Scotland could become first ‘rewilded’ nation—what does that mean?

A movement to return native flora and fauna to the Scottish Highlands is gaining steam. Here’s where travellers can see the work in action.

By Mike MacEacheran
Published 7 Nov 2022, 11:17 GMT
The Alladale Wilderness Reserve, in Sutherland, is one of a handful of places aiming to reintroduce ...
The Alladale Wilderness Reserve, in Sutherland, is one of a handful of places aiming to reintroduce animals, such as wolves, to the Highlands.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic

At the end of the last ice age, Scotland was a truly wild place, where the Highland tiger, a distinctly banded wildcat, and the wolf, lynx, and bear roamed among Caledonian pine forests. The Romans called the country’s north “The Great Wood of Caledon.” But over time, humans purged the land for timber, charcoal, and agriculture. Native species such as wild boar, polecat, and elk vanished. By the turn of the 20th century, only 5 percent of Scotland’s land area was covered by forest.

Now the country is experiencing a zeitgeist moment for rewilding—in essence, the rebuilding of ecosystems to their natural uncultivated states—with new efforts and a matrix of wild lands and natural corridors spreading across the country. The actions of those responsible are aligning and, if successful, would make Scotland the first rewilded nation in the world.

A former hunting estate in Sutherland, Alladale Wilderness Reserve now hosts travelers who come to experience rewilding projects, including planting native trees in the 23,000-acre property’s Glen Mor valley, pictured here.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic
Alladale Wilderness Reserve manager Innes MacNeil and ranger Ryan Munro plant trees along the banks of Abhainn a' Ghlinne Mhoir, in Glen Mor.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic

“Scotland has majestic scenery and beautiful glens, but the ecological completeness has long been greatly diminished,” says Peter Cairns, executive chairperson of the nonprofit Scotland: The Big Picture. “Climate breakdown is one of the principal drivers for rewilding gaining momentum now because it unites everyone.”

Through volunteer programs and immersive overnight experiences, these rewilding organisations are hoping to open visitors’ eyes to what the future could look like. Here are a few places to catch a glimpse.

Into the wild

No one in Scotland can quite agree when the rewilding movement officially began, but one popular perspective sets it in the late 1980s. That’s when environmental charity Trees for Life moved the conversation from preserving individual species and specific habitats—the selective approach to conservation at the time—to reigniting ecological processes with a landscape-scale approach.

Today, Trees for Life is behind the far-reaching Affric Highlands vision, a 30-year blueprint to transform Glens Cannich, Affric, Moriston, and Shiel—a succession of valleys, in the Central Highlands—into an unbroken refuge. More immediately, it’s also responsible for a world first in rewilding.

Alasdair Firth, an ancient-woodland restoration advisor for the Woodland Trust, walks through the 145-acre Rhemore Wild Croft, on the Morvern Peninsula, where he lives with his wife, Sam. The couple are part of a network of landholders in Scotland who are committed to nature recovery and manage the protected agricultural land using sustainable practices.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic

Beginning in spring 2023, travellers who venture west of Loch Ness into Glenmoriston (also Glen Moriston) will be able to experience the immersive Dundreggan Rewilding Centre. Located amid pinewoods and juniper on Trees for Life’s 10,000-acre estate, the campus has been developed to preview the ambitious project and to show visitors ways of seeing nature anew.

This reinvigorated landscape is now home to 4,000 native plant and animal species, including a rush of roe deer, mountain hare, water vole, long-eared bat, otter, and black grouse. The hope is that visitors will be inspired to reengage with nature in new ways at home. For full immersion, the rewilding gateway, with exhibitions and classrooms, will house a 40-bed complex for researchers and volunteers.

Travellers can attempt to galvanise their relationship with everything from pine cones to pipits at Scotland’s most ambitious rewilding project, Cairngorms Connect. Concentrated on a 232-square-mile subarctic plateau in the Cairngorms National Park, the largest in Britain, the multi-landowner enterprise has embarked on a 200-year plan to restore rivers and reseed ancient Caledonian pine forest. Already, visitors can join ranger-led tours and rewilding weekends to help revitalise the landscape. Next year 20 wildcats will be introduced by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland for the first time.

Alladale Wildlife Reserve visitors stay in the main estate and in this cabin backdropped by rolling hills.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic
A guide takes a group of visitors on a walk through the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in northern Scotland.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic

Not all returning native species hide away in gorse-speckled glens. In recent years, according to James Nairne of the Scottish Wild Beaver Group, Eurasian beavers have been reintroduced and translocated to sites such as the Knapdale Scottish Beaver Trail in Argyll and Bute and Argaty Red Kites near Doune, northwest of Stirling. Visitors might glimpse the river-dwellers on an evening canoe safari along the superlative River Tay with tour operator Perthshire Wildlife. At sunset, the scuttling rodents are at their most industrious.

“The Scottish beaver was wiped out 400 years ago and yet there are now around 1,000 thriving back in the wild,” Nairne says. “By having this species reintegrated into our riverlands and lochs, we get more of everything else.”

In a landscape where nature-based tourism contributes nearly 40 percent of all visitor spend, according to government agency NatureScot, new ventures are being driven by other reintroduced species. One is the red kite, which has been reestablished on the Galloway Kite Trail on Loch Ken in Kirkcudbrightshire, while the golden eagle is now being bred in the braided Moffat Hills, thanks to the translocation of 40 raptors by the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project.

Taking aim at the traditional, Victorian-era country sports estates of the Highlands, meanwhile, is Alladale Wilderness Reserve, in Sutherland, 50 miles north of Inverness. Once the sole realm of a dozen or so deer stalkers, the 23,000-acre plot now welcomes roughly 1,500 annual visitors. They arrive, as “wildlife laird” Paul Lister, puts it, to “come to the end of the road, to connect to the environment, and to feel spiritual.”

Mairi Munro pets one of the ponies that reside on the Alladale Wilderness Reserve. The ponies once took visitors on treks through the valley, but the elderly animals are now retired.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic
Once a country estate for deer stalkers, Alladale Wilderness Reserve now draws nature-minded visitors. Owner Paul Lister plans to open a wellness center and a vegetarian restaurant on the property in 2023.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic
A road winds through an otherwise untouched valley in the Alladale Wilderness Reserve.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic

For more than two decades, Lister has sought to influence the shape of the Highlands landscape using his wealth and land, first setting out in 2003 with a vision to reintroduce wild wolves to Scotland, a species that was hunted to extinction by 1680. For him, it is like putting the rabbit back in the magician’s hat.

“The reintroduction of this apex predator triggered unanticipated ecological change in Yellowstone National Park, and it could only be a matter of years before wolves are translocated to Alladale,” he says. “There’s no doubting people would want to see them in the wild here.” Another spark for the local economy could be the reserve’s April 2023 opening of The Willow Centre, a mindfulness retreat, education centre, and vegetarian restaurant newly rooted in a fold of the glen.

For now, Scotland’s wolf is the osprey. The pine marten. The black grouse. This is not Scotland as it once was, and it’s tempting to see a visit to its rewilding Arcadias as a journey back in time, but to a place with a more positive future.

Rolling hills and greenery on the Alladale Wilderness Reserve draw some 1,500 travelers to northern Scotland each year.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic

Mike MacEacheran is an Edinburgh-based travel writer. Follow him on Twitter.

Robert Ormerod is a photographer based in Scotland, who works across the United Kingdom. To see more of his work, follow him on Instagram.



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