SHE has just taken on a major project involving rewilding in Scotland but award-winning theatre maker Jenna Watt admits she’s ambivalent about wolves.

“They are a bit scary,” she says. “And controversial.”

Beavers, on the other hand, are fine as far as Watt is concerned.

“Fewer deer and more beavers would be great. They are controversial too but I think they are amazing. They create habitats for a whole range of species.”

She has only begun to explore the subject having just been chosen as the second winner of the Magnetic North Artist Attachment.

The award will allow her to bring her experience of sustainable rural development into her artistic practice. Over the next few months, she will work with members of the rewilding movement, who are reintroducing missing plants and animals in an attempt to repair the damage previously inflicted on the country’s wild places. Her attachment is especially topical in light of estate owner Paul Lister’s proposals to reintroduce wolves to the Highlands, and the 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity.

At the end, Watt hopes to produce her own performance exploring how the act of rewilding could also rewild people’s lives.

WATT decided to apply for the award as she has just completed an MSc in Sustainable Rural Development with the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI).

“I’ve been based at the Inverness campus and I wanted to make sure all the things I have learned feed into my artistic practice,” she says. “The award is a way of doing that.”

As well as looking at rewilding, her master’s degree has allowed her to examine the environmental impact of the new North Coast 500 route. What she discovered surprised her.

“The results were completely different to what I was expecting,” she says.

Before speaking to people who live and work on the route she thought the biggest impact would be the effect of people tramping all over the countryside, squashing rare plants and causing erosion.

Instead, the biggest effect seems to be poo.

“It turns out that most people stick to the road and do not wander into the wilderness so the biggest thing to come out of my study is the amount of human waste and chemicals being left on the roadside,” explains Watt. “This gets into waterways and can destroy habitats of fish and other water life.”

Her research is particularly topical at the moment as Highland Council are currently reviewing toilet provision on the road.

“Some people’s interpretation of wild camping is to camp at the roadside and use the laybys as toilets,” said Watt. “People are not being aware – they are thinking ‘it’s only me’ but if another 30,000 people behind you are doing that over the season then it does have an impact.

“When I began the study I did not think I would be talking about poo all the time but I did as it is the biggest impact. The main environmental problem is not people tramping on really important plants but people pooping on the roadside.”

WATT has begun her project by looking at the work carried out by Trees for Life, who are replanting trees at Dundreggan estate on Loch Ness.

What she found really interesting here was that a family of wild boar have migrated into the woods, probably from a hunting estate.

“Walking through the landscape, having this fear of another species that I could not see felt really exciting,” she says. “It made me really aware of that aspect of rewilding in this country. I think we have lost that understanding of wilderness – again it is another contentious subject in Scotland. But we have lost that feeling of being afraid of something in the environment.”

Watt next intends to meet Scotland’s conservation organisations to immerse herself in the practice of rewilding and experience the debate at a grass roots level. “I’m also interested in understanding international approaches and interpretations of rewilding in places where they have keystone species such as wolves,” she said.

SCOTLAND was once home to wolves, lynx and bears, but human activity has seen these species die out while others, such as the wildcat, are critically endangered. In recent times, however, wild boar, beavers and elk have been reintroduced and 2011 saw the first elk calf to be born north of the Great Glen in over 3000 years.

Conservationists say that the absence of apex predators has allowed the deer population to expand unhealthily at the expense of native woodland. They argue that the benefits of rewilding are numerous and that repairing the damage inflicted upon the land by humans is a moral end in itself.

But rewilding is not without its challenges. The human population is now far greater than when wolves stalked the land and their reintroduction poses a risk to livestock, which the conservationists argue is acceptable. There are political, legal and logistical obstacles which need to be overcome, too, before wolves and bears are allowed to roam free once again in what remains of Scotland’s wild places.