As Scotland hosts the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, calls on the government to support rewilding, regenerate peatland and reintroduce lost species are becoming louder — and the potential benefits becoming clearer.
“Paul and I wanted to bring back beavers in order to restore the wetlands and because we believe that animals that have been here historically should be returned,” Louise Ramsay tells CNN. “What we learned as we went along that journey was that the beaver doesn’t just bring itself back, it brings back extraordinary habitat and an extreme boom in biodiversity.”
Trees felled by the gnawing beavers offer a rich habitat to fungi, insects, owls and woodpeckers, and intricate dams built along the ditch that runs through the 1,300-acre estate have turned the area into a wide wetland where otters, herons and water voles thrive.
“Come summer, we normally see thousands upon thousands of them — there are times when you can’t walk because they are everywhere on the ground,” she says.
Into the wild
The Ramsays hope that by surrendering to the wild land that has historically been used for farming, plantations and sports such as pheasant and grouse shooting, they can help to restore biodiversity, sequester carbon and mitigate impacts of climate change like flooding and drought.
“When you have a patch of land like this, there’s a chance to do something meaningful with it, however small,” says Sophie.
The SRA is campaigning for the Scottish government to declare the country a “rewilding nation” during COP26 and commit to restoring a third of its land. CNN contacted the Scottish government for comment, but it had not responded by the time of publication.
“In some cases, you’re protecting already severely degraded landscapes. If we could replace protection with restoration or recovery then it would be a commendable aim,” he says.
“The perception is that Scotland is a wilderness,” he continues, “and there’s no doubt that Scotland is full of beauty and drama… But ecologically speaking, it is massively depleted.”
Reintroducing lost species has long been a thorny issue, which comes down to the fact that lynx, wolves, bears and even beavers can’t be confined to a given area, however big it is, says Cairns.
Restoring ancient landscapes
There are huge efforts underway to bring nature back, and some do receive significant government funding — for instance, Cairngorms Connect. The UK’s largest land restoration project, it covers 600 square kilometers (230 square miles), stretching from the banks of the River Spey through expanses of open moorland, before rising up to alpine plateaus and the lofty heights of Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest summit.
The project unites four landowners, both public and private, with an ambition to expand woodland to its natural limit and restore peatland and floodplains over the next 200 years. Cairngorms National Park is the fifth supporting partner, as the whole project falls within its area.
“But many of them have been damaged,” says Jeremy Roberts, program manager for Cairngorms Connect, “and when peatlands become eroded, the peat which is very carbon rich is exposed to the atmosphere, and therefore oxidizes and releases carbon dioxide.”
But regenerating blanket bog takes time, as will replanting more than 13,000 hectares of woodland. This is why they’ve given themselves 200 years, says Roberts, but he hopes that sooner rather than later they will reach a tipping point where the peatlands can take care of themselves, and humans can step back.
Change is already visible. “I can stand in places now and see new woodland where there wasn’t any — tall trees that have grown 15 to 20 feet in the time I’ve been here,” says Roberts. “That’s quite remarkable.”
The cost of nature
The Ramsays rely on ecotourism for most of their income, renting holiday cottages and yurts on site. The beavers are a huge draw.
At the Bamff estate, the goal is to ultimately relinquish control and leave the land to its own devices. “We learned with the beavers how we have to surrender and have faith in natural processes and their infinite complexity, and to recognize that it’s not our job to control nature,” says Sophie.
“That’s the beauty of rewilding,” she adds. “There’s a fragility in it and an understanding that this stuff is bigger than us.”