Bring back the wolf, for a forest to last a thousand years

Millennium projects
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How many of the various millennium projects are really about the next millennium? Try this test. Next time you hear of any of these projects - the things that are going into that dome, for starters - ask whether there is likely to be even the faintest memory of it in 1,000 years' time.

Virtually all the ideas being put forward are projects for the next 30 or, at most, 100 years. Unlike our ancestors, who built the medieval cathedrals (or even the Victorian sewers) we are not used to thinking very long term. Modern democratic governments cannot think that way; financial markets and corporations are pushed to think more than five or 10 years ahead. Yet our generation has this once-in-a-thousand-years shot at doing things which might be truly memorable.

This thought came to me last weekend as I walked round Loch Affric, in the western Highlands of Scotland. Glen Affric is interesting because it has a fine remnant of the great Caledonian Forest, which once covered most of the north of Scotland, and has been reduced to less than 1 per cent of its original area. Glen Affric is also the core of a project, which will take 250 years to be completed, to reforest an area of nearly 1,000 square miles with the natural species, mainly Scots pine, that once covered the region. It is a genuine millennial project, in the sense of putting back a large area of land to something like the state it was in 1,000 years ago.

This is not just a question of planting trees; the aim is to re-create conditions where the forest can develop on its own. The destruction has largely been the result of over-grazing by deer, which meant that the pines could not regenerate themselves. Deer numbers were once kept in check by the large mammals at the top of the food chain: wolves, of course, but also brown bears and lynxes. When the large mammals were exterminated,deer numbers rose and the forest died. By the late Fifties only a few clumps of "grannies", trees several hundred years old, were left. Then the Forestry Commission fenced off an area of Glen Affric to keep most of the deer out. After a few years, young, naturally-generated Scots pines, children of the grannies, began to spring up. They didn't need to eliminate all the deer; just keeping the numbers down did the trick.

Since then, this work has been supplemented by Trees for Life, a small, volunteer organisation based at Findhorn near Inverness. It is working with a number of organisations, including Forest Enterprise, the Forestry Commission's environmental arm which now runs Affric, Scottish National Heritage, and the Millennium Forest for Scotland project, on its Big Idea. This is not just to re-create these 1,000 square miles, but also to link them with other areas of recreated native forest elsewhere in Scotland, eventually repopulating them with the large mammals that once lived there.

The idea of bringing back wild animals is not new: for example, the wolf has been reintroduced to Yellowstone Park in the US, and the Arabian oryx to Oman. There are obvious practical difficulties, quite aside from the fact that sheep farmers do not go a bundle on having their flocks eaten by wolves, and that stalkers would resent having fewer deer to shoot. The present area of available wilderness, even in Scotland, would not yet be big enough to support a genetically viable wolf population. That is why this is truly a project for the next millennium. But Trees for Life believes we could make a start by reintroducing the beaver right away, and since wolves are pretty adaptable creatures there could be the some selective introduction of wolves too.

The key point is that if you want a real, natural, self-sustaining forest you have to have the animals to maintain the natural balance. Bringing bears back to Scotland will to many people seem a ridiculous idea, but in the long term, in a couple of hundred years, it may be a realistic prospect. We don't need to make that decision; we simply have to make a start in encouraging the environment to reverse some of the damage we have done.

But what is the point? I suppose my own interest in this particular idea comes from family stories of the exploits of a great-grandfather who grew up in the region. But re-creating the Caledonian Forest is just one example of the sort of Big Idea that needs to be repeated thousands of times across the globe if we are to ensure the future of generations to come.

Stand back a moment. During the last 1,000 years the number of human beings has risen from a couple of hundred million to 6 billion. It is rising at full bore at the moment, adding between 80 and 90 million people each year. The world's population will level out at perhaps 10 billion in another 50 or 100 years' time. We have no idea whether the world can support 10 billion people - maybe it can, maybe it can't. But we do know that unless humankind tries to care for the planet, its seas and forests, we will probably shift the odds against our own survival as a species and we will certainly make the earth a less varied and interesting place for future generations.

But to succeed means not just being better environmental citizens now; it means thinking very long term. It means thinking, for example, about the reforestation of the Sahara. Remember that 2,000 years ago north Africa was the breadbasket of Europe. On a 300-year view it is plausible that the climatic change that led to the Sahara's desertification (and to the collapse of north African grain production) could be reversed.

There are a host of other, mainly environmental projects where it is obviously in the self-interest of humankind that a process of destruction is reversed: the drying-up of the Aral Sea; the loss of fish stocks off Newfoundland. The trouble is that we don't have the mechanisms to think about this sort of idea: the market cannot help as it is too short-term, governments are too self-serving, and most international organisations too bureaucratic and politicised. So the really important millennium projects, the ones that really will be remembered in 1,000 years' time, will not, I suspect, in the main be "top-down". They will be bottom-up - projects envisioned by a few people with a big idea, such as the re-creation of the Caledonian Forest.

That just happens to be a British example of people coming together with a project that cannot possibly be completed in their lifetime. It is not even, in global terms, particularly important. But it is surely a prime example of the sort of thinking that needs to be multiplied many thousand- fold.