Wildland: Inside The Scottish Valley Where Nature Has Been Set Free

Glen Feshie is one of the magnificent valleys on the north-west side of the Cairngorm massif where the forest has been released from the tyranny of grouse and deer. During the deer-stalking centuries of the 1800s and 1900s, there were 50 deer per square kilometre. Now there are one or two, and the critically endangered capercaillie are coming back. This is the place, I’ve heard, to look for the natural treeline in Scotland.

Feshie map

I arrive in the evening, the day before midsummer, and pitch my tent by the river. Scotland’s right to roam allows wild camping to an extent those south of the border can only dream of. The brown water is dark in the depths under the bridge, and cold. In the still-bright sunlight I walk up the valley and come to a spot where the path widens and a vista of sheer grey hills opens out. This was the setting for The Monarch of the Glen, a famous painting by Landseer of a princely 12-point stag framed by the crags above the valley.

Familiar from whisky bottles and Highland kitsch, the image romanticises a landscape devoid of indigenous crofters or trees, devoted to deer and the Victorian love of hunting.

The view looks very different now. The river still sprawls through the depopulated valley, rushing in unruly shallow channels over pale pink and yellow balls of granite; the tops of the moor are still mottled brown and purple with heather, but the valley bottom is a feast of evergreen, and the massed ranks of pines are storming up the side of the hills to find their natural limit. They have been set free. Glen Feshie is an attempt at a new approach to land management: rewilding.

Glen Feshie is the jewel in the crown of Wildland, the private property empire of Danish businessman Anders Povlsen, which is dedicated to rewilding. Wildland was a pioneer in a movement that is now gaining ground. It’s a fact that industrial agriculture and urbanisation have helped annihilate more than 40% of British wildlife during my lifetime (I was born in 1974), depleting the soil to dangerous levels. “Nature recovery” has become a mantra, if not a government priority, across Europe, and political parties now bid to plant more trees than their rivals. Rewilding is both trendy and emotive. Some in the countryside advocate it passionately, others see it as a mortal threat to their culture and history, to an entire way of life.

Ruigh Aiteachain bothy on the Glenfeshie Estate. Photograph: Alan Wilson/Alamy

It seems strange that trees should evoke such extreme reactions, but Glen Feshie poses a fundamental question about land. Without sporting income or productive value as forestry or for commercial agriculture, without the prospect of a financial return, what is land actually for? The simple answer is life. We need land to grow food, but we also need to set aside enough wild land to produce the oxygen and the biodiversity that we require to survive – not to mention wild spaces for the imagination and the soul.

Thomas MacDonnell is probably responsible for the death of more deer than anyone else in Scotland. As the conservation manager of Wildland, it has been his mission to get grazing levels in Glen Feshie down to a number that will allow the trees to regenerate. The thriving forest is a living monument to his efforts. With the success of the programme finally visible on a landscape scale, the tide is beginning to turn in his favour, but it has not been an easy journey.

Close friends from childhood accused him of endangering their jobs. In packed village halls he was shouted down when he tried to explain the rationale behind the deer cull and his 200-year vision for Glen Feshie. Farmers, deer stalkers, ghillies and gamekeepers were anxious about the impact his plans would have on their jobs, their culture.

Glen Feshie in winter. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Since the second world war, government commission after commission had tried to reduce deer numbers but had been unable to persuade or unwilling to enforce a cull on landowners wedded to the income from deer stalking. As a young man Thomas had spent many wet and cold days fencing timber plantations to keep deer out. He understood the mechanics of the ecosystem and was curious about what would happen if the recommendations of successive deer commissions were actually implemented. And when the estate changed hands, he acquired a new boss who was open to his ideas about doing things differently.

There was a moment, a spiritual moment, Thomas recalls, in 2006. There had been three years of low deer numbers, but the pines seemed unwilling to come back. “They were dark days. ‘Bloody hell,’ I thought, ‘perhaps I’m wrong.’” Then, in June of the third year, Thomas was walking in Glen Feshie when he stopped by a familiar granny pine that he had long held to be senescent. All around the old tree were tiny green fingers poking up out of the grass – a ring of seedlings. He looked up into the canopy and saw the most fantastic seed array; the granny was not sleeping at all. “It was as if someone had flicked a switch. They just came. I almost cried! Maybe they had realised someone was trying to help them.”

There are now far more trees on the banks of the Feshie River. Photograph: Peter Mulligan/Getty Images

On a rise beside the River Feshie is Glenfeshie Lodge, where guests pay a lot of money to have a “wild” experience, rather like an African safari. Further on, on the edge of a clearing of ancient pines, the stone bothy at Ruigh Aiteachain is one of a network of mountain huts made available to hillwalkers for free. It has two rough-planked rooms heated by Norwegian cast-iron stoves. Outside is a composting toilet and a bucket beside a cool, clear stream. The midsummer ceilidh that Thomas has invited me to is hardly a dancing party; there is barely room to stand up in the tiny room, baking hot from the roaring wood stove. About 20 people have come to listen to a Gaelic legend sing songs about the old ways.

Margaret Bennett is a singer who has written many books, including Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave. Before she sings, she lays her stick down, takes off her thick glasses and settles herself beside me in front of the stove. Margaret wants to talk about the magic of trees. She tells me how in springtime girls used to wash their hair in buds of birch, and go to church smelling of the tree, how her mother planted a rowan outside their house for luck; it stands there still. We talk of how pine has always been medicinal, its needles used traditionally for fumigating homes, for respiratory conditions.

Thomas Donnell is the conservation manager of Wildland. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Margaret talks of the functioning clan system, where no one had a title deed to any land; the forest and the hills were maintained for the benefit of all. She rues how the monarchs granted land titles to clan chiefs instead of the collective, paving the way for the land to be bought and sold. And for the forest to be transformed from a mythical living place into a standing crop of timber with a value expressed in pounds, shilling and pence. This is the background to her songs: the people and the forests of the Highlands, removed to make way for sheep and deer, and still absent from the hills.

Later, when other guests have arrived and we have eaten several kilos of venison burgers, Margaret sings about the redshank and about a handsome drover with “calves like a salmon” taking Highland cattle across the hills to Crieff with rowan branches plaited in their tails for luck. Margaret has the 20 of us singing along in Gaelic, and there are tears in many eyes by the end.

“So, you see, we haven’t quite forgotten the old ways yet,” says Margaret, her irises flashing the same colour as the half-night of midsummer midnight outside. Keeping the old ways alive means bringing both people, and trees, back to the wild Highlands. Go visit.

This is an edited extract from The Treeline by Ben Rawlence (Jonathan Cape, £20), available from guardianbookshop.com for £17.40. It will be featured on Radio 4’s Book of the Week from 14-18 February

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