism Society
- The Economic Impact of Wildlife Tourism in Scotland, Scottish Government, 2010
Forestry, wood use and non-timber forest products
In 2018, small scale forestry-related activity in Scotland, such as timber growing, firewood sales, wood processing or furniture making was estimated to bring an income of £47.8 to £68.3 million per annum.
There is great potential to grow this further with support for training, investment in equipment, coordination of supply chains and shared marketing. The food and drink industry is showing increasing interest in the Wild Food movement and a partnerships research bodies, distillers, foragers and forestry interests are beginning to form to research the possibilities around non-timber forest products for artisanal businesses working in crafts, food and drink.
- Estimating the Size of the Economic Contribution of Small Scale Woodland Related Businesses in Scotland, Watt & McGhee, Forest Policy Group, 2018
Regenerative grazing and agroforestry
Low input approaches to livestock farming can continue to produce high quality meat, restore soil nutrient cycles and remain financially viable, even without farm subsidy. Agroforestry, where livestock graze pastures where trees are growing, allows meat, timber and some non-timber forest products to come from the same area of land.
These systems have much lower feed, medicine and fertiliser costs than conventional livestock farming so while they support smaller numbers of animals, the profitability can usually at least match more intensive systems. At the same time, animal welfare tends to be higher and the grazing pattern actively improves soil drainage and nutrient status, gradually restoring the quality of the land. This in turn provides more habitat for wildlife and secures more carbon from the atmosphere.
Different studies have shown that deer stalking (£105 million per annum) and game fishing (£73 million per annum) are major sources of income for Scotland. In addition, these sporting interests are integral parts of the cultural fabric of the Highlands. The skills and knowledge of the stalkers and ghillies who manage the land for these interests are recognised as an important element of what attracts visitors to the country.
It is essential that these core traditional activities are sustained in the future for their practical benefits and for their cultural and economic value. While habitat change in the landscape might concern some, there is also real potential to increase the value of sporting activities here by increasing wild fisheries’ productivity and by gradually increasing the size and health of deer by diversifying the food and shelter available in the uplands.
- PACEC, 2016
- Key Facts on Fishing, VisitScotland, 2014
Building a circular local economy
For Affric Highlands to have a meaningful economic impact, the money generated by its nature-based businesses needs to circulate within local communities as far as possible. If the above businesses became established in the area, they could form part of a local supply chain, trading with each other and maximising the extent to which money brought into the area, especially through tourism, stays in the area – a mutually supportive business network.