A Mosaic of Life

Overview —

This paper presents a vision for reforming Scotland’s uplands and shows what rural Scotland could look like if it adopted a strategy of radical land reform.


Donald McPhillimy

Callum Blackburn

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It is widely believed that the barren hillsides that make up so much of Scotland’s landscape are ‘natural’ – but this is far from the case.

These ‘wet deserts’ are the product of many hundreds of years of human management and frankly mismanagement and they dominate Scotland’s uplands. Uplands are generally defined as the land above the level of agricultural enclosure at about 300m to 400m and make up over 50% percentage of Scotland’s land. This vision paper will explain how we ended up with this pattern of land use in Scotland’s uplands and why it does harm to Scotland’s carbon emissions, economy, wildlife and rural population.

It will set out instead a vision of a ‘mosaic’ of a rewilded, reforested Scotland, managed instead for productivity, carbon capture, wildlife recovery, local communities, tourism and more. Finally it will set out a series of policy recommendations which detail how Scotland can get from here to there.


― Much of Scotland’s landscape is dominated by its uplands, much of that barren moor and hillside. This is in no way natural but is the result of centuries of human management of the land, through tree felling, over-grazing, moor burning, selective species culling and depopulation.

― It has resulted in degraded soil, poor water management, low biodiversity, low productivity, increased carbon emissions and simplified and segregated land use. The current policy and subsidy regime supports and perpetuates these outcomes.

― This can be replaced instead with a ‘half-wild mosaic’ of different land uses. Reforesting and rewilding can create a more productive use of land with a mixture of commercial and non-commercial woodland which also enables biodiversity recovery and better carbon capture. This will be interspersed with more contained livestock rearing, patches of arable crops, restored peatland, revitalised communities, energy generation, ecotourism and more.

― To achieve this changes will be necessary, such as greatly reducing hill sheep flocks, reducing deer numbers to enable forest regeneration, ending driven grouse shooting, reducing muirburn and active replanting.

― Finally the report sets out nine substantial policy actions which can achieve all of this, and argues that much of it can be achieved simply by redirecting current subsidies rather than requiring substantial new investment.

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