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Scottish clan chief plans to rewild his Isle of Skye estate with 370,000 native trees

A Scottish clan chief plans to rewild his ancestral estate as part of an ambitious project to transform the 'beautiful but not natural' Isle of Skye.   

Hugh MacLeod, the 30th Chief of Clan MacLeod, hopes to overhaul the 'lunarscape' surrounding Dunvegan Castle by planting a total of 371,875 native trees in its land.

It is hoped these broadleaf forests will provide a home for reintroduced beaver populations and the declining numbers of red squirrels and wildcats which inhabit parts of Scotland. 

The ambitious project, which has been in development on the 42,000-acre MacLeod Estate for years, has been awarded a £1million grant from the Scottish Government and the EU.            

The native forest will contain different species mixtures to suit the land's terrain and ecology. The carbon offset is estimated to exceed 40,000 tons over a 65 year period.  

The focus will be on planting trees which historically grew in the Isle of Skye's peat soil - such as birch, rowan and cherry trees, the Daily Telegraph reported. 

Hugh MacLeod, chief of Clan MacLeod of Dunvegan, hopes to overhaul the 'lunarscape' surrounding Dunvegan Castle (pictured) by planting a total of 371,875 native trees in its land

It is hoped the rewilding strategy will encourage others to take on similar initiatives to restore Skye's 'wet desert' landscape, which is 'a legacy of centuries of depredation caused by over-grazing.'

Mr MacLeod, the Estate Director, said: 'In a difficult year of persistent bad news, I am thrilled that the MacLeod Estate has been awarded this grant for one of the largest and most ambitious native woodland creation projects on the Isle of Skye. 

'I had the idea over ten years ago, when I decided to stop farming at the estate's Totachocaire Farm which is not only marginal land, but was also loss making for almost every year of its operation since it was revived by my late father in the 1970s. 

'This is the first phase of our nascent rewilding plans and once the woodlands are established, this will create an extensive and biodiverse habitat to support a number of native species.'

It is hoped new broadleaf forests will provide a home for reintroduced beaver populations and the declining numbers of red squirrels and wildcats which inhabit parts of Scotland. Pictured:  Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye

Pictured: The 42,000-acre MacLeod Estate, where the rewilding project is set to take place

How the Isle of Skye's 'beautiful but not natural' landscape was manmade

The Isle of Skye, known for its rugged landscapes, has been described by Hugh MacLeod as a 'wet desert.' 

He says the Scottish land is lacking wildlife and 'beautiful but not natural,' with native greenery no longer populating the dramatic landscape.

According to the clan chief, the current landscape of the Isle of Skye makes clear it was an ancient woodland before the land was stripped bare by human activity.  

The extensive peat bog on the island is particularly indicative of this, he said.

This bog is an ombrotrophic mire, which supports plant growth. 

It is believed birch, rowan, cherry, willow, hawthorn and sycamore trees would have previously grown in the fertile peat soil.

However, it has been suggested human activity and over-grazing by farm animals caused the land to evolve into something 'beautiful but not natural.'

He added the current landscape of the Isle of Skye is clear evidence it was an ancient woodland before the land was stripped bare by human activity.

'After all, the extensive peatbog on the island is clear evidence of ancient and widespread woodlands,' Mr MacLeod said. 

'In common with other areas of the Highlands, Skye’s current lunarscape appearance is beautiful, but it is not natural. 

'This project aims to restore this piece of land and it will have a positive ripple effect on the local community beyond the obvious ecological benefits, creating more jobs in sustainable eco-tourism and more rewilding initiatives.' 

Mr MacLeod has been working to turn Dunvegan Castle into a successful tourist destination after inheriting the area from his late father John more than 10 years ago. 

The 9th century castle has been the ancestral home of Clan MacLeod for more than 800 years, and now has an annual turnover of £2.9million with 168,000 UK and international visitors each year.

The land includes the MacLeod Tables Cafe, four retail outlets, five holiday cottages, seal trips, amenity woodlands, Dunvegan Pier, and Glenbrittle Campsite.

The clan chief hopes the rewilding, which is being overseen by Scottish Woodlands Ltd, will improve eco-tourism and create more jobs on the Isle of Skye. 

The project's first phase will focus on transforming Dunvegan's former home farm, Totachocaire, into a 593-acre native woodland. 

This new landscape will be three times the size of the existing contiguous woodlands around Dunvegan Castle and Gardens. 

A total of 371,875 trees will be planted in addition to the 60,000 native trees planted by the estate in 2010, to replace a monoculture coniferous plantation dating back to the post-war years.

As one of the largest native woodland projects on the Isle of Skye, this will bring the total number of native trees planted on the MacLeod Estate since 2010 to 432,000.    

Mr MacLeod said the current landscape of the Isle of Skye (pictured: a peatbog) is clear evidence it was an ancient woodland before the land was stripped bare by human activity

It is also hoped the broadleaf forests will become a habitat for beavers, which were released in Scotland for the first time in 400 years in May 2009. Pictured: A European Beaver in Scotland

Knepp Wildland: Heavily farmed estate is restored by pioneering rewilding project

Knepp is a 3,500-acre estate just south of Horsham, West Sussex, which was devoted to a rewilding project in 2001.

The Estate was once heavily farmed despite the land - Low Weald clay over a bedrock of limestone - not being ideal for modern agriculture.

In February 2000, Knepp Home Farm's owner Charlie Burrell decided to sell the dairy herds and farm machinery.

Then, in 2002, Knepp was granted Countryside Stewardship funding to restore the Repton Park in the middle of the Estate. 

This 350-acre park had been under the plough since the Second World War.

The restoration of Repton Park suggested the possibility of rolling out nature conservation across the whole Knepp Estate.  

In December, Mr Burrell revealed his vision for rewilding Knepp with a Letter of Intent sent to Natural England.

It was eight years later in 2010 that the Knepp Wildland Project received Higher Level Stewardship funding. 

The Knepp Wildland Project uses grazing animals as the drivers of habitat creation, and with the restoration of dynamic, natural water courses, the project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife. 

Species like turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies are soaring in numbers at the Estate.

Source: Knepp Wildland

The planting is expected to be completed by the end of 2021. 

It is also hoped the broadleaf forests will become a habitat for beavers, which were released in Scotland for the first time in 400 years in May 2009.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust introduced the beaver families to Knapdale Forest, which is west of Lochgilphead in the Heart of Argyll.

They have since settled on the River Tay, which flows easterly across the Highlands from the slopes of Ben Lui.  

A similar rewilding initiative has recently been undertaken in Knepp, a 3,500 acre estate just south of Horsham, West Sussex. 

The woodland, which was once intensively farmed, has been devoted to a pioneering rewilding project since 2001. 

The Knepp Wildland Project uses grazing animals as the drivers of habitat creation, and with the restoration of dynamic, natural water courses, the project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife.  

Environmentalist Ben Goldsmith said: 'Politicians, communities and landowners across Britain are coming to the realisation that restoring the terribly depleted natural fabric of our landscapes offers a pathway for ecological, economic and social renewal.

'Hugh MacLeod's ground-breaking nature restoration project at the historic Dunvegan Castle on Skye is one of the most exciting rewilding stories in Britain today.' 

Sarah-Jane Laing, CEO of Scottish Land & Estates, added: 'This scheme is testament to Hugh's vision, drive and ongoing commitment to an environmentally and economically sustainable future, not only for the estate but for Skye and indeed the whole of Scotland. 

'SLE members such as the MacLeod Estate, continue to be at the forefront of innovative and progressive land management, making a huge contribution to Scottish prosperity and wellbeing.' 

John Risby, Scottish Forestry's Highland & Islands Conservator said: 'We were pleased to be able to approve this important woodland creation scheme which will contribute to the Scottish Government's tree planting targets.  

'Scottish Forestry has awarded £1million for the scheme which will be planted over the coming year, starting this winter. It was a sensitive application in terms of landscape, heritage and bird species. 

'Detailed surveys were undertaken by Scottish Woodlands, the Estate's agent, and we worked with them to ensure all potential impacts were properly mitigated and the benefits of the new woodland maximised.' 

John Laing, Chair of Dunvegan & District Community Council, added the new woodland will 'in time be a tremendous asset for Dunvegan and Skye.'      

'It will bring pleasure and enjoyment for locals and visitors for generations to come,' he said.

Hugh MacLeod: How a television director from Chelsea inherited the 42,000-acre ancestral home of an ancient Scottish clan

Pictured: Hugh MacLeod, chief of Clan MacLeod of Dunvegan

Hugh MacLeod became the 30th Chief of Clan MacLeod in 2007, succeeding his father John who died suddenly that February having been diagnosed with leukemia a month earlier.

The clan chief and laird of Dunvegan Castle, 47, studied Film and Modern History at the University of London and the Sorbonne in 1995.

He was appointed head of the ancient Scottish clan 12 years later, also inheriting the ancient seat of the chiefs of Macleod, Dunvegan Castle.

However, Mr MacLeod continues to split his time between his home in Chelsea and the Isle of Skye.

Speaking in 2018, he said: 'After becoming the 30th chief of the MacLeod clan in 2007 on the death of my father I could have hired a manager but I felt duty bound to take on the Herculean challenge myself. 

'I take a low-key approach to the role of clan chief, preferring to focus my attention on running the MacLeod Estate which leaves me with very little time for anything else. I regard it as a huge privilege and see myself as a custodial link in a chain that stretches back 800 years. My aim is not to be a weak link.'

The clan chief has worked in television as a researcher and was commissioned to direct and produce Champagne and Canvas, a documentary which was nominated for best video at the 1998 BBC British Short Film Festival. 

He went on to work as a freelance director, producer and writer in film and TV and now combines his media career with the management of the MacLeod Estate. 

Mr MacLeod, who has one son, Vincent, has worked to restore Dunvegan Castle and its gardens as a tourist destination in the Hebrides since he took over as laird in 2008.

Hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe are now believed to visit the 42,000-acre site each year.

In 2011, the clan chief  found himself with a £20,000 bill after an employment tribunal found he unfairly sacked a member of staff over ownership of a Victorian table and desk.

He was accused of unfairly sacking his curator Maureen Byers after 14 years in charge of his historic collections.  

The archivist, who earned £16,500 a year, had been gifted the regency mahogany bureau and desk by her predecessor, Donald Stuart.

But Mr MacLeod fired Mrs Byers for gross misconduct in March after insisting she had misappropriated the furniture.

However, employment tribunal judge Alan Strain ruled this was a ‘smokescreen’ to get rid of the curator.  

The MacLeod Estate, formed in 1200,  includes the MacLeod Tables Cafe, four retail outlets, five holiday cottages, seal trips, amenity woodlands, Dunvegan Pier, Glenbrittle Campsite and Cuillin Coffee Co. 

Mr MacLeod told the Herald he hopes 'to preserve the unique heritage of the Macleod Estate by being commercially successful in all we do to enable continuous reinvestment and to develop and share the unique history of Dunvegan Castle & Gardens with our visitors.' 

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