The world’s first rewilding centre in Scotland is tuning into nature’s healing instincts 

written by Sarah Gillespie November 28, 2023
a red roofed conservation centre surrounded by trees

On a new Intrepid trip, travellers can visit the world’s first rewilding centre in the Scottish Highlands with a 250-year vision to bring wilderness back. 

Scotland was once a nation of forests. Seven thousand years ago, 15,000 square-kilometres of woodland – known as the Caledonian Forest – covered these lands, populated by wild cattle, lynx and wolves.  

Over centuries, humans began felling the trees to use for fuel and construction and to make way for farmland. The animals began to die out from hunting and habitat loss – the last wolf is thought to have been shot in 1743. By the 1950s, only one per cent of the original Caledonian Forest remained. 

It’s this destruction that Scotland’s rewilding movement aims to reverse, and it’s that movement that spurred the founding of Dundreggan Rewilding Centre in the Scottish Highlands, about an hour’s drive south of Inverness. The centre is part of an ambitious mission to restore the Caledonian Forest.  

‘It’s about working with nature and not against it,’ says Laurelin Cummins-Fraser, director of the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre. ‘It’s about creating a landscape that can take care of itself, with space for wildlife to flourish and communities to thrive. It will help us boost biodiversity, mitigate climate change and bring wellbeing benefits, for our own and future generations.’ 

After so many years of degradation, however, this process cannot take place by itself. Initial human intervention is needed to restore plant and animal species that have had their numbers seriously reduced or have even gone extinct in the area. 

green trees against a backdrop of rolling hills
Birch trees at Dundreggan Rewiling Centre © Trees for Life

That’s where charities such as Trees for Life come in. Trees for Life was founded in 1993, with the aim of restoring the Caledonian Forest. With the help of donations, they’ve purchased vast swathes of Scottish land for rewilding, including primary (or old-growth) forest sites in Glen Affric. 

They also bought the Dundreggan estate in 2008 where they’ve since been working to reverse centuries of damage caused by the grazing of sheep, deer and goats. They set up the Rewilding Centre in 2022. Over 4,000 plant and animal species now inhabit the park, including water voles, black grouse, roe deer, otters and golden eagles. It’s a glorious landscape, lush with juniper and bog myrtle and criss-crossed with babbling burns (the Scottish term for streams). 

It’s not just about planting trees. Trees for Life has led efforts to reintroduce the native red squirrel to forests in the North West Highlands. The population was decimated by the introduction of American grey squirrels, which carry the deadly squirrel pox virus.  

They’ve also carried out consultations on the feasibility of reintroducing beavers and lynx to Scottish woodland. Reintroducing the lynx could control Scotland’s rampant population of deer, who hamper rewilding efforts by eating tree saplings. 

What you’ll do on a visit to Dundreggan  

Intrepid’s new Premium Scotland trip includes a visit to Dundreggan Rewilding Centre. After a morning cruise on nearby Loch Ness, you’ll head to the centre for a one-hour walk and talk, followed by lunch at the cafe. 

On the tour, you’ll meet a member of the Trees for Life team, who will give an overview of their conservation work. You’ll then follow a footpath to the tree nursery, where 80,000 to 100,000 rare and native trees are grown every year. ‘These are to be planted by us and others at partner sites,’ says Laurelin. ‘We grow Scots pine, oak, birch, juniper, willow, rowan, holly, hawthorn and aspen.’ 

Intrepid travellers can join a guided walk through the rewilding centres grounds © Paul Campbell Photography

After visiting the nursery, you’ll follow a different footpath back to the centre, past ancient oaks and moss-bound forests dripping with lichen. At the centre, you can view displays on the wider rewilding scene. 

Laurelin hopes that the centre will encourage travellers to engage in conservation after their visit. ‘We hope that people will leave Dundreggan feeling inspired; whether that’s to support Trees for Life or other rewilding organisations, or to get involved in similar initiatives where they live and work.’

But it’s a symbiotic relationship: anyone spending time in the wilds of Scotland is sure to feel the benefit to their physical and mental health. Laurelin says, ‘We would like people to feel the benefits from being out in the landscape, encouraging them to explore and connect with nature in their daily lives, and retelling stories they have taken away from the rich cultural connections to the natural landscape here.’

Discover this experience and more on Intrepid’s new Premium Scotland trip. Find out what else is new for 2024 with The Goods.

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