Clan chief first to rewild estate, as he plans to transform ‘beautiful but not natural’ Isle of Skye

A Scottish clan chief plans to be the first to rewild his estate as he hopes to transform the "beautiful but not natural" Isle of Skye with a broadleaf forest.

Hugh MacLeod, the head of the clan, hopes the Medieval fortress Dunvegan Castle will overlook a landscape filled with native trees, red squirrels and beavers.

His project, which has been in the works for years, has just received a £1million grant from the Scottish Government.

A total of 371,875 trees will be planted with different species mixtures to suit the land’s terrain and ecology. The carbon offset is estimated to exceed 40,000 tons over a 65 year period. 

Instead of the pine forests which have come to cover much of Scotland, the focus will be on planting trees which used to grow on the fertile peat soil, including birch, rowan, cherry, willow, hawthorn and sycamore.

While many travel to the Isle of Skye to marvel at its sweeping landscapes, Mr MacLeod argues that the island is effectively a "wet desert", devoid of wildlife and unnatural.

Hugh MacLeod at Dunvegan

He told The Telegraph: "This is a small start, but my hope is that this will encourage others to take on rewilding initiatives to restore Skye’s unnatural ‘wet desert’ landscape which is the legacy of centuries of depredation caused by over grazing and human activity."

Mr MacLeod, who inherited the title of chief in 2009, said the landscape shows that it was an ancient woodland before human activity and over-grazing by animals caused it to become barren.

He explained: "After all, the extensive peatbog on the island is clear evidence of ancient and widespread woodlands. In common with other areas of the Highlands, Skye’s current lunarscape appearance is beautiful, but it is not natural. This project aims to restore this piece of land and it will have a positive ripple effect on the local community beyond the obvious ecological benefits, creating more jobs in sustainable eco-tourism and more rewilding initiatives."

His clan has called the castle home for 800 years, and his project may make the grounds more closely resemble the landscapes his ancestors strode through centuries ago. Mr MacLeod inherited the castle in a state of disrepair and has worked to turn it and the grounds into a successful tourist attraction. Now, it is hoped rewilding can make it both an important carbon sink and biodiverse habitat, as well as improve tourism to the area.

The castle has been in the family for 800 years

Credit: Clay Perry

Rewilding enthusiasts have found somewhat of a foothold in Scotland, which still has some native species now lost to most of the UK, including the rapidly-declining wildcat and red squirrel. Beavers were also reintroduced as a trial in 2009 and have now populated the River Tay. Controversially, while beavers now have protection as a native species in Scotland, the government hands farmers licences to kill them if they get in the way of agriculture.

Country estates have been at the forefront of rewilding efforts, with many across England putting in bids to get beavers in the rivers which go through their land. Many estate owners have looked to Knepp Castle in Sussex for inspiration, which has reintroduced animals including the White Stork.

Rewilding advocate Ben Goldsmith, who sits on the Defra board, said: “Politicians, communities and landowners across Britain are coming to the realisation that restoring the terribly depleted natural fabric of our landscapes offers a pathway for ecological, economic and social renewal. Hugh MacLeod’s ground-breaking nature restoration project at the historic Dunvegan Castle on Skye is one of the most exciting rewilding stories in Britain today.”

Sarah-Jane Laing, CEO of Scottish Land & Estates, commented: “This scheme is testament to Hugh’s vision, drive and ongoing commitment to an environmentally and economically sustainable future, not only for the estate but for Skye and indeed the whole of Scotland. SLE members such the MacLeod Estate, continue to be at the forefront of innovative and progressive land management, making a huge contribution to Scottish prosperity and wellbeing.”

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