Postgraduate Highly Commended: Lessons from Scotland’s rewilding vs. repeopling debate

As a number of authors in ECOS and elsewhere have made clear, rewilding is both an enormously popular and controversial idea.[i] Among other arguments, critics of rewilding point to social scientists’ studies of community perceptions of the concept, several of which have found ambivalence or opposition towards rewilding.[ii] However, these community responses tend to be highly localized and nuanced, limiting the general lessons that can be drawn from them. In contrast, a formalized, national opposition group would provide a sharper image of a more widely applicable, unified set of claims against rewilding and so might go further toward clarifying what—if anything—rewilding advocates can do to broaden their support. Fortunately, Scotland offers just such a lesson. It begins with a map.

Mapping landscape characteristics or perceptions?

In 2014, following several years of advocacy by the John Muir Trust and other organizations,[iii] the Scottish government published a Wild Land Areas map (see Map 1). This map identifies Scotland’s “most extensive areas of high wildness” using criteria such as the “perceived naturalness of the land cover” and “visible lack of buildings, roads, pylons, and other modern artefacts”. The Scottish Government also incorporated consideration of these “wild land areas” into Scottish Planning Policy.[iv]

Map 1: The Scottish Government’s Wild Land Areas map.[v]

Community Land Scotland is the national representative body for more than 100 of Scotland’s community land trusts.[vi] Many of these trusts are located in the Highlands, which contains a large portion of the land designated by the Scottish government as “wild”.[vii] Community Land Scotland has responded to the Wild Land Areas map by publishing several relevant critiques on a page on its website titled “Renewal and repopulation”.[viii] In these critiques, the authors argue that the designation of “wild land areas” erases the long history of human presence and management in the targeted regions in favor of an externally imposed characterization that can inhibit community renewal efforts. As Elizabeth Ritchie of the University of the Highlands and Islands writes: “Recognising that the region is not unchanging, is not natural and unspoilt by human interference, and recognising that wildness is only one construction of Scotland’s uplands is crucial in order to develop policies which consider the multiple needs of the multiple groups who feel so passionately about the rural north”.[ix]

The links between “wild” and rewilding

Community Land Scotland doesn’t limit its criticism to “wild land areas” in general. On the same webpage, the organization also exhibits two papers in which it directly addresses rewilding and links the concept to the ongoing “wild land areas” debate: one piece presents the organization’s objection to Paul Lister’s effort to reintroduce animal species in a “Highland Wilderness Reserve”, while the other is a Position Paper on rewilding.[x] In these writings, Community Land Scotland questions the benefits of rewilding using many of the same arguments presented against the Wild Land Areas map. It depicts rewilding as a vision of the “wild” instead of the revitalization of human communities in a given area. In contrast, the organization argues for an attitude that prioritizes the renewal and repopulation of community-owned lands, including the “re-settlement of once inhabited localities, localities others may perceive as ‘wild’”.[xi] While rewilding and “wildness” linked activities might be welcome in cases where they provide economic or other benefits to communities, people must always come first. The organization concludes its Position Paper on ‘rewilding’ with the view that: “On community owned land, any matters relating to the re-introduction of species, is a matter for the democratic will of the people locally, with a first priority toward the re-introduction of people”.[xii]

In 2018, Community Land Scotland submitted a policy proposal to the Scottish Government that included a petition for a new kind of map: one of “no-longer-existing communities in Scotland”. In the proposal, the organization argues in part that ministers should be authorized to use this map to identify previously populated sites and facilitate their resettlement by still-existing adjacent communities: in other words, to support the “re-peopling” of rural Scotland.[xiii] This proposal stands as a clear counterbalancing measure to both the Government’s Wild Land Areas map and an associated focus on rewilding. While no such government map has yet appeared, Community Land Scotland’s proposal merits attention. The organization represents community owners that together manage more than 550,000 acres with about 25,000 residents.[xiv] Moreover, a sizeable amount of this land is in rural regions that overlap with or border “wild land area” designations and might be likely targets for rewilding. What, then, can we learn from Community Land Scotland’s perspective?

Re-evaluating conservation and community

At least three points stand out. First, despite the John Muir Trust and other rewilding advocates’ efforts to define the term broadly,[xv] the interpretation of rewilding as animal reintroduction continues to serve as a flashpoint in the debate. In spring 2019, I conducted a series of in-depth interviews in one Highland community, where I similarly found that animal reintroduction was the dominant interpretation of rewilding among both community landowners and conservation NGO representatives. Though understandings of rewilding continue to proliferate, the status of animal reintroduction as an early, core feature of rewilding[xvi] and its continual appearance in the media[xvii] seem to hinder advocates’ efforts to expand the term. In response, rewilding advocates might alter their discourse in at least two directions. On the one hand, they could specify their use of the term. If they do not intend to reintroduce animal species, they could say so and avoid the reintroduction debate. If they do intend to reintroduce animal species, they could acknowledge this and make specific arguments for the benefits of reintroduction. On the other hand, if advocates prefer a more general term, they might benefit from adopting an alternative word that does not carry the controversial connotations now present in “rewilding.”

Second, this debate shows that general arguments can lead to simplifications concealing complex, but crucial, details. On the side of repeopling, several Highland residents I interviewed argued that a lack of jobs, rather than housing, is the major impetus for the ongoing depopulation of rural Scotland. Historical research supports this claim.[xviii] Community Land Scotland’s proposal for the government-sponsored re-creation of rural communities would only succeed in instances where economic circumstances could support people in these new communities, interviewees said. Realizing repopulation efforts relies on such place-specific economic considerations. A similar point can be made in relation to rewilding. Although many rewilding advocates have pointed out the potential economic benefits of rewilding,[xix] relatively few examples exist to substantiate these claims. Paul Jepson, a prominent rewilding advocate, has even acknowledged the “reality that nature-based economies are unlikely to generate revenues that can compete with other land use options (e.g. forestry), at least in the short- to mid-term..[xx] Rewilding advocates would likely benefit from either presenting more detailed, context-specific arguments for the economic advantages of rewilding or acknowledging that rewilding is not necessarily economically optimal while emphasizing other types of gains.

Third, rewilding advocates must continue to emphasize the place for people in rewilding projects.While many rewilding advocates have made steps in this direction, the rewilding movement as a whole would do well to increase its focus on participatory decision-making processes that actively empower relevant local communities. Where opportunities exist simultaneously to further rewilding goals and benefit local stakeholders, broadscale participation will likely help decision-makers to identify and appropriately act upon those opportunities. 

A way forward?

In the 2017 lecture, “Wild Land, Rewilding and Repeopling,” published on the Community Land Scotland website, the historian James Hunter imagines the harmonization of these separate interests. He concludes:

Now, instead of trying to visualize what was, I try – being optimistic – to think of what might be.

Away into the future.

When the Highlands have been put right ecologically.

And socially and culturally as well.


In many ways, this task is easier said than done. But by moving beyond the current opposition between “rewilding” and “repeopling,” conservationists, community rights advocates, and other stakeholders might better position themselves to work together on schemes that benefit both people and nature. The process probably wouldn’t be quick or easy, but it could be just.


[i] Andrea Gammon, ECOS 38 (1): Rewilding – A Process or a Paradigm?, ECOS, British Association of Nature Conservationists, 38, no. 1 (2017),; Steve Carver, ECOS 38 (6): #Rewilding, ECOS, British Association of Nature Conservationists, 38, no. 6 (2017),; Jamie Lorimer et al., Rewilding: Science, Practice, and Politics, Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 40 (2015): 39–62.

[ii] Sophie Wynne-Jones, Graham Strouts, and George Holmes, Abandoning or Reimagining a Cultural Heartland? Understanding and Responding to Rewilding Conflicts in Wales – the Case of the Cambrian Wildwood, Environmental Values 27, no. 4 (August 2018): 377–403; Leonith Hinojosa et al., Constraints to Farming in the Mediterranean Alps: Reconciling Environmental and Agricultural Policies, Land Use Policy 75 (June 2018): 726–33.

[iii] John Muir Trust, Scotland’s Wild Land Areas and Planning Policy, John Muir Trust, June 24, 2015,

[iv] Scottish Natural Heritage, Landscape Policy: Wild Land,, 2019,

[v] Scottish Natural Heritage.

[vi] Community Land Scotland, Community Land Scotland Members, Community Land Scotland, 2020,

[vii] Scottish Natural Heritage, Landscape Policy: Wild Land.

[viii] Elizabeth Ritchie, Wild Land: Alternative Insights into Scotland’s Unpeopled Places, 2016; Chris Dalglish, Landscape Justice, n.d.

[ix] Ritchie, Wild Land: Alternative Insights into Scotland’s Unpeopled Places.

[x] Community Land Scotland, Community Land Scotland Response to the Consultation from The European Nature Trust on the Creation of a `Highland Wilderness Reserve’, Community Land Scotland, 2018,; Community Land Scotland, Position Paper on Rewilding, 2017.

[xi] Community Land Scotland, Position Paper on Rewilding.

[xii] Community Land Scotland.

[xiii] Community Land Scotland, Planning (Scotland) Bill: Submission to Local Government and Communities Committee from Community Land Scotland (Community Land Scotland, January 29, 2018); Community Land Scotland, Renewal and Repopulation, Community Land Scotland, 2019,

[xiv] Community Land Scotland, About Community Land Scotland, Community Land Scotland, 2020,

[xv] John Muir Trust, Rewilding: Restoring Ecosystems for Nature and People, John Muir Trust, March 2015,; Rewilding Britain, Rewilding, Rewilding Britain, 2020,

[xvi] Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation, Wild Earth, no. Fall 1998 (1998): 19–28; Josh Donlan et al., Re-Wilding North America, Nature 436 (August 18, 2005): 913–14.

[xvii] Adam Vaughan, Rewilding Britain: Bringing Wolves, Bears and Beavers Back to the Land, The Guardian, September 19, 2014,

[xviii] James Hunter, Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1999).

[xix] Calum Brown, Rewilding – A New Paradigm for Nature Conservation in Scotland?, 2011; Paul Jepson and Frans Schepers, Making Space for Rewilding: Creating an Enabling Policy Environment (Policy Brief, May 2016).

[xx] P. Jepson, F. Schepers, and W. Helmer, Governing with Nature: A European Perspective on Putting Rewilding Principles into Practice, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 2018.

[xxi] James Hunter, Wild Land, Rewilding and Repeopling (University of Edinburgh: Geography Department, May 17, 2017).

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Dolton-Thornton, Nathaniel “Postgraduate Highly Commended: Lessons from Scotland’s rewilding vs. repeopling debate” ECOS vol. 42(1), ECOS 2021, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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