September 15, 2023 12 min read
Last week, we were lucky enough to be joined by Peter Cairns, photographer, and the Executive Director and co-founder of Scotland: The Big Picture. Peter took us on a deep-delve into the current state of Scotland's eco-system; what we’ve done to it, how we’ve done it, how ‘rewilding’ can make a considerable difference in restoring our natural habitat, and what we can do as individuals to attempt to help drive change.
I felt that prior to this event, I was naïve to the problems Scotland faced since we’re so widely known for our natural beauty and Highlands. It can be hard to step away from this “idealized Scotland, the Scotland that is presented to the world on shortbread tins and all those glossy tourist brochures” in order to see the bigger picture. But in reality, this geological wonder, like so many others, has become an ecological vacuum, missing the complex woodlands and many animals that once called it home. Luckily, Scotland: The Big Picture believes there is still time to retract the damage we have done and spoke with us about what we can all do.
When Scotland is so well-famed for its Highlands and nature, does it make it difficult to enforce your point and mission?
Despite their unquestionable beauty and drama, many of Scotland's glens, rivers, and mountains are devoid of the complex living systems that they once supported. These vast empty landscapes are muted, simplified by centuries of draining, burning, felling, and overgrazing. As a society, I think we're suffering from a condition called ‘ecological blindness’. We don't see the degraded landscapes that we've lost, all the animals we've lost, because we're not conditioned to look. We're not challenged to look. We perceive a landscape of natural beauty because we're told that's what it is. And that notion is kept alive by a thing called generational amnesia, whereby each new generation accepts the landscape. They're born into it as normal, irrespective of how impoverished it might be. But the reality is that in relatively recent history, in a matter of a few 100 years, we've lost all our large carnivores and most of our large herbivores. Scotland holds on to just 3% of its native woodland, and many once prolific species now teeter on the edge. So what's the problem? And what matters? What does it matter if a few animals go extinct? Well, we now know of course, that climate breakdown, global nature loss, and biodiversity loss are inextricably linked. We can't fix one without fixing both. So actually, you don't have to give a hoot about cranes or pine martens because this is about us, and the natural systems that underpin our very existence. And if you think about it, we've been pitching our economic systems in direct competition with our ecological systems for centuries. And the truth is that nature is losing in a war with our insatiable appetite for economic growth.
So, what does Rewilding actually do to these kinds of habitats?
We believe there's a solution to both the climate right now and the natural emergency. We believe it's called ‘rewilding’. This brings up the obvious question, I must have answered this question 1000 times.What is rewilding? If you ask 100 people, you'll probably get 100 different answers. Everyone has an opinion on rewilding, and the change that they perceive it might bring about, so definitionsdovary. But for us, this is rewilding- an evolving process of nature recovery that leads to restored ecosystem health function and completeness. That's what goes on our annual report. But in essence, what it means is that we would like to see hundreds of 1000s of Scottish acres transformed with more insects, more flowers, more fish, more birds and mammals, and ultimately, more people living healthy, fulfilling lives as part of vibrant communities.
Rewilding is an opportunity to stitch back together a tapestry of life where natural processes drive vibrant living systems. Processes like predator-prey dynamics, like scavenging, birth, death, decay, and regeneration. These are the processes that drive every healthy living system on the planet. Rewilding is about connectivity across the landscape, encouraging native woodland to expand, regulating climate, locking away carbon, and allowing animals the freedom to roam. Rewilding is understanding that a forest is much more than just a sea of trees. It's a complex community of soil microbes, lichens, mosses, tall trees, tiny trees, and dead and dying trees, all coming together in a constantly evolving system.
At its most basic level, rewilding is anything that counteracts more de-wilding. Anything that joins up and enriches habitats, rather than further fragment and degrade them. Anything that leads to more nature and not less nature.
Is the approach your company takes different from what we’ve already attempted to do?
The truth is that traditional conservation has failed to arrest and reverse ecological decline. There's a bit of a hero of mine called Doug Chadwick who is a wildlife biologist, and he sums it up well. He says the essence of nature is wholeness, a wholeness woven from infinite complexity. Trying to save each piece by piece doesn't make sense, even if we had all the time in the world. And we don't. And yet, for the last 4050 years, conservationists have been trying to save nature, piece by piece red squirrels, corncrakes, capercaillies, waterfalls, wild cats, brown bears, and seabirds. At one time or another, we've had a go, a rare species here, a fragment of habitat there. There have been successes, there's no question about that. The recovery of pine martins over a nice couple of decades shows what can be achieved and all that we've done with pine martins is give them somewhere better to live and stop killing them. So it can be done. And yet, across Scotland, that wholeness that Doug Chadwick referred to, remains largely broken. We seem unable to accept that we're all bound up in an intricate web of life that ties us to the seas, the soils, the atmosphere, the weather, and every other living creature on the planet. We believe we need to stretch our imaginations beyond these tiny green boxes that we call our nature reserves, and imagine what else might be possible rather than just settle for what is familiar. And finally, there's a wider moral issue at work here too. We stretch our forests, we've drained our wetlands, we've eliminated many species that want to live here. These are all things that we, quite rightly, quite understandably now condemn in other countries.
Surely it’s hard to even know where to even begin?
The great news is that rewilding is already happening right now through Cairngorms Connect. This is a 200-year vision to restore 600 square kilometers of forest peatland lock and river right at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park and after centuries of intense management for deer stalking for grouse shooting for salmon fishing, this landscape has been allowed to start to govern itself. Cairngorms Connect is a glimpse into what a rewild of Scotland could look like. Affric Highlands is another landscape-scale initiative combining nature recovery, climate mitigation, and opportunities for local people up and down. On the contrary, there are a growing number of native woodland restoration projects. Peatland restoration is gathering momentum in locking away carbon. We now know of course that healthy peatlands (and by healthy I mean wet), store more carbon than tropical rainforests. We didn't know that 15 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago. So if we can get these natural giant sponges functioning as they should they can, it'll take us a long way along Scotland's journey to net zero. And of course, when we restore habitats, wildlife bounces back, it's a win-win.
How do you, as a company, go about trying to make change?
Three years ago, we were approached by two farmers who said they liked this rewarding stuff.How do you do it? And if I'm honest, we couldn't cut together a coherent answer. There was no machinery, there was no mechanism. So that was a catalyst for a major project that we now run called the North Woods Rewilding Network. There are a few unique elements to North Woods. Firstly, we want to make rewilding more accessible, and more democratic. So our land partners are not multimillionaires, they're not big conservation groups. They're farmers, crofters, community landholders, even a school. And they are custodians over areas between 100 and 1000 acres.
Secondly, working with a lot of different land partners allows us to harness the power of people. Our ‘people’ all work to these nine shared principles which allows us to harness people's power. And this is what people's power looks like. Harnessing the power of people in a partnership is key to the success of Northwoods.
And finally, we recognize that in many situations, ecological recovery is only possible or it's certainly easier when it works in tandem with local communities. So we support the development of sustainable nature-based businesses to make rewilding an economically viable land use choice. So the Northwoods rewilding principles, the ‘Northwoods nine’, as we call them, can be replicated anywhere. The context and the scale might change but the principles are universal.
I feel that people struggle to know how to personally make a difference that contributes when the subject is so vast and difficult to digest. In your guys opinion, aside from donations, what can people do to get involved?
So what can you do? Well, going back to the bad news, the Green Finance Institute estimates that the shortfall between what exists in the public purse and what it will cost to ecologically restore Scotland is somewhere between 15 and 27 billion pounds over the next 20 years. Where's that money coming from? Well, if you're a business, you can make a huge amount of difference in influencing the chain by rewildingyourbusiness and we provide a very simple and impactful pathway to do exactly that. This is the Northwoods Rewilding Fund. It's dedicated to ecological recovery. Right here in Scotland, it's open to any business that aligns with our vision and values. The fund enables the expansion and enrichment of native woodlands and wetlands to lock away carbon and enables the return of missing species to enrich our landscape, boosting biodiversity. But it also builds community value, jobs, education, and wellbeing.
I should mention that actually, the word ‘fund’ is a little bit misleading because this is not just about money. We work with businesses on many, many different levels you can come and talk to us or you can pick up a brochure. So yeah, it's not just about donations. We work on many, many different levels. But of course, not everybody is in business. What can you do if you're not? We ask for three things: wild your space, we all have space that we can control. There might be an estate, you might have a garden, and some of us might even have a window box. Most people have that. So wild the space that you can control and make some noise. Most people don't realize that Scotland has become a nature-depleted nation, so talk to family, talk to friends, talk to work colleagues, and talk to them about the benefits that rewilding can deliver. And finally, put your money to work.
Every pound that we spend on food, travel, and clothes makes a huge difference to the environment that we live in. So please do consider supporting businesses like Meander which are committed to sustainability and nature recovery. I've never met anyone who would contest that Scotland is a spectacular country. But the reality is, that we can no longer bury our heads in the sand, we have to start looking at the landscape through a different lens. This is the first time there's been a global movement to restore and recover our degraded living systems rather than simply trying to protect the fragments and threads of nature that we have left. So rewilding offers us all the chance to, I suppose, press the reset button in a way. To rethink our relationship with the wild world to think about our place within it. And more importantly, perhaps, our reliance on it.
One of the things I love is the way that you've used photography here and in your work a lot to promote rewilding and explain why it's important. And what it is. Can you tell us about how that started, and how making people care about the environment is not just education, but also helping people to develop a passion for it.
So I suppose it was the realization that for years and decades, the conservation community has had a very bad habit of trying to ram science down people's throats. There is a place for science, there is a place for facts, evidence, or statistics. We need those as reference points. But most people's relationship with nature isn't scientific, it's not even logical or rational, is emotional. So we use visual imagery as a currency to speak to people's emotions. That's the motivation. And of course, you know, the old cliche with that picture paints 1000 words, is that right? You know, imagery resonates with people, irrespective of age, background, and origin, and it really is a universal language. So from our point of view in the business of driving support for rewilding, it's a very valuable tool. And that's that's why we use it.
Rewilding is a lot more than just introducing new species but one thing we saw on your website was about reintroducing the Lynx, which I would love to see, do you think we'll ever get to the point where I can head out with my camera and try and see a lynx in the wild?
So the honest answer to your question is no. But there's some good news! That's not because lynxes won't be here, I believe that they will. I wouldn't have said that just two years, three years ago, but the landscape, and political and cultural, and social landscape, is changing very quickly. But if we had, I don't know, 200 Links in Scotland, nobody would ever see one. And indeed, nobody would ever take a picture. And that's just because of the nature of the animal; they're very elusive, they are active mainly at night, they're like cats, well, they are cats. Of course, they're solitary animals, ambush hunters, so they spend most of their time in Woodland. They're never going to be a photographic trophy. I know people who live in Finland, Norway, or Denmark who are my age and have never seen a lynx. Despite that, there are hundreds around. So yeah, I believe there'll be back but the likelihood is that most of us won't know that.
It seems that there's a disconnection with the natural world. We see kids growing up and lacking in certain areas, we don'tplay anymore. What are the things that you're doing or suggestions you have where we can get all generations to reconnect and seep back into the natural world so that we start to appreciate the impacts of the small things that we're doing every day have on nature?
Yeah. I mean, it's a big, big challenge. It's one of the biggest challenges and you're right. You know, you get in your car, and you drive to nature and then you come back to ‘our world’ and somehow there's a disconnect. And I think you're right, with young people in particular, you hear these horror stories about kids not knowing where their food comes from all of this sort of stuff. And it's all part of the same movement or trend that has taken hold probably in the last 150 years or so. I don't think any of these things are easy to change. And it's certainly not easy to change quickly. I was speaking to somebody earlier on about, how we kind of look at rewilding as a social change as much as anything else. So this is not a quick process. And I think, you know, one of the challenges with rewilding is that it is effectively recommending change, and change management is kind of the business we're in really, change is difficult for a lot of people. So I don't think there are any silver bullets. And some organizations do a lot more with young people at the Forest Schools project, for example, than we do. It all conflates into this orderliness, as you rightly say. It's not good for us as a species. You know, it's that disconnection from nature and understanding our alliances and relationships with the wild world is something that, quite frankly, most people don't have a depth of. It's a tricky one. I get out of bed in the morning and think, ‘You have two choices, you do your best within the space that you can control, or you do nothing’. That's it.
You have a really interesting project with a local Scottish school. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
It just so happens that the school that joined the network has got 55 acres of highly manicured school grounds so you can imagine in your head what it looks like. So for them, you know, even letting the grass grow a centimeter too long is a major challenge. The Board of Governors had quite a lot to say about the prospect of just letting it go but the reality is, the kids have taken to it. They've sown flower seeds, they've planted trees, it's never going to be Napa, or Yellowstone, or anywhere like that. But in that particular world, it's made a huge difference. The teachers love it because the kids love it. One of the things that we are keen on is providing a sort of community benefit through ecological recovery. So we hope to do a lot more with schools, but then of course, not every school has 55 acres for a start and those that do tend to be a little bit conservative, perhaps if that's being tactful enough. It was just getting them over that hurdle of, you know, again, it's that relinquishment of control. I think the parents thought the place was gonna be crawling with snakes or something.
To find out more about Scotland The Big Picture's mission, what needs to change, and how you can help- you can head to their website here, or their Instagram; @scotlandtbp. If you want to see more of Peter Cairns' breathtaking wildlife photography, you can view his work here.
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