THE figures are startling: one in nine species in Scotland in danger of extinction, almost half, 49 per cent, in serious decline.
There's no doubt this is a nature emergency, so it makes the Scottish Parliament's decision last week not to declare one somewhat baffling. This was a missed opportunity and it will not look good on humanity's c.v.
We have declared a climate emergency, so why not one for nature? It appears the hand of man – and woman – is still shaking when it comes to taking big, bold decisions that may upset certain sections of society.
Nature too often takes second place when it comes to the likes of grouse moors and fish farms and damaging practices like dredging and large-scale peat extraction. There's no use bathing in self-congratulatory praise for signing up to protection clauses for the beaver and hare populations when they are still able to be shot in numbers under licence. Protected status has hardly seen a great reduction in the killing of birds of prey either.
Rewilding is an emotive word. It conjures up visions of the restoration of a natural paradise, yet the objectives can vary wildly. For instance, to which stage in the past do make the reset point? Restoring balance requires the ability to walk a fine line. Flora and fauna have been in a constant state of evolution for centuries without our 'help'. Even with best intentions, the meddling of the species which caused the problem in the first place could be a recipe for further disaster.
Reducing deer numbers would be a start but the suggestion of reintroducing wolves is more romantic than realistic. A wolf pack requires a territory of between 200 and 500 square miles depending on density of prey and human land use. That's a lot of land. You can bet it wouldn't be too long before there was a clamour for a licence to control (ie. shoot) them.
It's not as though the plight of the natural world should have suddenly come as a surprise. It's 60 years since the publication of Ring of Bright Water, but Gavin Maxwell's master class in nature writing still resonates today. Most will remember it as the tale of a man who kept wild otters as pets at his remote house in the west of Scotland, but it's about so much more and the first half of the book is unsurpassed in its portrait of a thriving natural world.
Maxwell was, to say the least, a complex character and many of the attitudes and situations that prevailed were certainly of a different time and sensibility. Yet as the current rewilding debate gathers pace, there is much to listen to in his words. The second book in the trilogy, The Rocks Remain, is slighter, almost feeling as it though it was written under pressure to satisfy a publishing deal. But the third, Raven Seek Thy Brother, is a thing of beauty, ostensibly a lament that the destruction caused by mankind to nature can never be completely undone. He wrote:
'You cannot buy paradise, for it disintegrates at the touch of money, and it is not composed solely of scenery. It is made of what many of us will never touch in a lifetime, and having touched it once there can be no second spring, no encore after the curtain falls. This is the core of our condition, that we do not know why nor at what point we squandered our heritage; we only know, too late always, that it cannot be recovered or restored.'
It may seem pessimistic, but rather than talk of rewilding we should accept that we cannot turn the clock back and instead focus on repairing the natural world and give it a chance to breathe as we move forward.
Wind, hydro and solar power are needed to address climate change, but we should have a smarter, more joined-up policy as to their effectiveness in certain locations. The thoughtless desecration of our glens to wring every penny of subsidy out of every drop of running water should also be more rigorously examined. While smaller scale community wind farms should be welcomed, the planting of trees has to be a priority. I would rather see a forest of trees across our wild land than a forest of giant turbines.
Restoring the balance of nature should start with trees, plants, insects and birds, each thriving in conjunction with each other. Buying a few charity cards or sponsoring mountain clean-ups may make us feel good and temporarily assuage our guilt but we need a greater recognition that this problem needs urgent, practical solutions.
The rural landscape post-Covid may offer an opportunity to create an alternative future more in tune with nature, an ideal time to get to work on that massive repair job. Otherwise, the alternative could be, as Maxwell suggested, our shadow forever lying across the land.
Because I see these mountains they are brought low,
Because I drink these waters they are bitter,
Because I tread these black rocks they are barren,
Because I have found these islands they are lost;
Upon seal and seabird dreaming their innocent world,
My shadow has fallen.