One of the nicest things about being me is meeting people that I would never have met in my previous life in academia. On the whole, I prefer to chat with people who love wildlife rather than people who want to create new medicines. They are simply more interesting IMHO.

I have just spent a few days with a couple of filmmakers who came to Scotland to see how we are doing conservation here, Highland Titles fashion. In return they introduced me to a quite extraordinary project underway in Holland – Oostvaardersplassen.

The Oostvaardersplassen is almost 15,000 acres of publicly owned land just north of Amsterdam, Holland. The land was reclaimed from the sea 50 years ago for industrial development. However the development never took place and the site was left to become a natural wetland area.

Frans Vera

This was promptly colonised by greylag geese, whose grazing behavior kept the developing grassland open  for other bird species. By 1983 the Oostvaardersplassen had been designated as a nature reserve. The site management team, including the ecologist Frans Vera, introduced herds of horses, cattle and red deer to diversify the ‘naturalistic grazing’ performed by the geese. These animals gradually ‘dedomesticated’, developing behaviours and creating ecologies that are claimed to be analogous with Europe at the end of the Pleistocene.

Vera  suggests that during the early post-glacial, large herbivores such as wild horses, deer, bison an cattle (aurochs) had played a vital role in maintaining a mosaic of open grassland, regenerating scrub and forested groves; the so-called ‘wood-pasture’. These large herbivores determined and controlled primeval forest structure and composition, which is in contrast to the high-forest hypothesis, which assumes that forest structure influenced herbivore abundance.

The Aurochs is extinct, but there still exist breeds with a lot of the characteristics of the former Aurochs.
The Aurochs is extinct, but there still exist breeds with a lot of the characteristics of the former Aurochs.

Vera and his colleagues used Oostvaardersplassen  to test this hypothesis. The land had no history as it was all literally made from the sea bed with dikes, pumps and diggers. As the site is contained by a fence, access can be controlled. The tarpan and aurochs are extinct, but Konik ponies and Heck cattle are able to act as functional equivalents, occupying a similar ecological niche. The only native large herbivores now missing from Oostvaardersplassen are the elk, the wild boar and the bison (wisent). They have managed to create a “Serengeti-like” landscape: a type of habitat unknown to Europe since humans abandoned their hunter gatherer lifestyle and started farming.

The Konik's grazing can be used to help restore health and balance to marshy woodland ecosystems, providing improved habitat for a range of bird species
The Konik’s grazing can be used to help restore health and balance to marshy woodland ecosystems, providing improved habitat for a range of bird species

The cattle, deer and horses breed freely in the Oostvaardersplassen and, as in Scotland, in the absence of natural predators the rangers have to cull the animals that are unlikely to survive. About half the population dies in this way giving the vegetation some chance to recover. As with the position in Scotland, these is great reluctance to reintroduce the missing predators, but I am optimistic that they will return one day.

Photographs of the Highland Titles Project

Over the course of the Highland Titles project, literally thousands of photos and videos have been recorded, by helpers and professionals, visitors, myself and of course by Highland Titles.

Highland Titles hosts some of these photographs online at photo-sharing website SmugMug

There are also photographs from the 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 Gatherings in  Glencoe.

These photographs are free to download and borrow for non-commercial uses. Just find the photographs you want and right-click to download.

Wildcat Haven

Douglas and I first encountered the plight of the Scottish Wildcat by stumbling across Steve Piper’s website, www.scottishwildcats.co.uk and his film, Last of the Scottish Wildcats (Buy the DVD at http://CoffeeFilms.com/ScottishWildcats.)

The plight of the Scottish Wildcat – doomed to imminent extinction by hybridisation – was one we could not ignore.

So together with Stephen Rossiter, Highland Titles Sales Director, I met Steve Piper in Fort William during one of his forays into the north as he began work on what would become the Wildcat Haven project. I am not sure what I expected, but Steve’s operation had looked frankly lightweight. No offices. No staff. Clearly no SNH style expense account (Steve was staying in the cheapest digs in Fort William). We were not sure what to make of Steve. Until we met him. Then it was very clear that he was running fast and lean without government grants and he was getting it done. He knew what he was hoping to achieve, had a team who were doing it, but was short of funds. We agreed to send him some cash and have never regretted getting involved with saving the Scottish wildcat.

In June 2013 Steve contacted us to say that he was taking a back seat and the Scottish Wildcat Association was going to become the Wildcat Trust and that Dr Paul O’Donoghue would be running the show. In the end Paul set up Wildcat Haven as a community interest company rather than a trust, and perhaps because he still had a full time job as a university lecturer at the University of Chester, his wife, Emily took the lead in administering the Company. Paul came to our 2014 gathering in Glencoe House, Glencoe and electrified the audience. We increased our level of funding and became even more keen to see them succeed.

Fast forward to May 2015 and the Highland Titles Gathering at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel, Glencoe. After Paul’s talk, we retired to the bar and Paul explained that he hoped to extend the feral-free area of Wildcat Haven far beyond the area they had been working on – the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula, including Moidart, Morvern and Sunart. Paul had an ambition to create a huge feral-free zone of thousands of square miles, everything north west of the great glen, the ancient water filled rift valley that separates the Highlands from the rest of Scotland.  This was an exciting vision and one which would guarantee space for an expanding Scottish wildcat population.

Dr Paul O'Donoghue at the 2016 Gathering
Dr Paul O’Donoghue at the 2016 Gathering

There and then I offered to back Paul’s vision. It was clear that this would require far more funding that Highland Titles could offer. We have our own program of rewilding all planned out and did not want to abort it. But if we could set Wildcat Haven up to sell souvenir plots of land – the model that had worked so well for us – then the vision had a fighting chance. Teach a man to fish…. So Paul and Emily stayed on for a few days whilst we discussed how to do it, culminating in a meeting with our Scottish solicitors, J. & H. Mitchell W.S.in Pitlochry.  From the start we felt that the commercial arm should be a new Company so as not to distract from the business of clearing land of feral cats that Wildcat Haven had been so successful in doing. Wildcat Haven Enterprises was going to be a business which would fund the expansion of that work and to add experience my son in law, Douglas agreed to step down from the board of Highland Titles to take on a new role as a director of Wildcat Haven Enterprises along with Paul’s wife Emily who has many years experience with conservation, including the high profile Lynx Trust.  Douglas was a sad loss to Highland Titles. Not only had he grown our business since joining, but he has considerable business knowledge, having a business degree as well as time spent as a police officer. Douglas is a man to get the job done.

After a few months of frantic work, we had everything in place. Highland Titles had bought a wood overlooking Loch Loyne in 2014 and had created an 3 Ha deer-proof Haven, which we had called Bumblebee Haven. With advice from the Bumblebee Trust we had asked our friends at nearby Dundreggan, Trees for Life, to plant the tree species that had been recommended as good for bees and which would thrive on the peaty soils.  A small part of the reserve (called Mountainview) was already being sold as souvenir plots, but we hoped to establish other niche environments (Havens) to benefit a range of species. Why not wildcats?  This was, after all, prime wildcat territory.

With the land gifted to Wildcat Haven Enterprises, they needed a website, which was designed and built in record time by the team at Hotscot in Fort William who by now are used to our frantic and unreasonable requests. Other suppliers were sent designs and shipped folders, booklets, badges etc. All the materials need to create gift packs. Mike Tomkies, the great man of wildcats, was approached to check that he supported the choice of name for the new Haven at Mountainview, Wildernesse Wood (Wildernesse was the name he used in his books to hide the true location of his home on Loch Sheil – Gaskan).

Click the logo to visit Wildcat Haven
Click the logo to visit Wildcat Haven

At last, the great day came. At the end of September Wildcat Haven Enterprises launched its vision to the world and they began to take orders. They had a useful amount of coverage in the media, plus a few people who were less than enthusiastic about what had been achieved.  But we are just pleased that when the Scottish Wildcat needed help the most, Highland Titles was there willing and able to step up to the plate to help create a renewable source of income for Wildcat Haven.

So, if you want to help the Scottish Wildcat I can recommend buying a plot of land in Wildernesse Wood from Wildcat Haven Enterprises.