Glenfeshie reborn – Rewilding a sporting estate

Can regeneration of existing remnants of native woodland be achieved just by reducing deer numbers and without using fencing? Surprisingly, a few decades ago, the answer to that question – that indeed it is possible – was not universally accepted. Roy Turnbull, long-time volunteer and supporter of Trees for Life visits Glenfeshie Estate to witness the transformation.

Those resisting the possibility said that wintering deer would move into any young unprotected woodlands where this was attempted and rapidly destroy them, so that in order for trees to grow it would be necessary to reduce deer numbers almost to extinction. Some doubted whether the ancient pines surviving in areas where remnants of the old forest stood would still be producing viable seed, or, if so, if any seedling trees would manage to take root in the thick swards of grass and heather. Others said that it would be necessary to burn the heather or cultivate the land to get the seedlings to grow.

Perhaps nowhere was this question more sharply debated than with respect to Glenfeshie Estate in the western Cairngorms. This superb 172 square kilometres of steep-sided glen, high plateau and corrie, held at its heart a precious remnant of the once vast Caledonian Forest: ancient pines stretching along the floor of the main glen, where their ancestors had grown for some 8,000 years, since last ice gripped this land. But twenty years ago this was a dying remnant. Decades of overgrazing by red deer had ensured no regeneration of young trees (outside a few fenced areas) had occurred. Glenfeshie was in dire straits, a ravaged landscape. The large number of deer were also destroying juniper bushes, heather and other flowering plants, causing erosion and compacting soils, destroying habitats for other species, exacerbating flooding and minimising carbon sequestration.

To go to Glenfeshie now is to find hope: hope for a future where land is managed as if it mattered, as if it has meaning and value beyond the narrow confines of a shooting estate

The public pressure for change ensured that Glenfeshie was rarely out of the news, usually for all the wrong reasons. But slowly, with the Forestry Commission advising, “where deer culling can be sustained at sufficient intensities and over wide enough areas, it is possible to establish native pinewoods without fencing” that pressure for change began to bear fruit.

Eventually, in 2006, with the purchase by its present owner, Anders Povlsen, a new future for Glenfeshie emerged, one based upon a vision of a much reduced deer population allowing the landscape to regain its full natural splendour as the vegetation slowly recovered from low ground to high tops. The changes over the last ten years have been dramatic. Glenfeshie is blooming: young trees, wild flowers and wildlife abound. The increased vegetation and more porous soils absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and slow the flow of flooding waters to the sea.

To go to Glenfeshie now is to find hope: hope for a future where land is managed as if it mattered, as if it has meaning and value beyond the narrow confines of a shooting estate, where landscape, wildlife, recreation, carbon sequestration and flood protection all flourish. As a result of reducing deer numbers, Glenfeshie is a land reborn.