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The southern uplands in Scotland are being rejuvenated through a community-led effort, making it a prime destination for rewilders.
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The southern uplands in Scotland are being rejuvenated through a community-led effort, making it a prime destination for rewilders.


Approximately 6,000 years ago, a majority of southern Scotland was enveloped in wide expanses of deciduous forests, with pockets of lush scrub, heath, and marshland scattered throughout. However, in stark contrast, the current landscape is characterized by closely grazed, significantly depleted hills, broken up by highly visible stands of imported spruce trees.

“The Carrifran Wildwood, a community-led rewilding project in the UK, has successfully restored patches of natural habitat that resemble Scotland’s ancient forests.”

Carrifran, which is now almost twenty-five years old, offers a glimpse into a bygone era. However, it also demonstrates the potential of this region: it could serve as a carbon sink to combat climate change, a sponge to mitigate floods and preserve freshwater, a haven for biodiversity, and a source of inspiration, cultural identity, and optimism for both local and global communities.

A view of a V-shaped valley covered in leafless trees, with a bare-looking hill facing it.View image in fullscreen

The restoration of Carrifran began on January 1st, 2000, when the creators and their companions – myself included, at the time a biology student in the area – tilled the delicate land and planted the initial 100 young trees.

After 25 years and the planting of 750,000 trees, the project has successfully improved the ecological state of the valley. The now diverse native trees provide a shaggy landscape, free from grazing pressure. As a result, wildflowers are flourishing, even in the colder months when the first primroses, wood anemones, coltsfoot, and emerald green honeysuckle leaves offer bursts of color. On the higher ground, peatbogs are healing and there has been an increase in rare arctic-montane scrub and heath. The area is now filled with the sounds of birds and golden eagles can often be spotted soaring above the crags.

Philip Ashmole standing in the gap of an old stone wall.View image in fullscreen

Philip Ashmole, a zoologist, was one of the pioneers who initiated the undertaking in the mid-1990s. According to the 90-year-old Ashmole, “We aimed to make a modest effort to give back to nature.” He added, “We strongly believed that there should be a place where people can observe an untouched woodland ecosystem, in its original state as it existed in most of Scotland before humans intervened significantly.”

Ashmole, along with his wife Myrtle and a network of friends from the community, including environmentalists, artists, and ecologists, worked together to make their vision a reality. This grassroots, volunteer-run effort can be recognized for its numerous groundbreaking achievements.

The majority of the money required to purchase the 660-hectare (1,600 acre) Carrifran valley was raised through crowdfunding, almost 10 years before the term was even coined. Through a fundraising campaign primarily conducted offline, approximately 600 individuals were motivated to contribute a few hundred pounds each, becoming founders of Carrifran Wildwood.

Reworded: The group has been able to maintain a level of autonomy due to reduced dependence on initial institutional funding, thanks to the support of the Borders Forest Trust (BFT), a charitable organization formed to own and oversee the project.

The group generally steers clear of using the potentially controversial term “rewilding,” but their goal is essentially the same as what George Monbiot’s book Feral popularized 13 years later.

Matchstick lichen in Carrifran.View image in fullscreen

The group has based their decisions on a thorough, science-based method. Ashmole explains that their plans for restoring the habitat were influenced by surveys of the soil and vegetation, as well as a detailed examination of peat cores. These cores contain preserved pollen grains that show the changes in plant and forest growth at Carrifran over the course of 10,000 years.

Long centuries of livestock grazing had erased almost all trees, except a lone rowan, the “survivor tree”, so waiting for natural regeneration was not an option. Over the years, scores of volunteers have stepped up to plant and nurture the trees that now breathe fresh life into the valley. “There’s just been so much love for the site and it has really paid off,” says Andy Wilson, the BFT’s project officer, responsible for daily management of this site. “It wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all of us,” concurs Ashmole, with characteristic understatement.

The BFT has obtained two additional large parcels of land in the surrounding area since establishing Carrifran, representing important progress towards the organization’s goal of restoring the natural landscape of southern Scotland.

Community-led rewilding is facilitated by a catalyst.

Kevin Cumming, the rewilding director of Rewilding Britain, cites Carrifran as one of the triggers for the recent increase in community-led rewilding efforts across the UK. “A group of people driven by a common interest to make a difference – how could that not be inspiring?” he says. “It certainly inspired me.”

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In 2022, Cumming was the leader of the Langholm Initiative. Under his leadership, they successfully completed the largest community buyout in the south of Scotland to create the Tarras valley nature reserve, which spans 4,100 hectares.

Yellow flowers emerge by a winding river.

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Rewilding is seen as a potential catalyst for a fair and equitable shift in rural economies, resulting in the creation of environmentally-friendly employment opportunities through the restoration of natural environments and processes.

Peter Cairns, the leader of Scotland’s The Big Picture organization, concurs. “The pioneering efforts towards rewilding, like those at Carrifran, prove that rewilding is attainable for all and brings advantages to both individuals and the environment,” he states.

The Northwoods network, managed by his organization, promotes rewilding through the involvement of local communities rather than affluent landowners.

The Scottish Rewilding Alliance recently initiated an effort to transform Scotland into the first nation dedicated to rewilding. Their proposed charter calls on the Scottish government to dedicate 30% of its land and seas to nature restoration, for the betterment of nature, the climate, and its people.

The origin of this movement can be traced back to Carrifran, a symbol of the typical process of creating impactful change. It involves the initial disruption of the current system by pioneers, followed by a gradual accumulation of momentum.

A frog’s head appears out of a puddle.

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Ashmole and Wilson have identified the creation of additional wildlife corridors as a pressing matter. These corridors would connect Scotland’s various rewilding areas and nature-friendly farms in a continuous, dynamic pattern. Similarly, I eagerly anticipate the time when a larger variety of land creatures, such as beavers, wild boar, and lynxes, can roam freely throughout the country.

Carrifran has become a mecca for would-be rewilders from the UK and beyond. They come here for practical knowhow and an injection of hope. “I just love seeing the excitement on people’s faces,” says Wilson. “They look at the valley and just go, ‘Wow!’”

Ashmole mentions the recurring use of the word “inspiration.” This is what we had always envisioned this valley would provide.

Source: theguardian.com