The secret to successful rewilding isn’t the trees, it’s the people – Mother Jones

Volunteers from Trees for Life in Glen Affric, as part of the Affric Highlands program, which covers habitats between the west coast of Scotland and Loch Ness. Trees for life

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This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Office collaboration.

Hunter, ecologist and psychologist are working on a rewilding project. It sounds like the start of a joke, although the antics of this unlikely trio did not end in a punchline but one of the UK’s biggest land restoration projects.

They collaborated in the Affric Highlands Program, which covers a range of forests, peatlands, mountainous, riverine and coastal habitats between the west coast of Scotland and Loch Ness. The goal of the project, announced this week, is to rewild half a million acres (200,000 hectares) of land, rewilding the people who live there.

Conservation Officer Alan McDonnell, who works for the charity rewilding Trees for life, led the project, formerly known as East West Wild. He has spent over two years seating land managers, animal stalkers, millionaires and farm workers around a table and talking about the return of wildlife to the earth. “We wanted to talk to as many people as possible before making it a public event, so people didn’t feel like they had to be a part of it,” McDonnell says.

Rewilding is often seen as an attempt to drive people, especially farmers, away from the land. In many rural communities, talking about rewilding gets a response similar to insulting someone’s mother. “For some people, just the Trees for Life badge, or the word ‘rewilding’, means that’s it … I might be here talking to you, but we’re not really having a conversation,” explains McDonnell, who called psychologist Paul. Howell to help.

I meet Howell on the Dundreggan Estate, where work is underway to build a state-of-the-art rewilding center with 40 bed accommodation, event spaces, classrooms and a cafe.

Howell says environmentalists and rewilders often think they can convert people to their point of view using a science-based approach, a “campaign and crusade mindset.” It alienates people and makes them do the opposite of what you want, he says. “Science has information that is deeply useful. But using that to threaten people and hit them over the head is not going to get them where they want to go.

“If you exclude people with whom you need to connect and influence, then you’re in a kind of delusional bubble where you’re right and they’re wrong,” he says. “You don’t know them well enough. Until you’ve developed the maturity to listen to people – and really listen, don’t listen until they stop talking so that you can then tell them what to do – you’re just delusional.

Howell says he didn’t want to be a “secret weapon” for McDonnell’s team. His client was Scottish wildlife, and if he could facilitate the conversations that led to the ecological restoration, that was ‘the job’ for him. If the rewilders are truly aligned with the landscape, they will seek every possible opportunity to engage with the people who are connected to it, Howell believes.

He told McDonnell that instead of seeing Trees for Life as an organization capable of planting trees, he needed to plant a vision of rewilding in communities. Talking about rewilding should be like dating someone, in the sense that you approach someone with genuine curiosity and a desire to understand what they’re feeling and how they’re thinking, he says.

Psychologist Paul Howell, who worked with Trees for Life to persuade landowners and the community to support the Affric Highlands rewilding project in Scotland.


Howell welcomes conflicts in meetings because they are meaningful, fruitful, and make a difference. When people are aggressive towards McDonnell, Howell tells him to get their number and have a cup of tea with them, look around their farm and understand their point of view. “It’s a radically different attitude. I really believe it’s not passive, it requires more of an individual in terms of creativity and maturity… it’s a real kind of genuine commitment to something bigger than themselves.

“I don’t think it’s a rewilding the way most people think it is, I think it’s really visionary,” says Howell, who is optimistic about the results of this project. Already McDonnell owns about 25 percent of the land, roughly 124,000 acres, managed by people who signed up for the Affric Highlands project and the hope is that more will join after its official launch. The UK’s largest restoration project is Cairngorms connection, which covers approximately 158,000 acres.

Later that day I am sitting in a house on a hill. It is owned by Pete Smith, a hunter who worked in petroleum for 40 years. McDonnell asked Pete to speak to naturally skeptical hunting and fishing communities about how Affric Highlands could help them.

Smith has no interest in rewilding if that means fewer people. What he wants are these landscapes filled with young families, as in the old days. He was initially skeptical of rewilding, but sees it as an upgrading mechanism and a way to tackle large-scale rural poverty.

“The economic fallout from rewilding could be that we have a lot more people working in rural areas, living sustainable lives, it all becomes a virtuous circle,” he says. A recent report from Rewilding Britain England’s 5 percent rewilding could create nearly 20,000 rural jobs, increasing employment by 50 percent compared to intensive agriculture.

Smith also wants to be able to catch healthy fish and deer. “Conservation is an important part of anyone serious about fishing and shooting, or a deer tracker. There’s a tremendous amount of work to do, and it’s pretty much invisible … If you have to spend all day scratching to catch a tiny fish, or a skinny little deer you’re stalking, it’s not the one. better. “

Planting trees next to rivers creates better habitat for young fish and a more nutrient-rich river that can support larger fish, which would be better for angling businesses. People who want to shoot larger, healthier deer, living in a more wooded landscape, should support this project, Smith said.

There is no mention of the reintroduction of wolves and lynxes, as this creates unnecessary conflict and simplifies rewilding. This project is about the land and maximizes the amount of nature it can support, with job creation, tourism, natural capital and the ability to monetize that. It also aims to improve the habitat of existing native species, including the mountain hare, otter, osprey and short-eared owl.

“You might look at these people and think they’re unlikely partners,” McDonnell says. “And we say, despite this vague and unexpressed gap between us, there is actually energy there, and that’s something we could get out of it. There are many ways to make better use of the land and increase what it can offer. “

Green initiatives are getting more and more funding, and that’s another way McDonnell is encouraging people to get involved. Those who wish to plant trees can get funding for carbon offset units, and if they plant trees on agricultural land, they get additional funding through the forest carbon code. The Scottish government has $ 343 million, 10 years package to fund peatland restoration, with the goal of restoring approximately 618,000 acres by 2030.

McDonnell wants to raise awareness of opportunities to attract funding, while tackling climate and natural emergencies. He believes people working in tourism or selling products could have an Affric Highlands logo to show they are part of the initiative.

Large rewilding projects have failed in the past due to a breakdown in communication between groups with different interests. Donors support $ 4.7 million Welsh Summit to Sea rewilding project withdrawn due to insufficient attention to the interests of local populations. Rewilding Britain then withdrew, saying there should have been better communication that it is ‘community run and owned’.

Elsewhere in Northumberland, efforts to reintroduce the lynx have also stalled, with the National Farmers’ Union complaining that the concerns of farmers and locals were not taken into account. The government body for wildlife, Natural England, said only plans taking into account socio-economic impacts will be approved.

Howell believes this restoration project will be different because he works with communities extensively, not just to tick a box. “Affric Highlands won’t be that complicated with a lot of money, and you never hear about it again,” he says. “It will be a process of regeneration that will start from the communities. “

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