On 20 August 2021, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that she had reached a cooperation agreement between the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Scottish Green Party. Under the cooperation agreement, the SNP and Scottish Greens will work together in Holyrood to advance their common legislative priorities. The Greens will also be assigned two ministerial roles in the Scottish Government.
This presents the tantalizing prospect of a more coordinated rewilding strategy in Scotland. Rewilding – “the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself” – has long been a priority of the Scottish Greens. In February 2021, Alison Johnstone, then Co-Leader of the Greens in the Scottish Parliament, declared that Scotland should become the world’s “first rewilding nation.” Furthermore, the most recent Scottish Green manifesto, released in April, committed the party to push for the rewilding of 30% of all publicly owned land in Scotland should it get into government.
Although there is no formal rewilding pledge in the recently formed cooperation agreement, in contrast to clear commitments to review Scottish oil and gas extraction and to expand onshore wind capacity, the Scottish Greens will have more leverage than ever to push for their legislative priorities should they choose to do so. Indeed, even outside government, in March 2021, the party was able to force the SNP to establish a £10 million nature restoration fund in exchange for supporting the Government’s budget. Clearly, then, the cooperation agreement between the SNP and Scottish Greens presents an enormous opportunity for rewilding advocates.
The potential ecological benefits of rewilding have been extensively litigated. In perhaps the most famous example of rewilding, the ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park became substantially more balanced after the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. The wolf population of the area had previously been driven close to extinction by human activity such as hunting, which resulted in a massive augmentation of Yellowstone’s elk population, previously the wolves’ prey. This, in turn, resulted in overgrazing, which then contributed to a loss of habitats for birds and beavers. After just fourteen wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, however, the ecosystem returned to a more balanced state.
Scotland could experience many of the same benefits from a concerted rewilding programme. For example, the Scottish Green Party manifesto committed to “the gradual reintroduction of species native to Scotland where appropriate and in cooperation with local communities, including a lynx reintroduction trial.” Human activity pushed the lynx to extinction in Scotland centuries ago, but its reintroduction could have a similar impact on Yellowstone’s wolves, by preventing overgrazing by roe deer. This would, again, help to recover an ecosystem that has lost its balance as a consequence of human activity.
These ecological benefits are significant in themselves. The world is facing a massive biodiversity crisis, as human activity threatens around one million species now at the border of extinction. However, rewilding can also assist in the fight against climate change. It is estimated, for example, that reforesting one quarter of Scotland’s landmass – admittedly, an ambitious goal – would capture 10 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year. That would reduce Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 25%. Unlike many other intensive carbon reduction strategies, however, rewilding could have notable economic benefits. Nature tourism already contributes £1.4 billion to Scotland’s economy, for example, and it is also estimated that rewilding could significantly reduce the yearly cost of flood damage.
In all, then, the cooperation agreement between the SNP and Scottish Greens heralds a crucial opportunity to push forward the cause of rewilding. Given the scale of the twin biodiversity and climate crises that threaten life on this planet, it would be a great shame to let such an opportunity pass.