Guest post by Heather Urquhart, a PhD Student at the University of Manchester. Here she expands upon the presentation she gave at BISA on the topic of rewilding in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
Shortly after presenting my research on colonial masculinities in rewilding at BISA, I scrolled across this – now deleted – tweet by a prominent rewilder:
“The UK nature movement is infested with those who think that time is to be wasted; that everything can be done tomorrow. No. We must act today.”
Yes, rapid change is vital, and for many in the UK nature movement, rewilding offers that urgent path to ecological recovery. Nowhere in the UK are plans for rewilding more ambitious than in the Highlands of Scotland. But with the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in Europe, the power to change landscapes in Scotland continues to be vastly unequal.
Echoing a longer tradition of struggle for land justice in the Highlands, there are people within the ‘nature movement’ who challenge this inequity. As this tweet indicates, their challenges are not always welcome.
Who exactly has ‘infested’ the movement is unclear. What is clear though, is that they pose an obstacle to its progress. Language like ‘infested’ is clearly dehumanising. And the use of dehumanising language to refer to people who pose an obstacle to ‘progress’ in the Highlands is nothing new.
As I explained at BISA, unlike the enclosures in most of the UK, the Highland Clearances were also a civilising project.
Highlanders and Islanders resisting the clearances centuries ago were cast as a primitive people failing to effectively harness the economic potential of the land. They were dehumanised, and cleared to the coast, to ensure their participation in the modern economy and free the land up for new management.
This was the origin of the crofting tradition that prominent rewilders now identify as at odds with the goals of rewilding, as an obstacle to the progress of new land management.
What are these critics of progress actually concerned with?
Rewilding has reached mainstream appeal in recent years. While rewilding offers a science-led approach to ecological recovery, its public appeal benefits from imaginaries of wilderness. As environmental historian, William Cronin explains:
“Wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet.”
But imagining wilderness as a remedy to ourselves falsely identifies human civilisation, rather than colonial-capitalism, as the root of ecological destruction. According to Cronin, this also constructs a ‘wilderness’ that is imagined as a ‘savage world at the dawn of civilization’.
The rewilding organisation Scotland the Big Picture invites visitors to its website to consider rewilding experiences’ with the tagline: ‘Retreat to the wild! Immerse yourself in the drama of the Highlands’. I (and presumably others participating in the mundanities of everyday life in the Highlands and Islands) wonder what that drama is. It is through the imagining of a savage wilderness that the ‘drama of the Highlands’ become alive.
While often imagined as a peopleless ‘wilderness’, evidence of sustainable and destructive, forms of human activity is visible across the uplands of Scotland. Almost 20% of the landscape in Scotland is managed as grouse moors through moor burning, overgrazing, and predator control. Deer populations – which have trebled since the 1960s – are starving and suffering while their overgrazed habitats prevent woodlands and peatlands from flourishing.
Actors across the ‘UK nature movement’ have visions for how radically reforming land management could transform these uplands into resilient biodiverse habitats with a high potential for carbon sequestration.
A laird-driven approach to rewilding allows the wealthy men destroying nature to emerge as its panacea. Wealthy men like ASOS owner Anders Polvson, who made his fortune in fast fashion and is now Scotland’s largest landowner, can declare himself ‘custodian of the land’ and implement his own 200- year vision to rewild Scotland. This approach allows lairds to act as masters of nature; changing landscapes according to their vision and making decisions about what life gets to flourish.
Of course, this is no less true of laird-led approaches to any form of land management. And laird-led rewilding success stories like Polvson-owned Glen Feshie estate are home to rapidly recovering natures. But nature is not somewhere separate from civilization, as ideas of wilderness suggest. Nature is also where people live, work and call home; it is where social life happens. And while rewilding aims to be science-led, it does not resist the majesty of wilderness.
Some natures, landscapes, and species are more impressive and charismatic than others. Some actions, like reintroductions and culls, are more likely to leave a legacy. And the prioritisation of natures that are to be ‘experienced’ as wilderness, are more likely to create places that are to be visited rather than lived in.
Men can be real men in the wilderness. They can escape the hustle and bustle of the city as rugged individuals standing steadfast against the elements, hunting for their dinner, and sleeping below the stars. Or, if in the Highlands in 2023, in a ‘renovated bothy’ at Alladale Wilderness Reserve. The old buildings that scatter rural landscapes, now decorated as luxury accommodation with quintessentially Highland tweeds, tartans and taxidermy, preserve the region’s role as a playground for wealthy visitors.
Instead of providing the infrastructure to rectify the injustices of past economic transitions, as affordable homes to repeople cleared landscapes, they have been incorporated into a new one, and provide retreats to a Highland re-wilderness.
‘Rewilding’ – or something akin to it by another name – is an ecological necessity. As a major beneficiary of fossil fuel and stolen colonial wealth, it is also the Highlands and Islands global responsibility. But like a lot of places identified for ‘rewilding’, there is a violent history of clearance and dehumanisation that lay the foundations for the region becoming understood as a peopleless ‘wilderness’.
A laird-led development of re-wilderness echoes this history. Instead of regarding resistance to these developments as an obstacle to the recovery of nature, they could feed into the development of an approach to nature recovery that takes seriously land justice and the flourishing of peopled landscapes alongside their non-human natures. Because rewilding – without land justice – today, risks redesigning more biodiverse rural landscapes for the enjoyment of the wealthy men who own and visit it.
Heather Urquhart is a second year Politics PhD researcher at the University of Manchester, from the Highlands of Scotland. Her research specialises in decolonial ecofeminism and asserts the importance of land justice in transitions to natural-based climate solutions.