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Rewilding the Highlands
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Rewilding the Highlands

Located on a 100-acre site near Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands, AECOM and the Lifescape Project have established a Natural Capital Laboratory. Working with the landowners, their local advisors and a team of researchers from the University of Cumbria, the site’s natural environment will be restored, bringing back native forest and bog, engaging local communities and reintroducing locally extinct species. With the aim of identifying and demonstrating the environmental, economic and social benefits of rewilding, the project will design and test experimental new techniques to quantify, measure and communicate environmental and social change. Cutting-edge technologies such as drones, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality and remote sensing will also be used to capture and share the learning.

With the idea of ‘Capitals Accounting’ becoming increasingly important in UK policy making, there is a growing demand for public and private sector organisations to take more responsibility for their environmental and social impacts. However, there are often significant challenges in identifying and utilising the necessary tools, techniques and support needed for organisations looking to measure, manage and value their natural assets. The Natural Capital Laboratory will be a real-world, practical demonstration of how to apply a natural capital approach, and a live test bed to develop the tools needed to do so.

With a lifelong interest in forests, Roger and Emilia Leese (who own the NCL site) had been looking for a suitable forest project. After five years of searching, in 2017, they purchased a remote Loch Ness property with good access to roads. Located within what was once the ancient Caledonian Pine forest, the property still contained several native species, and the cottage on site would prove to be the ideal headquarters for scientists, experts and conservationists arriving to contribute to the NCL’s research.

Chris Coupland Photography
Chris Coupland Photography

Roger and Emilia were inspired by Trees for Life, also located nearby, and by their long-term vision, to leave a tangible, natural legacy. They first envisioned replanting and letting nature rewild itself. Subsequently, they have been very open to, and encouraging of, all the innovative ideas proposed to transform the project beyond what they first imagined. It is hoped that the NCL will not only serve as inspiration for more people to rewild their environment, whatever the size, but also be a catalyst for integrating natural and social capital approaches as a decision-making measure to benefit everyone and everything, from people, to animals and our wider environment.

Along with Roger and Emilia, the Lifescape Project is leading on the rewilding of the site, putting together an overall rewilding vision and developing plans to reintroduce species of animal and plant that are currently absent from the ecology of the site whilst assisting nature in its recovery. In pursuit of this, Lifescape has developed its plans in line with the IUCN (Union for Conservation of Nature) Rewilding’s new international principles for rewilding, being the first project to trial those principles on the ground. 

 With AECOM and the Lifescape Project’s investment as well as research expertise from the University of Cumbria, the research and development of NCL has accelerated significantly. The inventory of species such as red squirrels, pine martens, peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and badgers were identified soon after and as the project developed, more people were engaged with the idea and wanted to be a part of it. 

The use of technology, such as drone photography and 3D modelling, has played a vital role throughout the project as it has helped illuminate the current functioning of the site as well as what the property will look like in 30 years in a fun and accessible way. The new digital natural capital accounting platform, which was developed to communicate the impacts of the rewilding process, has been one of the project’s biggest achievements to date. With a lot of time spent on assembling complex spreadsheets, which quantify and monitor the changes on the site, the team acknowledged the need to change their approach on presenting the data in a more accessible way. The importance of thoroughly integrating various accounts into the decision making became more apparent as the team transitioned from spreadsheets to developing an interactive platform which enabled the accounts to resonate with a wider audience.

The newly created platform can be used to take a virtual tour of the site and demonstrates the services provided by the natural capital and the value of those services. Whilst it is limited to a baseline overview of what is currently present on site, it is anticipated that over time quantitative data will also be included to capture the changes on site as well as a time-lapse video to visually demonstrate how things are changing over time. Alongside this, the team are collaborating on integrating virtual reality and naturalisation experiences which will allow users to experience different ecological futures depending on the decisions made on the site. As the lab develops, the team will continue to work with a range of communication specialists, software engineers, artists, and VR experts to develop new ways of communicating the values that the environment provides to all aspects of life.

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