Enter stage left: the rewilder. Increasingly, large chunks of the Highlands are being managed, not as traditional sporting estates but as sites for landscape-scale ecological restoration. At the forefront of this emerging trend is Anders Holch Povlsen, a Danish entrepreneur, who bought the 42,000 acre Glenfeshie Estate in the Cairngorms ten years ago and has subsequently acquired several further landholdings, giving him custodianship over 200,000 acres, all badged under his company Wildland Ltd.
The history of Glenfeshie is not so different from that of other Highland estates. For 200 years or more, the land was valued according to its potential for deer stalking, grouse shooting and salmon fishing. Fencing was widely used to keep deer away from commercial forestry plantations but on the floor of the Glen, remnant ageing Scots pines retained a toehold in the shallow soils. Dick Balharry, the eminent countryman recognised the imminent loss of these veteran trees back in the sixties, and openly condemned the effect of high deer numbers, pointing to a complete absence of young trees. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium however, that a growing body of environmental legislation, finally ignited change in Glenfeshie and a significant but contentious deer cull took place on the estate.
Thomas MacDonell is Wildland's Conservation Director:
"The change on the ground happened very quickly and with a ready-made seed source from the ageing trees, a young forest quickly started to grow. People talk about the trees creeping up the hill but I would suggest that if you relieve them of grazing pressure, they actually sprint up the hill."
Povlsen’s ambition to combine landscape-scale habitat restoration with wider economic benefits for local communities is a model that is now enticing other eco-philanthropists. Despite the huge size of these private estates, they remain as relative dots on the map. But increasingly, those dots are creeping closer to other dots. Established woodland regeneration schemes run by conservation groups and government agencies, such as those in Abernethy Forest, Creag Meagaidh in Lochaber and Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross, are creating a growing, inter-connected network of landholdings, all committed to a new model for Highland land management. Moreover, these initiatives have all shown that despite long-held perceptions to the contrary, trees can grow in the Highlands without the need for intrusive fencing, as long as grazing pressure is controlled.