Whilst working in international conservation, my travels took me to a grizzly bear nature reserve on the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains, just south of the US-Canadian border. In remote Montana, the air was crystal clear, and the views spanned up to 300 miles, reaching across to Canada and far across the prairie, in what is appropriately known as 'Big Sky Country'. The night skies were abundant with stars.
I recall riding my horse across a broad, glacial river. Each of its hooves made a ‘shplunk, shplunk’ noise before being carefully steadied on a bed of shifting cobble. Whilst fording the river, I was deeply moved by the landscape’s raw, wild majesty. A rich tapestry of aspen, oak, cottonwood and birch followed the valleys rising into lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine on the hillsides. Quaking aspen shimmered in a long gold band along the river edge, jostled by a cool breeze which carried the scent of pine needles. The hairs rose on the back of my neck.
Wild animals can be seen much closer on horseback. During the ride, I saw many wildlife: moose, Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, black bears and even grizzly bears. The Rockies are also home to the more elusive grey wolf, Canada lynx and mountain lion. However, they are seldom seen in dense forest areas and brush cover. However, we routinely saw signs of their activity: kill sites, hairs caught in the bark, footprints and scat signs.
One day as we rode out onto the prairie along a riparian canopy, cover which is used by grizzlies to travel from the mountains to the plains, we came across a kill of a large elk. The brush around the carcass revealed a vast struggle. Even saplings were cleanly snapped from the fracas. Wolves made hundreds of footprints around the carcass, grizzly bears and Mountain lions. We even found a dead cougar nearby with a tooth penetration to the back of the skull. A later autopsy revealed that the cougar had been killed by one of its own. While we encountered grizzlies, both from a distance and through the dense brush, I was reassured to have read that there had never been a documented case of a horse rider being attacked by a grizzly despite hundreds of years of interaction.
The Scottish Highlands share a great deal with the landscape of the northern Rockies. In the age of the Romans, the vast Caledonian Forest blanketed the Highlands. Indeed, the forest enabled the Scots to resist occupation successfully. At the time, Scotland was home to moose (called elk in Britain), red deer, brown bears, wolves, Eurasian lynx and Eurasian beavers. Today, less than 1% of that once vast forest remains. Typically, these scattered remnants hang on in remote areas which cannot be cut for timber or grazed by sheep, such as craggy uplands or loch islands.
So where did all of Scotland’s trees go? They were used to construct the largest navy in the world during the Middle-ages. Much of the material was used in building construction. During the mass clearances of people from the Highlands (1750–1860) by landowners, deforestation pressure increased to clear land for grazing. Before the era of coal mining, they fired the early industrial revolution. During WW1, Canadian lumberjacks were imported to Scotland to create timber for battlefield trenches.
I feel like I had been granted access to a time machine; to see what once was for millennia. I have been inspired by the dramatic, pristine wilderness of North America to help to restore the Scottish wilderness to its former splendour—to a time when Scotland would have resembled Montana.
To date, TreeWilder’s UK project supplier, Highland Carbon, has established seven projects on behalf of our company, offsetting clients in enigmatic locations such as Gleneagles, Pitlochry, Loch Ness, Isle of Sky, Blair Atholl, Wester Ross and the Scottish Borders. We are speaking with a further six estates presently about equally exciting projects.
Of particular interest, we are helping to re-establish a diverse array of tree species, including aspen and oak, in the wild areas of the Highlands. We are also conserving species such as mountain birch.
In landscape conservation parlance, we are restoring buffers that enhance high-grade habitats with designations such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Conservation Areas and Special Protection Areas. Wildlife can then repopulate the restored habitats from the adjacent pristine fragments.
Whilst the Rockies of Montana comprise an exceptional, pristine habitat where mountains erupt from a great plain, Scotland is equally spectacular. Here eagles soar over mist-cloaked mountains. These dramatic features erupt from the North Atlantic, where near coastal waters are frequented by harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, orcas and minke whales. We have every reason to be inspired by our British wild places.
Scotland represents a world-class opportunity for nature-based solutions to Climate Change. It has vast areas of land which could be re-wilded whilst drawing an enormous amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere. That’s where we come in.Subscribe Here