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‘If you give nature a chance, it will take care of itself’: speaking to the rewilding staff at Trees for Life

Trees for Life team in the Scottish Highlands

The Caledonian Forest has been a part of Scotland’s landscape since the ice age, but today it is sadly only at 1-2% of its original size. Trees for Life is a highland based rewilding charity. They supports the recovery of endangered pine woods and aid in the regeneration of the Caledonian Forest.

Trees for Life is committed to working with nature instead of against it, and restoring Scottish wildlife for future generations to enjoy. Their team operates out of Dundreggan Rewilding Center, a 10,000 acre estate, and they invite visitors to experience nature walks, expert guided tours, workshops, and much more.

Steve Micklewright, the CEO of Trees for Life, and I chatted about all things rewilding, forests, Scotland, and what our favourite highland animals are (his is the crested tit, reminiscent of his 80s hairstyle)… 

Hey Steve, can you tell me a little about what rewilding is and what the benefits are?

“So, rewilding is the act of restoring an area to its natural state and at Dundreggan, we especially focus on restoring the forestry of the Highlands. 

“The reason rewilding is so important is that, when one aspect of nature returns, in our case the trees, the rest comes back as well. We’ve been rewilding for 15 years at Dundreggan and golden eagles and black grouse have come back, with more species to follow.

“Another thing is rewilding helps to lock away carbon. Nature naturally captures carbon, so when you’re restoring peatlands and forests, you’re encouraging this natural activity to continue this cycle and that’s especially important when dealing with the current climate emergency.

“Our rewilding efforts don’t just include regenerating forests, we’re also working hard to create new populations of red squirrels, and advocating for the return of beavers in these parts as well. Of course, all this work also creates jobs: when we bought Dundreggan it only had one member of staff, and now, we’re a team of 50. Rewilding isn’t just good for nature, it’s good for people as well.”

Can you tell me more about the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre?

“Dundreggan is our flagship rewilding estate in Glenmoristen. It’s our Rewilding Centre and home to our tree nursery, where we grow around 80,000 trees a year from seeds. 28 of our staff work here on a regular basis, but a lot of our rewilding efforts are also achieved by the help of hundreds of volunteers every year during our Conservation Weeks. Engaging people in our work is fundamental to its success and that’s part of the reason the Rewilding Centre is so important.

“It sits within the Affric Highland area, and the Affric Highlands is a 30-year rewilding initiative potentially covering over 500,000 acres of the central Scottish Highlands – making it the UK’s biggest rewilding project. We, at Trees for Life, are leading this initiative in partner with local landowners and communities.”

How do you take care to make sure your facilities are sustainable?

“The centre itself was designed to fit into the landscape. We built it in such a way that over time the centre, and even the car park, will start to feel like you’re entering the forest. Our facilities are slightly apart from the Caledonian Forest, and our hope is that the forest will start to move in as the area matures and the centre will sit naturally in its setting.

“As we were building, we were careful to bring in as many natural elements as possible. All the timber was locally sourced and we use heat pumps and solar sails to heat and power the centre. We’ve made sure the centre is as net zero as we can possibly make it with the money and resources we have available.”

Glen Affric in the Scottish Highlands

Image source:Trees for Life

How important to you was locating local materials and workers?

“It’s been really important to us. Where we can and as much as possible we worked with local contractors, all based in the Highlands, and a lot of our staff is local to the area as well. We had lots of choices around the timber and we chose to source it locally rather than importing it overseas. It would have been cheaper to import it actually, but we wanted to use Scottish timber. It cost us more in money, but less in environmental impact.”

Can you tell me a little bit more about the Wild Pine Project?

“The Caledonian Forest is only at 1-2% of the level it once was, but in 2018 we became aware of 84 little patches of pine wood, what we call remnants, and we wanted to understand the condition of these trees and how we could help them.

“Now, we’ve made proposals to finally start doing something about it. So, the remnants need fences around them to protect them from deer, which eat young trees. A lot of trees are 200 years old and they’re on their last legs. They need to spread their seeds and let their successors, their children if you will, grow.

“The other thing we want to do is give space for the pine wood to move, and it sounds odd but forests move around in time, and what we’re seeing with Climate Change is that some areas are becoming too warm for the pines, so we need to create space for them to move to cooler areas. The Wild Pine Project also works to discover pine woods that haven’t been registered yet, what we call ‘lost woods’. 

“Wild Pine is all about saying that there’s pine woods out there that need to be found and need to be helped, and once we’ve done that, those habitats will spread across Scotland and will naturally start to regenerate the Caledonian Forest that we know and love.”

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What can our Contiki travellers expect while visiting Dunreggan Rewilding Centre?

“The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre is all about telling the story of the Caledonian Forest and also Gaelic culture. Both of these have been on the same journey: Caledonian Forest has been on a decline, Gaelic culture has also been on a decline, but the two are on a bit of a revival. When you visit the centre you’ll see our Sacred Tree, a large recycled metal structure, which welcomes you into the centre and then there’s all the information displays, how everything works, etc. and the links between the forest and Gaelic culture.

“When you visit, we’ll take you on tours of the grounds, of our tree nursery, and our experts will explain all about the centre and the happenings there. For us, it’s all about coming, even if you only have an hour, you can come in, have a look around, go for a short walk, see the waterfall, see the Caledonian Forest, have a cup of tea, and just discover what we’re all about; the process from seed, to sowing, to growing.

“A fan favourite is of course booking walking tours in the forest where a member of staff can point out all the amazing creatures, particularly the little creatures that you may not spot unless you know where to look.”

What do you hope people learn from their experience at Dundreggan Rewilding Center?

“Mostly that, yes, nature is beautiful, but it could be a lot more beautiful if we allowed nature to recover. If we give nature a chance it can be so much richer – and we can all be part of that journey. 

“For me, rewilding is all about hope, and I can be par of that if I choose to be.”

Team at Trees for Life Rewilding pine woods

Image source:Trees for Life

How can visitors implement what they’ve learned at Dundreggan in their daily lives? Particularly our city-slickers.

“It may come as a surprise but there are actually a lot of really simple things to do. One is wildlife gardening, and that can be something as simple as a window box. If you live in an urban area, think about pollinators and plant flowers that attract butterflies and bees. If you have a garden, building something like a little pond is also an option. It’s all about tailoring what you can to nature.

“In my garden, I’ve planted an oak tree, and my hope is that one day when it starts to set acorns, the squirrels and jays will scatter the acorns around the forest and grow more. Over the time, the forest will become what it wants to be.

“At Trees for Life we work in big areas, 10,000 acres, but you can do it from your window.”

What’s your favourite part of your job?

“I just love the feeling that we’re all making a difference. We call Dundreggan a beacon of hope and it’s not just hope for nature, it’s hope for people as well.

“We’re looking back at the past to see a different future. Nature tells us what it should be if you know where and how to look, it tells us what it wants to do and we’re just giving it a helping hand, and that’s really inspirational to me, seeing that change happen.”

What do you think people and nature can do for each other?

“A lot of people say rewilding means excluding people from where you’re rewilding and I think that’s completely the wrong idea. People have always been a part of the landscape and nature, so as we rewild we should be including people in that.

“If I wasn’t spending as much time in nature as I am, I would go a bit nuts quite frankly, I wouldn’t be balanced. Being in nature helps you find that balance in your life. We learned this during Covid, and there’s loads of psychological research as well surrounding how being outside makes you feel better. The more nature around you, the better you feel. 

“Rewilding is about embracing people and nature together.” 

Trees for Life rewilding centre in Scottish highlands

Image source:Trees for Life

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