SINCE launching the rewilding advocacy charity Scotland: The Big Picture (SBP) around four years ago, Peter Cairns has witnessed stark changes in how the topic is regarded – both good and bad.

While, for some, the very word conjures up images of toothsome apex predators chasing locals off the land, for others, it’s an integral part of how the country attempts to recover some of its severely depleted biodiversity.

But Cairns’s next target species may surprise those who believe rewilders have a tireless focus on wolves or lynx.

Because as well as continuing to campaign for the return of lost species to Scotland’s ecosystems, Cairns and the rapidly growing staff at SBP are turning their hand to an altogether more complicated task: rewilding people.

Cairns told the Sunday National: “There’s this notion that if rewilding moves in, people move out.

“It’s this idea that it’s either one or the other, as if you can’t have both.

“So, part of what we try to do is dispel that notion. Dilute it so that nature and people become one and the same and not two different classifications.”

“Rewilding journeys”

Cairns has lived on 120 acres of land in the heart of Cairngorms National Park for more than 30 years.

The Ballintean Mountain Lodge, itself a former farm holding, now acts as a home base for small groups who embark on so-called “rewilding journeys” with SBP.

During their stay, they will wander through naturally regenerating forests on formerly bare hillsides and observe rivers left to flood and meander where they please.

For Stef Lauer, a tranquil-tempered rewilding guide for SBP, the challenge lies in making these trips feel as uplifting as they are honest about Scotland’s denuded natural world.

She said: “I’ve lived in the Cairngorms for about 10 years now.

The National: Woodland in the Cairngorms National ParkWoodland in the Cairngorms National Park (Image: NQ)

“And I’ve always enjoyed the landscapes of Scotland, hiking through them and showing them to other people.

“I’ve only been with SBP for around a year but in that time I’ve learned more about rewilding and what people have actually done to these landscapes.

“All of a sudden I was gazing out at landscapes I’d previously enjoyed and thinking, ‘what an ecological desert!’”

As Cairns added: “Nobody wants their guide saying: ‘I know you’ve given us £1300 but standing at the top of this hill, it’s a bit shit, isn’t it?’."

As such, the journeys focus not on the environmental mistakes of decades past – or even the ones persisting into the present – but rather on the work being done right now to heal Scotland’s bruised ecosystems.

Northwoods Rewilding

While SBP has had success in bringing rewilding into mainstream political conversation in Scotland, with film screenings in Holyrood and even a debate about the reintroduction of lynx earlier this year, it’s still a word that strikes fear into the hearts of politicians across all parties concerned about how it plays within rural constituencies (except, perhaps, the Scottish Greens).

But while politicians wring their hands, the charity has got to work.

The Northwoods Rewilding Network was born in 2019 with the aim of creating a chain of landholdings across Scotland either wholly or partially dedicated to rewilding.

The aim was to recruit at least 15 landowners with properties between 100 acres to 1000 acres within two years.

Now, just three years in, the project has expanded to 62 different properties – encompassing farms, former forestry plantations, community woodlands and even a school.

The National: Rewilding guests are zipped from place to place in the Scotland: The Big Picture mini vanRewilding guests are zipped from place to place in the Scotland: The Big Picture mini van (Image: NQ)

“There was this notion that rewilding was only the realm of wealthy philanthropists or big NGOs,” said Cairns.

“So, we wanted to make rewilding more accessible, more democratic.

“1000 acres is quite a small landholding for the Highlands. Northwoods, at the moment, is roughly 15,000 acres collectively.

“But on those acres, there are 62 different teams on the ground. Whereas if you bought 15,000 acres on its own, you might only have two or three people managing it.

“In terms of bang for your buck, you’re much better encouraging, supporting and enabling others to do it rather than trying to do it all yourself.”

Guests embarking on a “rewilding journey” are welcomed into certain Northwoods properties and exposed to a huge variety of projects.

Whether it’s planting aspen for nature restoration or displaying the economic and environmental benefits of stalking, shooting, butchering and eventually eating deer, the aim is not only to promote the benefits of rewilding but also to dispel some of the concerns that haunt the concept.

Jobs and rewilding

“The golden ticket of eco-tourism has been wafted around a little too casually,” said Cairns.

“There’s an absolute limit unless you want to turn the Scottish Highlands into some sort of eco-Disneyland.

“But in Glenfeshie, for example, you’ve got a tourism business, a hospitality business which employs cooks, cleaners, caretakers.

“You’ve got deer stalkers. You’ve got two wildlife researchers working on peatland restoration.

“You’ve got hydrologists and a sustainable forestry operation.

“Now, purists might argue that not all of those things are wholly compatible with rewilding.

“Nevertheless, all of those jobs are built on the back of an attempt on the part of the landowner to carry out ecological recovery.”

The National:

Cairns acknowledges that the ownership model of the Glenfeshie Estate – purchased by Danish billionaire and Scotland’s richest man Anders Holch Povlsen in 2006 – isn’t ideal and certainly not replicable for those without Povlsen’s enormous wealth.

Still, Northwoods attempts to prove the worth of rewilding on a much smaller scale and has the further benefit of diversity in landowners, habitat, location and practices employed.

It allows SBP to entertain guests for a whole week by visiting different projects.

And while the absence of certain species in the landscape will be discussed, there’s no feeling of hollowness at the centre.

“It’s not just the animals and the trees,” said Cairns. “It’s the people involved, their perspectives and motivations.

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“And they’re not just saying the same thing we are: they’ve got their own opinions and reasons for being involved in nature recovery.”

As Lauer added: “Often, I find people withdraw themselves during the week because they’re processing.

“They’re asking: How the hell do I go back to my normal life in London now that I know more? Now that I’ve seen more things.”

The goal for SBP is to duplicate that across society.

To make all of us wonder if abundant native woodlands swollen with life – reintroduced or otherwise – are to be memories or aspirations.