OUR rivers are natural features of wonder and beauty, yet their condition is declining. Centuries of deforestation and soaring temperatures have left many riverbanks without the woodland cover that keeps water temperatures cool.

Without trees, these riverbanks lack the canopy cover and shade that young Atlantic salmon need to grow and survive. On the Kyle and Dee catchments, in Sutherland and Aberdeenshire respectively, fisheries recorded freshwater temperatures as high as 28.5C which severely affects spawning salmon.

SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, which works to drive the recovery of nature across Scotland through rewilding, produced a documentary film, Riverwoods: An Untold Story, with funding and support from The European Nature Trust (TENT).

The National: Peter Capaldi (Matt Crossick/PA)

Narrated by Peter Capaldi (above), it shines a light on the perilous state of Scotland’s river catchments and Atlantic salmon populations. It reveals the connections between freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems and how each of us can work together with a shared vision of a restored Scotland.

Peter Cairns, executive director at SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, said: “The idea took root three years ago when we met with a group of river ecologists and salmon experts. The message from the initial meeting was that the health of Scotland’s rivers and all the life within them is directly dependent on the health of the landscapes through which they flow.

“The result is Riverwoods, and we’re delighted with the positive response from a wide range of stakeholders, including fishery managers, many of whom have committed to restoring native woodland along Scotland’s rivers and watercourses.”

TENT, which is actively involved in the reforestation and restoration of Europe’s remaining wild areas (including Scotland), talks us through rewilding initiatives.

What are the elements required for successful rewilding?

A GOOD understanding of ecology is required. Rewilding (restoration, regeneration, whatever you want to call it) takes ambition and a willingness to recover natural processes at scale and over time.

Natural processes refer to the regulation of trophic cascades, regeneration, vegetation cycling, seed dispersal, herbivory, predation, scavenging, decomposition and all the agents in between that together, create the subtle threadworks of ecosystems.

It’s also crucial that rewilding is fully participatory across society. We can’t go along as conservationists and nature lovers working in isolation; we’re all in this together, and we all ultimately benefit from a healthier natural environment.

What are some of the biggest challenges in restoring our ecosystems in Scotland?

IN Scotland and across much of the UK, many of our landscapes are managed tightly, often for a narrow band of species, overlooking natural processes and the broader condition of ecosystems. The depleted state of nature in Scotland is an inherited legacy of centuries of extraction; of unsustainable land-use practices; of pushing natural systems to the brink; and of tight management of the remaining wild areas.

We have to be brave enough to go against the grain and restore the natural processes on which we depend. But there is a need to invest in the long-term. While we may see some benefits of rewilding quickly, the real biodiversity benefits happen over time. We need to appreciate this and trust in nature. There are so many opportunities now and there is so much demand to pursue longer-term business and land management models built around rewilding and restoration.

One of the biggest challenges is to really open eyes to what we’ve lost, to overcome the “shifting baseline system” and to remodel some of the unsustainable land management approaches tightly woven into our national culture, such as grouse and deer hunting and industrial-scale livestock rearing.

Can you share some of your upcoming initiatives in Scotland?

THIS year, salmon catches were the lowest ever recorded. While there are problems at sea, restoring trees along riverbanks is the natural starting point to improve the quality of salmon habitats, while bringing broader biodiversity benefits.

We are currently in the middle of planning a large, pioneering river restoration project along the five rivers of the Kyle catchment, in collaboration with the Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust. Working with the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, we hope to launch a number of biodiversity monitoring and restoration projects at Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Highlands (below) in the coming years.

The National:

Talk us through the journeys of some of your recent successful developments

TENT has been involved in pioneering projects at Alladale, working with its land managers and government funders. Red squirrel populations have been restored, an educational programme – known as Highland Outdoor Wilderness Learning (HOWL) – has been developed and a breeding centre for the Scottish wildcat established, which is supporting the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland Saving Wildcats initiative. Land managers at Alladale have replanted one million native mixed tree species along its two river valleys, sowing the seed for natural regeneration.

In Romania, we are working with Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) to establish a new national park in the Carpathian Mountains. We are active funders and collaborators on a number of successful projects across Europe. We support CBD-Habitat’s work on the recovery of the Iberian lynx population. In Portugal’s Coa Valley, we are working with local partners to restore natural processes across a 120,000-hectare wildlife corridor for the Iberian Peninsula.

There is a common thread through the projects TENT chooses to support – the need to recover natural processes and to protect wild species that regulate our ecosystems and fill our lives with wonder and beauty.

For more details on Riverwoods: An Untold Story see www.scotlandbigpicture.com/riverwoods and details of other initiatives can be found at www.scotlandbigpicture.com and theeuropeannaturetrust.com/conservation/