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Trees for Life

UK - The Secret to Successful Rewilding Isn't Trees—It's People – Mother Jones

That’s why one of the UK’s top land restoration projects put a psychologist on the team.

A hunter, conservationist, and psychologist are working on a rewilding project. It sounds like the start of a joke, though the antics of this unlikely trio have not ended in a punchline but one of the UK’s largest land restoration projects.

They have been collaborating on the Affric Highlands scheme, which covers an array of woodlands, peatlands, montane, river and coastal habitats between the west coast of Scotland and Loch Ness. The aim of the project, announced this week, is to rewild half a million acres (200,000 hectares) of land—by rewilding the people who live in it.

Conservation manager Alan McDonnell, who works for the rewilding charity Trees for Life, has been leading the project, formerly known as East West Wild. He has spent more than two years getting land managers, animal stalkers, millionaires, and farmhands to sit around a table and talk about getting wildlife back to the land. “We wanted to speak to as many people as possible before making it a public thing, so that people didn’t feel as if they were pressured into being a part of it,” says McDonnell.

Rewilding is often perceived as trying to remove people—particularly farmers—from the land. In many rural communities, talking about rewilding gets a similar response to insulting someone’s mother. “For some people, just the Trees for Life badge, or the word ‘rewilding’, means that’s it … I might be here talking to you, but we’re not actually having a conversation,” says McDonnell, who called in psychologist Paul Howell to help.

I meet Howell on Dundreggan estate, where work is underway to build a state-of-the-art rewilding center with 40-bed accommodation, events spaces, classrooms, and a cafe.

Howell says conservationists and rewilders often think they can convert people to their view using a science-based approach, a “campaign and crusade kind of mentality.” This alienates people and makes them do the opposite of what you want, he says. “Science has information that is profoundly useful. But using that to kind of threaten people and bash them over the head isn’t going to get them where they want to go.

“If you are excluding people that you need to connect with and influence, then you’re in some kind of delusional bubble that you are right and they are wrong,” he says. “You don’t know enough about them. Until you’ve developed the maturity to listen to people—and genuinely listen, not listen until they stop talking so you can then tell them what to do—you’re just delusional.”

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