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The Scottish Desert

There is great beauty in the wild, solitary Highlands, but it can be a haunting sort of beauty. You could walk for miles and never see anything move, except maybe the ripple of a stream and the swaying of grass in the wind.

On my recent hike from the town of Inverie to Fort William, I didn’t see any cattle or sheep. No bugs, no birds, no rabbits, no squirrels. Nothing. Entering the Highlands feels as if you’re entering a deep and otherworldly past. You time-travel well beyond the Neolithic, when humans domesticated animals, and enter the Cambrian, when life hasn’t yet slithered from the sea onto land to breathe air and colonize firm ground.

I’ve now visited several islands of the Hebrides, walked a good hundred miles of the Highlands, and, according to my Scottish family, traveled more of Scotland than many Scots. There’s much I love about the country, but I’d like to discuss one thing that’s disturbed me on each of my hikes.

There just isn’t any biodiversity in Scotland.

The Highlands seem fertile for expansion. They beg to be explored. This sounds romantic, and the empty, grand Highlands make for a pretty picture, I know. But seclusion from all animal species leaves you feeling a bit lost. Imagine walking into a New York City that has no people. That’s how it feels entering a Highlands without any animals.

In his fabulous book Feral, George Monbiot calls for rewilding Britain by reintroducing the species that humans hunted into oblivion thousands of years ago. These species include beaver, bison, elk, wolves, boars, lynx. Some of these are “keystone species,” which are species whose existence enables other species to exist. For example, beavers create ponds, which create habitat for frogs, birds, and insects, which create micro-habitats for other species to thrive.

Monbiot, who lived in Wales, said he became “ecologically bored.” In Wales, like in other parts of Britain, intensive sheep grazing (an animal brought over from Mesopotamia) has completely transformed the British landscape. Sheep chew on and destroy young tree shoots, turning what was lush forestland into a shrubby, grassy, monotonous landscape.

I wasn’t ecologically bored. (I likely would get bored if I lived in such a landscape for years.) Rather, on my hikes, I just felt as if something was oddly, perhaps sadly, amiss. The Scottish Highlands just don’t feel right. And this feeling, at first, was not at all informed by Monbiot’s research or any educational grounding in Britain’s natural history. It’s simply something you feel.

Perhaps this feeling was informed by my own wilderness experiences in Alaska. I’ve lived in Alaska’s Brooks Range for a number of summers. The Brooks are, in many ways, like the Highlands. The Brooks are an unpopulated, shrubby, mossy, grassy expanse of mountains that are only slightly taller than the Scottish hills.

There are two big differences, though: 1. The Brooks, have a much shorter growing season. Alaska gets far less sun, far less rain, and its far colder. This should make the Brooks one of the least habitable places on earth. BUT… 2. The biodiversity of the Brooks Range seems far more lively, diverse, exciting, and plentiful than the biodiversity of the warm and wet Highlands. On a patrol across the Brooks, I’d be sure to see countless migratory birds, millions of mosquitoes, the tracks of wolves, the droppings of moose, a family of white Dall Sheep atop flint-grey mountaintops, a bear and her cubs in the distance, and perhaps a field of lichen chewed down to the nub by a herd of caribou.

On my five-day trip across Scotland, I saw one mouse, one frog, a few raptors flying high in the sky, and a lot of deer. (The deer are part of managed herds, which have no predators except for the gamekeepers and rich clients who pay to hunt them.) That’s it. That may sound like a fair bit, but spread those few animals out of over several days, and over a landscape where I could usually see for miles, and the place just ends up seeming absurdly, tragically, consistently empty.

I walked over mountain passes and looked down at bare valleys that ought to have been covered by forest and alive with boars, wolves, bears, and birds of all colors and sizes. There are indeed a few forests (though in Britain the forests are only 1% of their full range), several of which I walked through. But most of these forests are meticulously planned and hardly wild. The trees have been planted in neat rows, usually a monoculture of sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, and western hemlock. There is essentially no understory to these forests. They’re bare and clear, with no rotting wood (which creates habitats for birds and insects) or just the general thick shrubbery of a normal forest floor.

Yet the ghosts of Scotland’s bygone animal kingdom somehow remain. The Highlands, I thought, call for a lynx, a beaver, bison, and wolves to be introduced. As a foreigner, it may not be my place to meddle in another country’s affairs, but I do think it’s important for we sightseers to help dispel the myth that Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries on earth, when its lands, when looked upon with a little perspective, are in fact diseased, barren, and ugly. And I’ll also say that I believe there’s nothing wrong in speaking up for a foreign ecosystem suffering from mismanagement the same way there’s nothing wrong in speaking up for a foreign people suffering from Apartheid.

In the U.S., we can claim that we still have plenty of our wild animals. But that’s only because our country is so big. Wolves live in Yellowstone, but not South Carolina. Grizzly bears are in Alaska, but not the Great Plains. We have moose in Maine, but in my lifetime they’ve never been to Western New York. Many of our lands are just as depleted of life as the Highlands.

Rewilding is of course important for ecosystems and the animals themselves, but as Monbiot argues, it could enrich our lives with wildness, wonder, enchantment. In Alaska, I have been haunted by the wolf’s howl, terrified by the stare of a grizzly bear, awestruck by a passing herd of caribou. These are moments that stir the soul, pump the blood, and makes us feel alive. To speak from a purely human point of view, they make our lives better.


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