Planting a vision: why the secret to rewilding success is about people, not trees
How do you persuade farmers and the local community to join one of Scotland’s biggest land restoration projects? Call in a psychologist.
Ahunter, conservationist and psychologist are working on a rewilding project. It sounds like the start of a joke, though the antics of this unlikely trio have not ended in a punchline but one of the UK’s largest land restoration projects.
They have been collaborating on the Affric Highlands scheme, which covers an array of woodlands, peatlands, montane, river and coastal habitats between the west coast of Scotland and Loch Ness. The aim of the project, announced this week, is to rewild half a million acres (200,000 hectares) of land – by rewilding the people who live in it.
Conservation manager Alan McDonnell, who works for the rewilding charity Trees for Life, has been leading the project, formerly known as East West Wild. He has spent more than two years getting land managers, animal stalkers, millionaires and farmhands to sit around a table and talk about getting wildlife back to the land. “We wanted to speak to as many people as possible before making it a public thing, so that people didn’t feel as if they were pressured into being a part of it,” says McDonnell.
Rewilding is often perceived as trying to remove people – particularly farmers – from the land. In many rural communities, talking about rewilding gets a similar response 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 actually having a conversation,” says McDonnell, who called in psychologist Paul Howell to help.
I meet Howell on Dundreggan estate, where work is underway to build a state-of-the-art rewilding centre with 40-bed accommodation, events spaces, classrooms and a cafe.
Howell says conservationists and rewilders often think they can convert people to their view using a science-based approach, a “campaign and crusade kind of mentality”. This alienates people and makes them do the opposite of what you want, he says. “Science has information that is profoundly useful. But using that to kind of threaten people and bash them over the head isn’t going to get them where they want to go.
“If you are excluding people that you need to connect with and influence, then you’re in some kind of delusional bubble that you are right and they are wrong,” he says. “You don’t know enough about them. Until you’ve developed the maturity to listen to people – and genuinely listen, not listen until they stop talking so you can then tell them what to do – you’re just delusional.”
Howell says he didn’t want to be some “secret weapon” for McDonnell’s team. His client was Scottish wildlife, and if he could facilitate conversations that led to ecological restoration, that was ‘job done’ for him. If rewilders are really aligned with the landscape, they will be looking at every possible opportunity to engage with the people entwined with it, Howell believes.
He told McDonnell that rather than seeing Trees for Life as an organisation that can plant trees, it had to plant a vision for rewilding in communities. Talking about rewilding should be like “dating”, in the sense that you approach someone with genuine curiosity and the desire to understand how they’re feeling and how they think, he says.
Howell welcomes conflict in meetings because it’s meaningful, fruitful and makes things happen. When people are aggressive to 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. “That’s a radically different attitude. I really believe it’s not passive, it demands more of an individual in terms of their creativity and maturity … it’s a true kind of authentic commitment to something larger than himself.
“I don’t think it’s rewilding in the way most people think about rewilding, I think it’s truly visionary,” says Howell, who is optimistic about how much this project will achieve. Already, McDonnell has about 25% of the land, 50,000 hectares being managed by people who have signed up to the Affric Highlands project and the hope is that more will join after its official launch. The UK’s largest restoration project is Cairngorms Connect, which covers 64,000 hectares (158,000 acres).