"Look at that. It's what people expect the Scottish Highlands to look like and they consider it beautiful."
I followed the gaze of Innes MacNeill as he pointed along the valley to what was indeed a classic Highlands view. On the flat grassland near the river was a pastoral scene of grazing cows, while the steep sides of the glen were rugged and bare, denuded of trees. A few hours ago I would have called it beautiful but I was now seeing the landscape through different eyes.
I tried to imagine it as it would have been a thousand years ago or more. There would have been forest, home to a wide range of wildlife, including wolves, bears and elk. But, head ranger Innes explained the original forest was cut down over a period of hundreds of years.
I was staying at the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, about 90 minutes north of Inverness. Formerly a hunting estate, its 23,000 acres were bought in 2003 by Paul Lister, who was - and still is determined to rewild a piece of Scotland and restore its biodiversity.
A key part of the rewilding is to plant trees. “We're just short of planting a million trees here, but it's a drop in the ocean," Innes said. “We're not trying to turn back the clock. It's more a case of future-proofing the landscape."
Scotland's trees were principally cut down to be used for boat building or to clear grazing land for sheep. Then, in the Victorian era, large hunting estates became fashionable. The combination of that, plus lack of natural predators, resulted in deer numbers exploding, meaning in turn that there was no chance for trees to grow.
Guests staying at Alladale can book a guided 4WD tour - a kind of safari, Scottish-style. As we drove through the valley, Innes frequently stopped to point out the work he and the team have been doing here. We were following the River Carron and I asked whether there were any plans to reintroduce beavers. “No, not yet. We'd love to of course, but you need trees for beavers. It will be a long while until the habitat is suitable for them.”
Looking at the river, I could see what he meant. There were plenty of young trees but no mature ones. “We have a programme of riparian planting; trees such as alder, willow and hazel,” he said. “Trees are important for rivers as they attract insects and provide cover. Warm rivers are not good for Atlantic salmon. And, with declining numbers, they need all the help they can get.'
We went through gates and entered an area where tree planting had been taking place. Parking the vehicles, we took a walk through the glen, crossing and recrossing the river on stepping stones. A cuckoo provided an echoing soundtrack but on this warm morning the air also hummed with insects. As we turned up a hillside, we passed a thicket, home to a family of chattering wrens, and startled a female black grouse who shot out and flew into a tree. It felt alive, unlike the barren hills we'd seen earlier.
"These are some of the most northerly Scots pines in Scotland,” said Innes, "and we also plant hazel, hawthorn, rowan, juniper and aspen, depending on the soil and the position. There are ten of us who do the planting. We don't want to plant in straight lines; it has to be natural. We're just waving a magic wand as best we can."
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