Endangered species are flourishing once more in the Scottish Highlands. With The Balmoral in Edinburgh as your base camp, go hiking, kayaking and immerse yourself in the great outdoors – thanks to ambitious projects designed to protect Mother Nature.
Following centuries of dwindling tree and wildlife populations, communities are now taking ownership of the future of their forests. The results of these efforts are palpable and can be experienced on a two-day trip from The Balmoral.
Renewed focus on rewilding Scotland is largely thanks to locals such as Alan Watson Featherstone. Recognising that the forest is an “intricate web of life”, Alan founded Trees for Life in 1986. His aim? To revitalise the remote Caledonian Forest, which sprawled across the Highlands 7,000 years ago.
From small seedlings, mighty forests grow
Realising the importance of re-planting, Alan explains that his “first substantial project was the fencing of 50 hectares with the Forestry Commission in 1990. This enabled 100,000 naturally-occurring Scots pine seedlings to grow without deer eating them.”
Since 2016, Trees for Life has relocated native red squirrels – which are near threatened in England. The group’s work today includes planting juniper and pine seedlings on its 4,047-hectare Dundreggan estate. The grounds overlook River Moriston, whose waters run between Fort William and Inverness before flowing into Loch Ness.
Greening a wildlife corridor
What does the future hold? The Trees for Life team is thinking big. The visionaries intend to restore not just individual species or habitats, but entire ecosystems, to their natural state. By connecting the Cannich, Affric, Moriston and Shiel valleys over the next 30 years they’ll create a wildlife corridor – one of 10 official rewilding spots in Europe.
Increasing wildlife numbers may even extend to the Eurasian lynx, which once roamed freely alongside wolf, bear and elk. They’re working with the Vincent Wildlife Trust to assess whether the lynx can – and should – be reintroduced to the region.
Alan adds, “I feel honoured to have made a positive difference to the future of the Caledonian Forest, to have helped develop the UK’s whole field of ecological restoration and to have touched the lives of thousands of volunteers, some of whom have gone on to found similar projects elsewhere.”
Other organisations that have joined Scotland’s conservation conversation include Cairngorms Connect, which put a 200-year plan in motion in 2016 to restore rivers and reseed 600 square kilometres of ancient pine forest in Cairngorms National Park. Meanwhile, the Scottish Wild Beaver Group has reintroduced Eurasian beavers in Argyll and Bute and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is set to introduce 20 wildcats.
Inspired to go into the wild?
Perthshire Wildlife, an hour and 20 minutes by car from Edinburgh, hosts regular canoe safaris where you may spot otters, kingfishers and playful beavers. You can also volunteer to record swifts, rescue trapped amphibians, remove invasive plants or plant pollinator-friendly flora in ponds.
From there head north, via Pitlochry and Fort Augustus to the south-west of Loch Ness, to arrive at Glenmoriston. Here, from spring 2023, you can visit Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Rewilding Centre, home to a packed programme of exhibitions and workshops. You can also take part in red squirrel monitoring days and guided walks.
If you catch a glimpse of movement in the woods on your next wild Scottish adventure, it could be a red squirrel or an otter – and one day it may even be a lynx.
Set in the heart of Edinburgh, The Balmoral is a comfortable base for legendary road trips and nature explorations around the Scottish Highlands.