The symbolic planting of a rowan tree has marked the start of a building project that will grow into the world’s first rewilding centre in the Highlands.
The £5.5 million centre at the 10,000-acre Dundreggan estate near Invermoriston will be an environmentally-sensitive educational hub.
With climate change and environmental issues centre stage ahead of the COP26 summit, it also aims to encourage people to connect with nature.
Protecting the ancient forest
The tree planting, ahead of ground-breaking work starting, is a major milestone for Trees for Life that has been developing the idea for three years.
The conservation charity has been working on the estate for 13 years, protecting and expanding fragments of Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest.
It has already seen the regeneration of some trees species such as birch, juniper, cherry alder and rowan.
Golden eagles are breeding for the first time in 40 years and populations of other species, such as black grouse, are beginning to recover.
The rewilding centre, due to open in late 2022, is expected to be a major visitor attraction on the important tourist route from Loch Ness to Skye, eventually attracting up to 70,000 people a year.
It will include a café, classrooms, a 40-bed accommodation building and a Gaelic resource centre to allow people to discover more about the language and culture.
Already £3.5 million of the cost has been raised and a crowdfunding appeal will be launched next month.
Centre director Laurelin Cummins-Fraser said: “In the last year and a half people have realised how important it is being out in nature.
“We think if large-scale ecological restoration is going to be successful, people need to be involved so that communities can thrive alongside nature.”
Trees for Life, which submitted a planning application for the centre last year, says it will allow visitors to explore the wild landscape and learn about the estate’s 4,000 plant and animal species.
This includes several never recorded in the UK before or once feared extinct in Scotland.
A hotspot for wildlife
Outdoor facilities will include fully accessible trails and children’s forest experience area.
Events will be held for visitors and groups with specific needs, including those with physical or learning disabilities.
Ms Cummins-Fraser added: “The centre will offer recreational and educational experiences for people of all ages to enjoy the natural landscape and learn about the forest and rewilding with the accommodation building being used for longer immersive experiences, including volunteering and educational trips.”
Trees for Life chief executive Steve Micklewright said: “The centre is about people. How do we get people to have better contact with nature and get involved more in the change that needs to happen to solve the climate problem and loss of wildlife that it going on around the world?
“This is a hotspot for wildlife so it will be great to share it with more people.”
He welcomes other rewilding projects being developed in the Highlands: “It’s people giving something back. They are realising we can work with nature and not against it.
“More and more landowners are getting interested in this and realising they can make a contribution to the future, so that’s very positive.”
By featuring Gaelic in the centre’s interpretation, it is hoped to help linguistic conservation also by stimulating more interest in the language and culture.
Gaelic writer and broadcaster Roddy Maclean, who is working on the project, has studied Gaelic place names, as well as songs, poetry and local legends.
He said: “If you are going to interpret nature in the Highlands, you really need to engage with the language in some way.
Centre will also help promote Gaelic language and culture
“We hope people will come away from here with a message that there is a great richest in Gaelic language and heritage.
“Like the forests that have fallen to quite a low point and are being regenerated, we hope the same will happen with Gaelic.
“The two work together and we hope it will add to people’s enjoyment and experience here.”
The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre is supported by the Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund, led by NatureScot and part-funded through the European Regional Development Fund, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, SSE Sustainable Development Fund, Audemars Piguet Foundation, FERN Community Funds and Garfield Weston Foundation.
Caroline Clark, director Scotland of The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “Through our conversations with National Lottery players, we know that the natural environment is extremely important to them.
“The funding for the Trees For Life’s Rewilding Centre at Dundreggan means they can play their part in restoring our incredible native woodlands and natural places.
“The link to our Gaelic heritage adds another fascinating dimension to this innovative project.”
Nick Halfhide, NatureScot director of nature and climate change, added: “We have no doubt that visitors will find the rewilding centre and Dundreggan wonderful to explore, with ancient Caledonian pinewoods and rich wildlife.
“This special project, part-funded by our Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund, will help protect and expand Scotland’s nature – work which is crucial at this time, as we face the twin threats of biodiversity loss and climate change.”