By Nick Drainey
High in the Cairngorms, the old gnarled Scots pines we see now were once saplings, growing while shepherds stood guarding their lambs from packs of wolves.
For award-winning TV presenter and cameraman Simon King that scene, dating back more than three centuries, should once again become a feature of the Scottish countryside –one he claims will benefit the communities who live in the Highlands.
“If we are talking about reintroducing apex predators such as wolves and lnyx, yes, good plan because we killed them in the first place and it wasn’t that long ago,” says King, who is a well-known face on the BBC’s Springwatch and Big Cat Diary and Planet Earth.
It is widely thought Sir Ewen Cameron shot the last wold in Scotland at Killiecrankie in 1680 although some reports suggest the animal was still surviving a century later.
While predatory animals need to be respected, fears over damage to farm animals are overblown, King says.
“What we did was upset the apple cart monstrously by eradicating wild boar and beaver, which have started to make a comeback, and by eradicating all apex predators – they haven’t made a comeback because we are so phobic about losing a single lamb.
“Shepherds are so-called because they used to sit on the hill protecting sheep against just such predations. But we have lost the idea of living in harmony with everything about us – I am not being romantic about this, I have spent plenty of time in communities which do have depredations from lions and tigers and leopards.”
King says the tourism benefits would also help rural economies. He says: “You would have the most magnificent experience as a visitor … If there is the opportunity to walk in a landscape where you stand a chance of seeing a wolf on the hillside, albeit a kilometre away chasing a herd of deer, yes you are going to go and see it, the best show on earth.
“There are Scots pines that had wolves brushing along their flanks when they were saplings still standing now and when you realise that and touch the trees you realise how wrong it was to take this balancing of the natural world out of the equation.”
In 2003, Paul Lister, bought the 23,000 acre Alladale estate near Bonar Bridge in Sutherland with aim of turning it into a wilderness reserve. Although he has introduced boars and elk, his idea of wolves has stalled amid strong opposition to the requirement for a fence to be built around the land.
But calls for re-wilding, or returning land to its natural state, have become louder in Scotland in recent years, but King says that as well as allowing wild animals to thrive, we also need to change our own habits to help the environment.
That can be something as simple as questioning where our food comes from and working out the “true cost” of what we eat.
King says food and growth are the biggest challenges to the planet. “As we consume, not just food but resources in other ways, it affects the face of the land very dramatically.
“We have lost the connection with what it takes to create something that gives us energy. A simple example is if you go in a roadside café and buy a bacon sarnie, it is very tempting, they smell good. But where did the bread come from, how was the wheat grown and how much grain did it take to feed the pig and indeed how did that pig live – would you eat it if you saw how much antibiotic had been put into it?”
King says while governments could be tougher on industrial practices in farming or manufacturing there needs to be a “paradigm shift” in our own everyday habits where “stuff” can dominate people’s lives. But he admits it is hard. “We are where we are today … it is too easy to make bad decisions. There is not a single industry or farm that doesn’t depend on a customer, so relinquish responsibility and point at politicians and systems and say ‘get it right’? No, get it right with what you buy.”
King has travelled the world filming wildlife for major TV series but Scotland is somewhere he loves above all and he will be appearing at the Wild Film Festival Scotland which takes place in Dumfries in March. The first event of its kind in the UK, it will celebrate the natural world through film, photography and discussion, and bring together internationally renowned photographers and film makers.
King says: “When I am asked, I say my favourite place on earth is Scotland by quite a margin. My mother was born in Glasgow so the sound of Scotland rings true to me in terms of the human language and the sense that there can be wilderness in such a small isle. There are tracts of Scotland which still have an edge of wilderness about them – I am not saying there are places where no man has ever trod but in most of the rest of the British Isles there is a constant suppression and sense of dominion. Wherever you turn it has been tweaked or cut, or sprayed or trimmed and I find that obscene, an abuse of the most precious resource we have which is the earth beneath our feet. In Scotland, I can feel as though there is a balance and a harmony and that makes me feel good.”
*The Wild Film Festival Scotland takes place in Dumfries Between March 24 and 26. For more information go to www.wildfilmfestivalscotland.co.uk.