The Big Picture conference

Bringing re-wilding to life

Bringing re-wilding to life

Taking place at the University of Stirling’s Macrobert Arts Centre, the Big Picture Conference explored the potential for re-wilding large parts of Scotland, with inspirational stories and experiences from around the world presented by practitioners, policymakers and storytellers.


Gresham House’s Acquisitions Director – Forestry, Jason Sinden, was invited to attend the conference as a guest and reports back on what he learnt – and to what extent it is reflected in operations within our forestry business. Re-wilding is a very hot topic in the industry and beyond and tickets for the conference quickly sold out. A broad range of presentations took place, representing a really diverse spectrum of views.


Eurasian lynx are often considered as the most likely candidate for re-introduction to Scotland.

A place for nature

At the very core of the conference was that there are a range of opinions as to what exactly re-wilding is. One interpretation, as set out by Sean Gerrity, is that we need to find places to be left for nature. His plan is to build a ‘prairie reserve’ of around 3.5 million acres in Montana which will be ‘restored’ to its condition prior to European settlement. So far, he has secured 412,000 acres.

The bison are back, and grizzly bears and wolves are on their way. He described how he has gradually built local support and how indigenous Americans have welcomed the re-introduction of the bison. Although the reserve will be vast, in the global context, it is the minimum size necessary to develop a fully functioning grassland ecosystem with the “mind-blowing abundance” which characterised this area until a few hundred years ago. Sean is a powerful speaker and he argued his point passionately and eruditely.

…close to people

Despite Europe and the UK being relatively small and densely populated compared to continental North America, rural depopulation and other social changes entail there now being a great opportunity for re-wilding projects. Frans Schepers described just some of the projects currently being carried out in continental Europe, where the forests are returning, as grazing pressure declines. Indeed, every major mammal, from wolves to beavers and everything in between, is making a comeback. Even Belgium has wolves now.

Reversing historic destruction

Scotland is an interesting case study into how aggressive deforestation destroyed the productive potential of the soil, eventually leading to de-population. Jeremy Robert of Cairngorms Connect described how they are gradually trying to put this back to together and the importance of building connected habitats. Already, they have 11 species of raptor and have found that natural processes are now starting to do much of the work for them. However, it will take 200 years to repair the damage.

Producing food

Lynn Cassells explained how farming systems can work with nature to produce high quality food and restore the environment, detailing how her photogenic native pig breeds and Highland cattle have a great life – with ‘one bad day’. After all, humans are omnivores and part of the natural environment.

Nature all around us

Sir John Lister-Kaye described a long list of native animals seen at his field centre in the Highlands and described the important conservation work undertaken. He also made the point that we, as a society, need to move away from the concept of nature reserves – instead, nature should be all around us. Reflecting on his comments I noted that every single species he mentioned – from wildcat, to white-tailed eagle to pine marten – is found in our productive forests.

The role of productive forests

David Hetherington is the recognised expert on lynx in the UK, which is the current ‘poster boy’ for the re-wilding movement. Lynx have re-colonised many areas of Europe and have been re-introduced to several areas, including some densely populated regions without major problems. David explained the ecological role which lynx play in forests, as ambush predators specialising in roe deer.  Productive forests are an ideal habitat for them as the structural diversity provides them with the range of habitat types they need as well as an abundance of prey. The re-introduction of a large predator is opposed by many sheep farmers and David recognised the need to bring these key stake-holders on board. He presented a number of case-studies to estimate lynx predation on sheep. Sheep predation ranges from 200 per year in Sweden (requiring verification) to 10,000 in Norway (where no verification is required).

David explained why the situation in Scotland is expected to be much closer to that of Sweden, where sheep are grazed in open fields. Lynx also kill and eat foxes, and this has been found to reduce predation on a range of species.

The salmon need trees

Pete Higgins explained the importance of aquatic ecosystems and the essential role that woodland can play. For example, in productive forests, broadleaved woodland along watercourses produces a range of leaves which act as the main food-source for upland streams as well as dappled shade and cool, clean water. This supports the whole ecosystem all the way to the salmon.

The other big picture…

This conference was focused on conservation per se.  However, at the same time, we need to produce raw materials in sustainable fashion. As we transition away from fossil fuels, we will need to produce an increasing proportion from the land. Timber can be used to produce a huge range of materials for use in construction, packaging, energy, clothing, industrial products and even food. By using good management, we are able to produce sustainable raw materials and a place for nature.

At Gresham House, we produce around 1 million tonnes of timber per annum, all from sustainably-managed forests, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Our forests are living proof that, when well managed and maintained, nature and timber production can happily co-exist. This is just as well, as we only have one planet.


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