Mapping where the wild things are
The WRi is also looking at places cleared of people during the Highland Clearances
The quality of Scotland’s wilderness is being mapped by a new institute.
University of Leeds’s Wildland Research Institute (WRi) is continuing work its director Dr Steve Carver started several years ago.
The Highlands is a key area for studies by the unit, which is also assessing other wild places across the UK.
Remoteness, numbers of wildlife and how well nature has reclaimed areas previously farmed or inhabited are used as measures of quality.
The WRi is also looking at areas touched by the Highland Clearances.
Starting in the late 18th Century and running into the 19th Century, the Clearances saw townships occupied by generations of families cleared to make way for large-scale sheep farming and the rearing of deer.
Landowners were seeking to “improve” their estates in line with the industrial revolution. Their hope was to make more capital from the land by running shooting estates, or starting industrial-scale livestock farming.
In some cases people who had lived on the land for generations left voluntarily, while others were forcibly evicted and their homes burned and demolished.
This area of research for the WRi has been inspired by Scottish countryside expert Bob Aitken who argues that remote parts of Scotland are not empty, but were emptied.
Dr Carver said: “We are mapping areas where people were removed and also areas that have always been empty.
“This has already thrown up some interesting results.”
He said lands cleared of people could be deemed as being wilder landscapes because of the lack of human inhabitants, but grazing by sheep and deer had, however, affected wildlife.
Scotland is a key area of interest for the new institute
Meanwhile, Dr Carver and Dr Rob McMorran, of the Centre for Mountain Studies in Perth, are planning to hold a conference on wild lands next May.
One of the issues to be thrown open for discussion is “re-wilding”, which involves leaving an area to run wild.
According to the WRi, landscapes where nature takes its own course, like the remoter parts of the Cairngorms, North Pennines and Cambrian Mountains, may be more resilient to problems such as flooding and habitat loss than managed areas such as the Yorkshire Moors.
Leaving natural processes to take over has already been tried on continental Europe.
Dr Carver said: “Following major floods in The Netherlands it was concluded that the rivers were too restricted so they pulled back from the edge of the flood plain, broke dykes and paid people to move.
“The new wider floodplain gives somewhere for the river water to go during flood events and creates a wild, wetland landscape for people and wildlife.”
He said in the UK re-wilding could mean anything from removing man-made channels on a river and leaving it to meander naturally to reintroducing species such as beaver, wolf and bear.