Rewilding the wilderness

The Scottish Highlands isn’t as untouched as its reputation would have you believe; Emma Gibbs explores the movement towards restoring this ancient landscape.

Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree Islands National Nature Reserve

‘Collaborate with nature and she’ll repay you with abundance,’ Lynn Cassells says as we look out across the 150-acre croft she farms with her partner Sandra Baer.

It’s not hard to believe: even at the end of October, when the fields beyond Lynbreck are a patchwork of earthy tones, parts of the kitchen garden are almost jungle-like in their greenery. In the distance, the Cairngorm mountains are so neatly arranged that it feels as though they have been lined up solely for the pleasure of viewing them from here. 

As we meander around the hillside beyond the kitchen garden, a small fold of Highland cows emerge, lifting their heads above the bracken that provides the perfect camouflage for four of them (the fifth, a black coo, is actually the colour Highland cattle originally were, before Queen Victoria decided she preferred them in their more vibrant russet shade) to impassively survey us while they eat.

Alladale Wilderness Reserve

‘We see ourselves as stewards rather than land managers,’ Lynn says. ‘We’re thinking about how the land should look with us as part of it rather than dominating it.’ Since Lynn and Sandra bought Lynbreck in March 2016, they’ve sought to use farming to regenerate and connect better with the land they own, whether it’s through using their animals to fertilise and help diversify the soil, or by planting thousands of trees to replenish the once-forested hillsides. 

The idea of regeneration in a region that seems so wild can initially come as something of a surprise. On my first visit to the Highlands, it was its wildness – the mountains that look like they’ve been pinched up from the earth below, the loch-littered valleys that glitter as the clouds part – that made me fall for it, but the more I visited the more I became aware that in many ways this is a landscape that is anything but wild.

Look closely and you’ll notice it, too: the depleted tree line; the colour-coded sheep; the barren hillsides. Sure, the mountains, the lochs, the coast were all here long before humans were, but the shape of them has been defined by us – by sheep farming, deer stalking, land ownership and the hunting of predators to extinction.

Highland cattle at Lynbreck Croft

The following afternoon, we set off on e-bikes for a 15-mile cycle to Corrour youth hostel – the UK’s highest and one of its most isolated. The last time I attempted a hill on a bike, I had to get off and push it for the last stretch, putting up with the ignominy of passing drivers stopping to check I was okay, so e-biking is a revelation. I’d expected it to feel like cheating, when in fact it’s more like a helping hand at my back when I need it.

Every slight turn of the path reveals yet another change of scenery that demands a photo: brooding mountains rising above a thick, story-book green line of pines; a gushing burn cutting through barren moorland; a river meandering back and forth so many times it looks like something out of a geography textbook.

A burn cuts through the barren landscape near Loch Ossian

After visiting Lynbreck, I can’t help but appraise the landscape differently, and find myself wondering whether it has always looked like this, or whether 500 years ago things would have been starkly different; the fact that we are following a rough track through largely treeless estate land is enough to tell me the answer. 

Still, there’s no denying the thrill of this landscape, even under rain so heavy that it drips off my eyelashes.

The track ahead has been rendered sepia in the fading light, the presence of Loch Ossian betrayed only by flashes of gunmetal grey through the towering trees we are now riding through.

‘Turn turbo on,’ our guide says, and we do so, zooming the final few miles in a race against the setting sun. But when the light from the youth hostel appears, blinking out of the mist like a beacon, all I know is that I don’t want to stop – I want to keep going, not just across Rannoch Moor but beyond, to the coast, or around the whole of Scotland. 

I’m travelling with adventure-holiday company Wilderness Scotland, on a trip that began with my favourite UK train journey – the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness. With Wilderness Scotland’s commitment to sustainability – which has so far included building a net-zero office, calculating the carbon impact of their trips and introducing an opt-out conservation contribution for their trips – they are, as head of marketing Ben Thorburn says, ‘leading the industry in creating change’.

At a time when it feels like anyone can stick a ‘sustainable travel’ logo on their offerings, it feels like a big claim, but over the course of the three days I spend with Wilderness in the Highlands, it becomes clear that they’re actually taking practical action to ensure they live up to this. 

Off-grid Deanich Lodge in Alladale Wilderness Reserve

Part of this is achieved through their partnership with Trees for Life, a charity that is working to rewild the Highlands, and one of the beneficiaries of Wilderness’ conservation scheme. Today, less than 2% of Scotland’s temperate Caledonian forests still remain, including a fragment at Dundreggan Estate, seven miles west of Loch Ness.

Here, Trees for Life are currently finalising construction of their rewilding centre, which will enable visitors to experience the ancient woodland and to find out more about the important work the charity is doing to restore native forest both here and elsewhere in the Highlands. 

We walk through the nursery, where a thousand trees are starting out life in seed trays, and into the polytunnel, where aspen – once a common feature of the Highland landscape – is being grown for seed.

The rewilded landscape at Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Estate

‘They’re native to Scotland,’ operations manager Doug Gilbert explains, ‘and hugely important to diversity. The more aspen we have, the happier other parts of the woodland will be.’

Later, we climb the hillside behind the new visitors’ centre, following the footpaths that wind through the estate, drizzle on our faces.

The hills opposite are banded by a dark green timber line, which, Doug points out, is commercial forest.

By contrast, our side is a blanket of copper-coloured bracken, broken by long-limbed birch trees, resplendent in their autumn wardrobe. ‘Change is coming,’ Doug says.

A month later, mauve-tipped downy birch lend a pale ghostliness to the landscape of Alladale Wilderness Reserve, 50 miles northwest of Inverness. ‘You’ll have the solitude of the whole glen to yourself,’ hospitality manager Stuart McLean tells me when he takes me to my cottage in the heart of Glen Alladale.

This is no exaggeration: after he leaves, I follow the track along the hillside for an hour, the only sound the crunch of my footsteps on the gravel and the rushing of the river below me, so loud that I initially mistake it for a nearby road.

Here, with the wide expanse of the glen at my feet, the trees have all but disappeared, save a few old pines that have been so battered by the wind that they remind me of the acacia trees of the African savanna. 

View over Glen Alladale, in Alladale Wilderness Reserve

The next day, I discover that there were more trees around me than I’d realised – what I’d mistaken for low bushes were in fact young pines; once my mind has adjusted to see them I notice them dotted everywhere in Alladale.

Ranger Ryan Munro tells me that just under a million trees have been planted here since 2010; like those at Dundreggan and Lynbreck, they are fenced off from the deer, with the hope that in 30 years they’ll be self-seeding and reforesting the hills themselves.

That’s not to say that there isn’t already a benefit being seen with even these early stages of tree planting: red squirrels, translocated from Speyside, are thriving to the extent that they’ve moved down into the local village, while black grouse, willow warblers and golden plovers are also on the increase.

Paul Lister, Alladale’s owner, ‘sees himself as the custodian of the land,’ Ryan tells me as we drive around the 23,000-acre estate, reminding me of Lynn’s ethos at Lynbreck.

Here, where estates have for centuries been the domain of the deer-stalking wealthy, the sentiment seems particularly remarkable – deer culling is only done by the rangers now, to keep the population low enough for the habitat to thrive.

Conifers in Leckmelm Wood, where Ecotone Cabins are situated

Of course, in an ideal world deer wouldn’t need culling, because they’d have predators – which is one reason why Lister would, rather famously, like to reintroduce wolves.

‘A wolf can operate 24/7,’ Ryan tells me, ‘whereas we’re just nine to five. It would make a huge difference to deer management.’

The only predators at Alladale now are wildcats, though they haven’t been released here yet – the estate is part of a captive breeding programme for these native animals.

At first glance they look remarkably like slightly larger, bushier versions of the tabby cats I grew up with, but the steely look in their eyes is enough to convince me otherwise.

In order for wildcats to be successfully reintroduced to the wild, local communities have to commit to spaying their domestic cats to prevent them breeding together and diluting the line. ‘It’s much easier to make wildcats a community project than wolves,’ Ryan says as he flings a pheasant into one of the cat’s enclosures. ‘That’s going to take much longer. But it will happen.’

This idea of community sticks with me as I travel west to Ecotone Cabins – less than 20 miles as the crow flies but just over 60 by road – in the hills above Loch Broom near Ullapool. Sam Planterose and his family have lived here since his parents bought the 80-acre site from the Forestry Commission 30 years ago.

‘A community evolved out of a family need,’ Sam says as we walk around their woods that, in addition to the two cabins, is home to the family construction business, which makes ecological and sustainable wooden buildings (including the cabins here) out of local timber. Also on-site are an off-grid smallholding, a woodland croft and a forest nursery, where we see the children huddled by torchlight under the trees.

This area had, before World War II, been home to ancient native oak trees, which were cleared and replaced with non-native species – predominantly conifers, used for pulp and building. It’s easy, if you know little about trees, to assume that, in this age of climate crisis, all trees are created equal – but of course, they’re not.

‘The conifers were used like a field of wheat,’ Sam says, ‘so they were chopped down and then grown again, and there was low biodiversity here as a result.’ Sam’s family use these conifers now to build things under their North Woods construction company, but rather than replant them, they’re slowly being replaced by native trees like deciduous birch and alder, which allow nature to thrive. 

Red Squirrel Cabin, overlooking Loch Broom, at Ecotone Cabins

The next morning, I wake to a black-and-white world, the skinny conifers lending a sense of Narnia to my surroundings. The wide windows of my cabin are the ideal frame from which to watch as the pale sun reluctantly rises above the silver-streak of Loch Broom that’s visible through the snow-dusted alders.

The woodland has already shifted and changed under three decades of guidance by the Planterose family; like everywhere else I’ve visited, though, I can’t help but think about what it might look like in another handful of decades. 

For a glimpse of that, I head to Britain’s oldest National Nature Reserve, Beinn Eighe, on the southwestern banks of Loch Maree. Looking out at the reserve from the NatureScot office, reserve manager Doug Bartholomew points out a vast swathe of forest on the lower slopes of the Beinn Eighe mountain range – the dark evergreen of Scots pines and juniper in the background, and the wispy, brown-leaved birch and aspen in front. 

View of Beinn a Mhuinidh from Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

In the 70 years since Beinn Eighe became an NNR, some 800,0000 trees have been planted here, linking up strands of ancient forest: the wide forest we’re looking at is the result.

After visiting so many places where the planted trees are still in their infancy, I have to check I’ve got my facts right. ‘That’s not all old forest?’ I ask, perhaps a little more incredulously than I should. ‘No,’ Doug says with a smile. ‘And we’ve planted the last of the links now, so we’re going to stop and just let natural regeneration take over.’

Afterwards, I head further along the loch, mirror-still beneath a cornflower-blue sky, and follow the one-mile Woodland Trail up the mountainside. I’d walked this path earlier in the year and had marvelled at the views of the brooding hulk of Slioch across the water, only paying attention to the trees when the trail booklet brought my attention to them. Now, though, the walk is different.

Here are the birch trees, dazzling in their autumnal finery; the towering, weather-beaten ‘granny pines’, so-named for their age; and the bright, bushy younger pines, just beginning to take their place on these ancient slopes. The Highland landscape will continue to be shaped by us, but this time it might just end up looking like it was supposed to.

Need to know

Getting there: There’s no better way to arrive in the Highlands than by Caledonian Sleeper (sleeper.scot), which runs six times weekly from London Euston, arriving in Inverness the following morning. Club cabins have en suites and include breakfast

Best time to go: The Highlands is beautiful throughout the year – just be prepared for unpredictable weather whenever you go.

Currency: Pound sterling.

Time zone: GMT

Food: One of the most sustainable things you can eat up here is venison, which will have been culled on local estates. You can often try Beinn Eighe venison at The Torridon hotel, where the fine-dining restaurant makes use of the best local produce. 

Where to stay: For wild luxury and superlative views, Alladale Wilderness Reserve and The Torridon, near Beinn Eighe, are hard to beat. Ecotone Cabins, in the hills near Ullapool, are low-impact but incredibly stylish.

How to do it: Wilderness Scotland (wildernesscotland.com) offers a range of guided and self-guided nature-based trips throughout the Highlands and islands, including to Lynbreck Croft, Loch Ossian and Dundreggan. For more information on visiting the Highlands, visit discoverhighlandsandislands.scot.

Must-pack item: Walking boots, layers and waterproofs; you really can experience four seasons in one day here. 

Why go: In addition to phenomenal scenery, the Highlands is leading the way in exciting, low-impact, sustainable travel.