Some are rich landowners like Anders Povlsen, others community members working for trusts. Some see it as a business model, others a relationship with wildlife. Some talk of reintroducing. Some talk of repeopling.
All of them revel in returning wildlife – whether nesting golden eagles or a patch of expanding Caledonian pinewood.
But the ways in which they are changing our relationship to Scotland’s landscape and the life within it are complex, as are the ways they impact on the land ownership debate.
Here are ten estates that have begun to carve a trail, altering our sense of what Scotland’s wild really is. The focus here is chiefly around individual estates, though there are other wider projects, like Cairngorms Connect or Affric Highlands, which connect areas and bring together different organisations and landowners.
Scotland has a ‘right to roam’ and you can visit them all, responsibly, if you like – enjoy a little eco-tourism or even volunteer, at some sites, to get your hands dirty.
Ownership Trees for Life, charity
Size 4000 ha
Trees planted 2 million (across Trees for Life’s multiple sites)
Peatland restoration At least 17 ha
Story: When, earlier this year Trees for Life opened the UK’s first rewilding centre and invited the public to witness and learn about the rewilding process, and even ‘rewild’ themselves, it was following its characteristically trailblazing pattern. The conservation charity was founded by ecologist Alan Watson-Featherstone in 1986 with the aim of restoring the Caledonian forest in the Highlands.
The Dundreggan Estate, west of Loch Ness which it bought in 2008 in a £1.65 million deal, is just one of many sites it is restoring. Bold in its vision, Trees for Life thinks on a 200-year scale and has said that by 2058 it wants woodland to cover around 60% of Dundreggan. Not only can 4000 species be found on site, but also a tree nursery, which grows around 80,000 trees a year from seeds.
Trainees working at Dundreggan tree nursery
Eco-tourism Visit the centre, take a guided walk, and if that’s not enough, you can volunteer on a tree-planting weeks or enrol in one of their traineeships in rewilding.
Guess who’s back? In 2020 pair of golden eagles bred at the estate for the first time in 40 years, helped by a specially-constructed nest.
Funding Trees for Life has embraced everything from public and private funders to the sale of carbon units, validated by the UK Woodland Code. A percentage of the funds it raises through carbon credits supports local groups. Bonds have been created with green bank Triodos. Plus, supporters can also pay to plant a tree, at £11.99 for the certificate, plus £6 for each tree. Carbon maths? Trees for Life’s accredited carbon offset site at Dundreggan has, it says, the capacity to offset 50,000 tonnes of CO2 – but all those trees planted over the years add up to so much more.
Ownership Borders Forest Trust, charity
Size 650 ha
Trees planted 750,000
Peatland restoration Yes
The Survivor Rowan at Carrifran Wildwood was named Scottish Tree of the Year in 2020
Story: A small grassroots group of forty locals began the pioneering Wildwood Project back in the mid-1990s with a vision – they were going to restore the ecology of an area of the Southern Uplands to the state it would have been before people started practicing settled agriculture, around 6000 years ago. Over two decades of ecological restoration have already taken place at this glen in the Moffat hills.
Over that period these pioneering volunteers organised purchase of the Carrifran valley. Funds were raised from public subscription; help gained from the John Muir Trust. The first trees were planted on Millennium Day, January 1, 2000.
But Philp and Myrtle Ashmole, key founders of the project, say they don’t call it rewilding. “That word can evoke simplistic visions of wolves and bears: we prefer to call it ecological restoration. Our aim is to rebuild natural ecosystems from the bottom up.”
Eco-tourism Spot the Survivor Rowan, which was one of the few remaining trees in the glen before restoration began, and was voted Scotland’s Tree of the Tear in 2020.
Funding Its website notes it receives “donations from the public through a Stewardship Scheme and on grant aid from organisations such as Scottish Forestry, NatureScot and grant-making trusts”. Funding for peatland restoration has come through Peatland Action and they have also accessed financing via the Woodland and Peatland Codes.
Guess who’s back? Bird species such as willow warblers, chaffinches, blackcap, long-tailed tit, siskin, lesser redpoll and tree pipit.
Carbon maths BFT has said that Forest Carbon estimated “these nascent woodlands will go on to sequester more than 80,000 tonnes of carbon during their growing lifetimes”.
Ownership Anne and Anders Povlsen/Wildland Ltd
Size 18,000 ha
Trees planted 5 million across all Wildland’s Cairngorms holdings since 2014
Peatland restoration Yes
Glenfeshie. Image: Peter Mulligan/Getty
Story: Scotland’s richest man, Anders Holch Povlsen, owner of Bestseller, a global fashion retailer inherited from his parents, bought Glenfeshie in 2006 when it was still a depleted pinewood overrun by deer.
But even before the Danish billionaire took ownership, the estate’s rewilding journey had begun – or the real visionary behind the project is Wildland’s manager, Thomas MacDonnell, who had as a young man worked putting up deer fencing and observed that there was something seriously not working.
In 2004, when the Deer Commission came to cull the high numbers, MacDonnell accepted it as necessary and went on to cull the next year. Deer numbers are now reduced to around two per square kilometre.
As well as trees planted, Wildland’s rewilding has involved “many millions of natural seedlings” that have regenerated. Its timescale, it says, is a “200-year vision”
Eco-tourism Not just the wealth of wildlife, but also the luxury accommodation available to rent across the estate, including Glenfeshie Lodge itself, which one travel website notes can be rented for 12 guests for three nights, fully catered, at £17,000. Wildland offers stalking, fishing, 4×4 tours and pony picnics.
Carbon maths Rewilding projects registered at the UK Woodland Carbon Code for Glenfeshie and other Wildland sites in the Cairngorms estimate a total of over 1,200,000 tonnes of CO2 sequestered over their lifetimes.
Mar Lodge Estate
Ownership National Trust for Scotland
Size 31,000 ha
Trees planted Some planting, though most new trees have arisen through regeneration
Peatland restoration 500ha as part of Geldie scheme
Andrew Painting, ecologist and author of Regeneration at Mar Lodge. Image: Gordon Terris/Herald
Story In 1995, the land, which had been run as a sporting estate, was taken over by the National Trust and a 200-year plan was developed with three pillars of management “environmental conservation sport and access for everyone”.
What it started to do was something quite extraordinary, and controversial. The largest national nature reserve in the country, not so very many miles from royal Balmoral, began to operate what it called a zero tolerance campaign. It began to shoot not just a few of its deer, but a lot. At first, it seemed like nothing was happening. But then after ten years signs became clear of the woodland returning. Since 1995 deer numbers have been reduced from 3500 to 1650.
Regeneration is their priority. In 2021 the estate recorded 2000ha of naturally regenerating and expanding woodland below 600m – and this, says ecologist Andrew Painting, will have expanded since. “Generally speaking we prefer natural regeneration over tree planting, but this isn’t possible everywhere and we’ve taken a pragmatic approach to our new woodland restoration scheme in the Geldie.”
The Geldie Woodland Project has involved the planting of 102,000 trees of native species in fenced enclosures over 120 hectares.
Eco-tourism One of the most popular visitor destinations in the Mar Lodge Estate is the Linn o’ Dee, a favourite picnic spot for Queen Victoria, who used to come here from Balmoral Castle. Part of the estate is still managed for sport.
Guess who’s back? Hen harrier (2016) and white-tailed eagle (2022) have returned to breed for the first time in living memory. In the case of white-tailed eagle, this was probably the first time on the estate for around 200 years.
Carbon maths 7,000 tCO2 a year, sequestered by Mar Lodge woodlands
ALLADALE WILDERNESS RESERVE
Ownership Paul Lister (describes himself as the current “custodian”)
Size 23,000 acres
Trees planted Over 1 million
Alladale Wilderness Reserve
Story: Paul Lister, philanthropist and heir to the MFI fortune, is probably most famous as ‘The Wolf Man’ who has previously said he wants to establish a large-scale wolf reserve in the Highlands. Inspired by Yellowstone National Park, where the introduction of wolves in 1995 has led to a “trophic cascade”, enriching biodiversity, Lister sees wolves as the missing apex predator that would bring down otherwise out-of-control deer numbers; albeit within a trial Reserve.
A Caledonian pinewood at the reserve is the second most northerly fragment of this critically rare habitat. Previously in poor condition, work was done to fence it off, and a million native trees were also planted.
According to Nature Scot, the wood had two decades ago “been only a few old pines” but is “once again thriving and the forest area has expanded massively” with, in addition to Scots Pine, birch, rowan, willow, alder, aspen and juniper all increasing in area and abundance.”
Eco-tourism Nature walks, salmon leap, forest bathing, wild swimming, photography, wildlife hide, mountain biking, foraging, clay bird shooting, pickleball court, gym and a newly built Wellness and Education Centre, for yoga,meditation and community outreach. It’s also possible to stay in Alladale Lodge itself or one of the Ghillie’s Rest and Eagle’s Crag.
Restoration at the SSSI/SPA on Alladale wilderness estate. Image: Norman Strachan
Guess who’s back? Red squirrels were successfully introduced a decade ago and there is a wildcat breeding facility in partnership with Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Carbon maths Registered for carbon offset at the UK Woodland Carbon Code, Alladale Phase II, a project of 65-year duration, is predicted to sequester 52542 tCO2 over its lifetime.
Ownership Lisbet Rausing
Size 23,000 ha
Corrour station. Image: Julie Howden/The Herald
The Story: On the edge of Rannoch Moor, Corrour, an estate whose most famous popular culture reference is the role of its deserted station in the film version of Trainspotting, was bought by Lisbet Rausing of the Tetrapak dynasty in 1995.
Since then, the owners have adopted an approach inspired by rewilding pioneer Dick Balharry, who helped draw up the management plan. According to Ms Rausing it focused on “whole habitats and allowing natural processes to take place, and on being guided by habitat response”.
Deer numbers were reduced to under five per square kilometre to allow the young trees a chance to survive. Sheep were removed, but beef cattle, says one blog, still roam in summers, “echoing transhumance”. Rausing, along with Povlsen, has backed a £50,000 study to access public opinion about return of the lynx.
Carbon maths Their woodland creation projects are predicted, according to documents lodged in the Woodland Carbon Code register, to sequester 30,000 tCO2 over a lifetime of 100 years.
Ownership BrewDog/Lost Forest
Size 3700 ha
Kinrara Estate. Image Galbraith
The Story Scotland’s punk brewers, triggered by their desire to find a way to offset the company’s emissions and the conclusion that the best thing would be to do it themselves, bought the Kinrara estate, west of Aviemore for £8,8 million in 2020.
Critics have dubbed them green lairds, lambasting, for instance, their exaggerated claim that the project could capture up to 550,000 tonnes of CO2 a years – the correct figure was up to 1 million tonnes over 100 years.
Others have questioned the £1 million in Scottish Forestry grants for planting and fencing. Some have said their approach focuses too much on planting trees and fencing out deer and not enough on nurturing regeneration. But, it seems the punk rewilders can’t win, for when it was mooted that they might cull deer to enable regeneration, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) accused them of having “lost the plot”.
All this in spite of the fact that they have renowned carbon expert and author, Mike Berners-Lee, as advisor.
So far BrewDog have planted 500,000 trees. Around 100 hectares are, according to a plan submitted by Scottish Woodlands, being put aside for regeneration.
Eco-tourism In an interview CEO James Watt enthused about the possibilities of a campsite, sustainable water sports in the lake, and plans to build a wind farm to be running by 2028.
Carbon maths Watt has described the project as the “single largest native woodland establishment and peatland restoration project ever in the UK, capable of pulling one million tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere”.
TARRAS VALLEY NATURE RESERVE
Ownership Langholm Initiative, community development trust
Size 4200 ha
Peatland restoration Yes
Volunteers at Tarras Valley Nature Reserve. Image: Langholm Initiative
Story When, last year, the Langholm Initiative succeeded in the buy-out of its second swathe of land from Buccleuch Estate, chairman John Hanrahan declared it a “moment of history and hope”. “It shows,” he said, “how communities can achieve the remarkable when people work together, even when the odds seem impossible.”
The buy-outs saw land transferred from one of Scotland’s largest landowners to a community development trust – and one that had formed in response to the post-industrial crisis in the area. They involved the raising of a total of £6 million and resulted in the creation of new jobs as well as a new nature reserve.
The Langholm Initiative says it is aiming for “a nature-led, low intervention approach to ecological restoration, mainly undertaking tasks which offset the intensive management practises of the past”. This includes restoring peatlands by blocking drainage ditches, felling mature spruce forestry and replacing it with native woodland, clearing invasive Sitka spruce and planting native broadleaf trees.
Eco-tourism The reserve is already a well-known site to watch birds, including “hen harriers, cuckoos, curlew, and even the occasional golden eagle! On its river walks it’s also possible to spot otters and dippers.
Funding To buy out the Langholm Initiative turned to multiple sources, from crowdfunders to donations from the charity Rewilding Britain.
BUNLOIT, BELDORNEY AND TAYVALLICH
Ownership Highlands Rewilding
Size Bunloit (513 ha), Tayvallich (1370 ha), Beldorney (349 ha)
View of Tayvallich Estate. Image: Highlands Rewilding
The Story The brainchild of former Greenpeace director and solar pioneer Jeremy Leggett, Highlands Rewilding has declared it “is pursuing a business model to scale nature recovery like no other”.
Starting with initially two estates, Bunloit (on the banks of Loch Ness) and Beldorney (in Aberdeenshire), it put out a crowdfunding call to what it described as “everyday citizen rewilders”. Since then, it has scaled further by buying the massive Tayvallich estate in Argyll.
Bunloit, on the shores of Loch Ness, is described as its “natural capital laboratory”, and initial work at the site was around conducting “baseline natural capital surveys”, and there are plans to develop a wide range of nature restoration strategies over the estates.
But there is also an emphasis on community and Highlands Rewilding says it is about “repeopling”. At Tayvallich, the company signed a first-of-a-kind Memorandum of Understanding with Tavyallich Initiative, “a community body set up to consider options for community land purchase, to benefit both the local community and nature”.
A camera trap being set up to monitor biodiversity. Image: Highlands Rewilding
Eco-tourism Highlands Rewilding is developing self-guided walking routes around the estates to help give visitors more insight into the work they do. They also have several holiday cottages that visitors can book as a base for exploration, and guided tours of their “natural capital laboratories” available.
Guess who’s back? “Some natural regeneration of birch and rowan,” the company says, “is already happening at Beldorney, and we are seeing flowering species spreading into the fields from the edges, as a result of changing the grazing management to adapted multi paddock grazing.”
Carbon maths Highlands Rewilding has estimated that they can sequester an extra (net) 60,747 tCO2e over 100 years on Bunloit. At Beldorney, in the company’s second natural capital report, it estimated a potential extra 85,504 tCO2e could be sequestered across the estate over the next 100 years; a 48% increase on current modelled stocks. Analysis not yet complete for Tayvallich.
Ownership Ramsay family, private
Size 520 ha
Trees planted 100 ha
The Story: Not the biggest in terms of area, but a rewilding experiment that has made one of the most sensational reintroductions. Bamff Estate, in Perthshire, is most famous for its beavers which were introduced in 2002 as a demonstration project for Scotland. Paul Ramsay’s transformation of the family land is sometimes compared to Isabella Tree’s Knepp Estate in England, as a striking experiment in rewilding a farmed estate. A third is woodland and the beavers have created a large area of wetland and pools. However, beavers are controversial, and not all landowners and farmers in the area are fond of their return.
Bamff is part of the Northwoods rewilding network for smaller estates and landholdings.
Eco-tourism Bamff doesn’t just boast “the best beaver wetlands in the UK”, there is also a breeding herd of Exmoor Ponies due to arrive at Bamff in January 2024, and set to graze their new wild land area. It’s also possible to stay in a cottage or hut on the site and walk parts of the Cateran Trail. The estate offers guided beaver watching and guided wildland walks, plus, from time to time, volunteer activity programmes.