Return of the Wild

This article originally appeared in ECOS, the quarterly journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists, volume 16, number 2, and we are grateful to Roy Dennis and ECOS for their permission to reproduce it here. Despite being written almost a decade ago, Roy's words are highly relevant today, as the UK has still not reintroduced any of its missing species.

Scotland's relatively small areas of native forest may be degraded, and lack the larger carnivores, but they provide immense opportunities for the restoration of a complete ecosystem. Native forests overseas may show the way; encouraging bolder thinking in the task of recreating Scotland's wild forest.

In February 1995 I stayed with friends studying wolves in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. One evening from a hunter's tower, the setting sun gave the snow-covered peaks a rose-pink glow. Great beech trees cast dark shadows across a snowy clearing in the forest and two young brown bears squabbled over a feed of maize put out by the foresters. To me, they were huge but my companion told me they were only half-grown.

Mosu was the gamekeeper for about 13,000 hectares of State forest. His beat encompassed three valleys with steep wooded sides as well as a few small farms by the rivers. Six miles away in a broad fertile valley were towns and villages, while Brasov, a city of 350,000 people, was only 20 miles distance.

As we sat and watched the night creep in we talked of nature. Mosu knew his forest intimately. He told me there were 105 red deer, 120 roe deer, 160 to 180 wild boar and 43 brown bears in his area as well as six lynx and two packs of wolves totalling five to seven animals. We had spent several days tracking some of them in the deep snow but had only seen two red deer and one bear in daytime. Mosu asked me what it was like at home. He could hardly believe me when I said a similar sized area in the Scottish Highlands might hold 2,000 red deer and 400 roe deer, but there were no longer any bears, wolves, wild boar or lynx. I tried to explain about overgrazing by red deer and the lack of tree regeneration, but I'm not sure he understood. He would also have been amazed by the difference in the size of the red deer, for his were veritable giants of the forest.

For me, it was a chance to step back in time and savour a forest ecosystem in action. This was no special nature reserve, it was a part of a state forest used for timber production yet it contained many of the elements we prize so highly. Natural regeneration a'plenty, not only of timber trees but of other trees and shrubs as well as flowering plants and berry bushes. Forests of tall beech were magnificent on the steep slopes and alder thickets overhung the crystal clear river.

Even in winter, the ecological links were plain to see. Ravens croaked as we skidooed forest trails tracking an elusive wolf pack. If only we could speak to the ravens! It was clear from the evidence at a deer kill that these clever birds knew the exact whereabouts of their local wolf pack. As soon as young ravens fly from their nests in wolf country, they learn from their parents that wolves are food providers. Ravens will never grow hungry while the wolves remain.

On another day, after following the tracks of a lynx uphill, I turned into a beechwood and found the snow crust churned up by wild boar. They had been rooting for beech mast. The hard packed snow was peppered with the brown litter of the forest floor, much to the benefit of a flock of brambling searching for beech nuts. Without the activities of the wild boar, no beech mast would have been available for the small birds.

Once again I returned home with new thoughts about nature conservation. These visits to the wilder part of the world have encouraged me to broaden my thinking about nature at home. I'm distressed at the tree-less state of the Highlands, the degraded rivers and eroded hillsides. Yet at the same time I recognise the international value of many of our natural areas in their existing state. The Cairngorms, the Caledonian forests, the Flow Country and the great seabird islands are not only superb but they have incredible potential for enhancement.

The Scottish context

I am fortunate to live in Strathspey within a remnant of the ancient Wood of Caledon. This great northern forest was a mosaic of Scots pine and deciduous trees such as birch, alder, oakaspen and willow. There was great variation due to the underlying geology and soils as well as to topographic features such as lochs, bogs, rivers, cliffs and mountains and to natural events like fires storms and floods. The flora and fauna was rich and varied.

Over 5,000 years man has cleared 99% of that forest through burning, cultivation, grazing, and for fuel and timber. Even in my lifetime the remnants were damaged by felling or under planting, but this past decade has seen the first reversal of the fortunes of the Caledonian Forest for probably a millennium as they are restored and cherished.

Here in Abernethy Forest the RSPB has embarked on a major restoration project based on natural regeneration by removing sheep and reducing red and roe deer. Now into its eigth year, there are real signs for optimism. Other management includes removing fences and exotic conifers and ceasing commercial timber felling.

As an optimist, I am encouraged by the recent commitments to maintain and enhance biodiversity but I believe it requires major changes in policy for these promises to bear fruit. Three areas concern me. The extent of the nature conservation resource, the size and viability of individual sites, and long-term management.

Our present nature reserves, Natura 2000 sites, SSSIs and wider countryside measures will not secure longterm species richness in this country. In order to maintain biological diversity in all its forms and to allow opportunity for species and habitats to change and evolve, we will need, even in our country, large areas where nature and natural ecosystems are the overriding priority. In my view this will require at least 25 to 30% of the land and the sea to be managed for biodiversity in order for it to be fully secured.

Taking the Caledonian Forest as an example, the present fragments are insufficient to secure adequately the biodiversity of this distinctive habitat. Many of the remnants are degraded and their size is insufficient for them to function as true forest ecosystems. Only 1% of the original Caledonian pine forest remains: would a tenfold increase be sufficient? I believe it should be more. In comparison, conifer plantations in Scotland already amount to approximately a million hectares (and the figure will rise) so native woods represent only 1% of the conifer woodlands of Scotland and this imbalance needs to be redressed.

Opportunities in reach

The Secretary of State for Scotland has included the creation of two large native forests in his proposals for the Cairngorms. The Forest of Mar and the Forest of Strathspey could be created by joining together the remnant native woods in Deeside and Strathspey. An even larger forest could be created around the catchment of the River Beauly and smaller remnants elsewhere could be enhanced to form viable native forests.

The size and nature of individual forests is important as well as the corridors between them. When compared with native forests in other countries, for example Bialowieza in Poland, it is clear that our forests are too small and they are much influenced by the open ground, and its wildlife, which surrounds or bisects them. Size is important for species with large home ranges, for long term maintenance of biodiversity and ecological health and for natural events like fire and storms to occur without the danger of losing the whole forest.

We will need to create larger native forests by joining the present day remnants together and by restoring a wilderness character to them by removal of unwanted forest tracks, built artifacts and fence lines. Some of this work has already been carried out in Abernethy Forest by the RSPB, and in my view is a very important step towards recreating a wild forest. Public pressure on forest species, especially sensitive birds like the capercaillie, is made worse by the plethora of roads and tracks created for timber operations.

At times I am alarmed that there is too much gardening and over-manipulation in reserves. That is probably acceptable in small reserves, which are often specially created habitats which provide superb birding and wildlife watching and will always be required, but their real contribution to long term biodiversity is doubtful.

As we increase the size and extent of our natural areas we will need to treat them differently. We should adopt an ecological approach. In the end they should manage themselves and we should hold the tiller more lightly. We should recognise that natural events such as fires, droughts, storms, floods and changes in the numbers of individual species create the mosaic of ecotones within these places. Death, destruction and renewal are part of nature and we should not strive for equilibrium.

Conservationists are, in general, scared of grazing animals. The effects of too many sheep and deer are plain to see but that does not mean that, under different management, grazing cannot be positive for nature conservation. To me the leggy growth of heather in the forest is unnatural, the choking of forest ponds by aquatic vegetation is unnatural and the tall straggly stems of willow are unnatural. Surely, plants are there to use the sun's energy to create biomass, some of which is eaten and enters the food chains of higher organisms.

Players in the ecosystem

Looking at my local forest I am also reminded that these forest ecosystems were once shaped by the presence of large mammals. Since the last Ice Age, wild cattle (auroch), beaver, brown bear, moose, lynx, reindeer, wild boar and wolf were exterminated in Scotland. All had crucial roles in the ecosystem. It is important for us to understand this or we will never again see a true forest. I believe it will be impossible to recreate an ecologically vibrant Caledonian Forest if the major players in the ecosystem are not present.

The beaver is a very influential creature. Mention the name and I can visualise their lodges in the beautiful woodland ponds of eastern Poland or by slow meandering forest streams in Sweden. By their activities they create ponds which are valuable for fish, otters, waterfowl, dragonflies, and many other creatures; they reduce water flow, slow down sediments and allow self purification; they coppice water side shrubs and trees. They change the landscape, they eat aquatic vegetation, their lodges create shelter for amphibians and water voles while fallen trees decay to the benefit of fungi and insects. Pond creation is a common activity in conservation management, yet beavers can do it better.

Wild boar have an important role in the forest, rooting and turning over the soil. This activity, along with their dung, can enhance tree regeneration and also provide feeding opportunities for smaller creatures. Moose are big mammals. I remember once seeing a thicket of aspens in Sweden stripped of their bark. Not a pretty sight one could say, but think how much the woodpeckers would enjoy the decaying trees in the months to come. Their love of aquatic vegetation and their trampling is important in preventing the loss of small lakes and ponds from vegetative encroachment. It worries me to see so many small lochs in the Highlands growing over with sedges and sphagnum. Some say this is natural but many have survived as open water since the ice disappeared and it is only in recent decades since the removal of cattle that vegetation has clogged them up. Previously there was a history of grazing and trampling from the ancient forest fauna down to the domestic cattle.

The wild cattle or auroch were of great influence in the forest. I can see from watching our own cattle in the forest that their non-selective grazing keeps glades and flushes open, maintains meadows and trims the willow scrub. Their dung is a valuable habitat for insects and a food supply for birds; it enriches the soil and their heavy feet push tree seeds through the vegetation into the soil. The auroch is extinct but we could learn how to use hardy cattle to replicate their activity for ecosystem benefit. Cattle have been used on nature reserves in various countries but there is still much to learn about restoring home range activity and maximising their beneficial effects.

The predators have less obvious benefits in an ecological sense but wolf and lynx are all part of the forest life. When we shoot deer we do not replicate the actions of wolves and lynx although that is often claimed. They kill animals throughout the year, they are efficient at removing sick and wounded deer, they disturb feeding concentrations. Wolf dens will give a local area freedom from any grazing. Their kills provide food scraps for other creatures and the remains which are left throughout a pack's home range provide opportunities for insects such as burying beetles.

These are just a few examples of how some of these mammals influence the forest ecosystem. There are many other links and relationships, too complicated for us to replicate. There's also the biomass as each large mammal dies within the system, for in true forest reserves we should not be removing the carcasses. They are part of the system just like the trees that die of old age.

Facing practicalities

Ecologically, I believe it is essential that the large restored forests of the future should be inhabited by these mammals. Is it possible in Scotland? An initial examination of the biological conditions in the Scottish Highlands suggests that most of the mammals could be successfully reintroduced even under present habitat conditions and with continuing enhancement of the natural environment all could be restored. Technically, translocating mammals is now an accepted practice in mainland Europe.

Socially there are problems. People are frightened of animals such as the wolf although the actual evidence from places like Romania and Italy, where wolves are common, is that they are no danger to humans. There is a real need for good information. Farmers are rightly concerned for livestock; and there clearly could be a problem, especially in areas of extensive sheep grazing. The future distribution of sheep in certain mountain areas, as well as discussions on future management and control, could alleviate potential predation by wolves but it is imperative to involve livestock owners with any proposals.

People, including some biologists, say there is not enough room for these animals in Britain, but in Europe wolves live in areas with human densities fifty times higher than in the Scottish Highlands. It's more to do with the people's attitudes than human density. Of course, some animals like beavers could exist happily in quite small areas while the complete assembly would require extensive areas of a thousand square kilometres or more. But even in Britain we still have such opportunities.

The above example concerns just one major habitat, the Caledonian Forest, but I believe similar aspirations are required for moorland, peatlands, mountain ranges, river systems, marshes, wet meadows and other important habitats as well as in marine and coastal areas. We have to enter a time of restoring ecosystems not only for biodiversity but for our own sake as well.

It is not a question of having wild places or people - it is a choice of having a rich or an impoverished future for humanity. When we look at the state of the natural environment and we place our contribution in a global context, we cannot fail to recognise that there is a massive task to undertake before we can truthfully say that our biodiversity is secured and enhanced for the long term future.


Roy Dennis MBE

As well as being a Patron of Trees for Life, Roy is a professional ornithologist and wildlife consultant and runs the Highland Foundation for Wildlife. He has been a key figure in the reintroduction of red kites and sea eagles and in the restoration of ospreys. He was awarded an MBE in 1992 for services to nature conservation in Scotland and in 2004 was awarded the RSPB’s prestigious Golden Eagle Award.

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