Interview for an article in the Scotsman on 5th July:
1. Why Bunloit Estate? What attracted to you this particular parcel of land and how does it fit in to your rewilding vision?
Beyond the fact that I have loved the Highlands since I was a youth-hosteling boy, I was amazed by the mix of habitats within such a relatively small area. The estate is a collage of broadleaf woods, native Scots pine woods, mixed woodland, non-native coniferous woodland, peatland and pasture – all within 511 hectares. It is already a net carbon sink, but I am excited by the prospects for making it much more so, while growing biodiversity at the same time.
- Why is rewilding of the Highlands required?
The more I have learned about ecology in recent years, the more I have come to realise that the old land-use models are broken. In particular, overgrazing by deer and sheep, and monoculture conifer plantations on drained peat, are bad for biodiversity, carbon emissions, and sustainable rural livelihoods
- What is your vision for the estate and what kind of timeline are you looking at? Are there any key targets or aims I can write about?
The mission of the Bunloit Wildland project, as I am calling it, is to try and create an examplar of local solutions leadership via land use in a biodiverse, wilding, growingly beyond-zero carbon sink. That’s bit jargon-rich, but it is a succinct summary of my hopes. In terms of the current big news themes, in my eyes the project is all about new tools for restructuring economies to fight the climate crisis and build back better after the Covid crisis. It is also a Highland vision: backing an economy with a good chance of doing well while playing a lead role in saving the planet. That chance is not so good down in England, I fear, though I hope to be proved wrong.
As for targets and aims beyond the general, I want them to be rooted in solid numbers, so that is going to have wait for monitoring to start. My challenge is to make the estate a successful business so that folk can see real-life evidence of how new approaches to land management can lead to prosperity with a social purpose, and create new livelihoods. Bunloit will also be a kind of open natural laboratory for researchers who can help with carbon and biodiversity quantification. In this respect I have exciting collaborations under discussion with the Universities of Edinburgh and the Highlands and Islands.
- Do you think you will move there?
I already have. I closed the purchase of the estate at the end of February and moved in on March 21st. Interesting timing. I wasn’t expecting the warmest of welcomes, but that is what I have had from local folk without exception so far. I have already been invited on to a project committee of the wonderfully-named GURCA – the Glenurquhart Rural Community Association.
- I know things are in the early stages but are there any examples of projects you want to prioritise on taking the reins at Bunloit?
I have steep learning curves to go up, and I’m determined not to do anything dumb. So I am giving myself a full year of conferring with as many relevant stakeholders as possible, especially in the Highlands, before arriving at a final masterplan. Then I am leaving another few months before launching the project (in April 2021). That’s going to be a bit difficult for a “just do it” entrepreneur like me. But this project has the potential to inspire a lot of people around the world, I believe, if it limits its mistakes to small ones.
- Do you think there will be benefits to the local area to stem from your rewilding plans? How far will the local community be involved in what is happening there, if at all?
I am aiming for an exemplar of local leadership in the biggest problems of our times. Therefore there has to be a lot of local involvement. Expect to see “Bunloit rangers” working on the estate and leading walking tours round the wildland for small groups of eco tourists, with preference given among applicants for local folk. Expect to see a small number of eco-homes built on the estate, by amazing local timber construction company Makar, sold with small parcels of land for home farming, with preference given to locals, ideally employed on the estate. And so on.
An important declaration of interest. I love Makar so much that I have invested in it, and now sit on the board. It reminds me of the solar company I founded, Solarcentury, in the phase before we and our market took off exponentially. I hope to live through a second victory in disrupting an environmentally-destructive incumbency in the years ahead. Makar CEO Neil Sutherland and I hope to “breed” any success we have in Bunloit elsewhere in Scotland, and beyond. If we begin to do that, expect to see a big new factory in Inverness, and – pardon the pun – a shedload of exciting new jobs. That would be a flagship for the green new deal in action.
Further questions for an article in the Independent on 5th July:
7. Are there any species in particular you are hoping to attract to the rewilded environment? And will you be pushing for any reintroductions?
I would love to see nesting Ospreys. I will be conferring on the prospects for bison to join the grazing team, likely to be Highland cattle and Shetland ponies from what I have been told so far. I think my streams, sorry burns, are too steep for beavers, but will be checking with experts. As for lynx and wolves, I am advised it is still way too early to push for those, even though fences can keep them in and they are all over mainland Europe now.
8. What are you hoping to achieve by demonstrating how land can be differently managed in this kind of environment? Is it directly aimed at recalibrating long-held attitudes to land currently used for activities such as driven grouse-shooting where land is over-grazed/drained/heather burnt etc?
That’s just part of it. When the carbon fluxes are fully quantified, and folk can see a holistic sink like Bunloit increasingly sucking greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere meanwhile creating more jobs and generating more income than the old, ruinous, land management ways, then I am hoping we can help lead the way to a capitalism re-engineered for survival and prosperity for the many, and not ecocide while enriching (temporarily) the few.
9. Have you come up against opponents to the plan?
Not yet, but I surely expect to. I know it will be impossible to please everybody all the time, but I am hoping that by conferring widely and taking a year to do it, I can please as many folk as possible at least some of the time.
10. What are you most excited about with this project?
You might think this is strange, for an old environmental campaigner, but the social and economic goals excite me most. I think the form of capitalism that most economies pursue today is killing humankind, and the natural world too. Climate change and pandemics are just two examples of this. We need to engineer root to branch change in our economic system, and I dream of the Bunloit Wildland project becoming a flagship for hope for some of the ways we can do that re-engineering.