In the battle for land, it has been humans who have had the upper-hand. Our intelligence, weapons and technology has meant that no corner of the earth has escaped. Having destroyed great swathes of land, natural habitat’s fate now lies in our hands. For Karen Mitchell, Relationship Manager at Trees for Life, her weapon of choice is communication.
In the far reaches of Scotland, Trees for Life are attempting to re-wild land which had previously been decimated by humans and the impact of farming. The Caledonian Forest – the very essence of Scotland – has been reduced to just one, percent of its original size. Wildlife such as beaver, wild boar, lynx, wolf and bears were hunted to extinction.
The charity’s core focus is to restore the forest and all the wildlife which depends on it. The hope is it will also inspire similar projects around the world.
“Biodiversity loss is starting to get into people’s consciousness as a really urgent issue. Some scientists say species/biodiversity loss is a greater risk to society than even climate change. That message is really starting to get over and that is helping us,” Karen told ANFPE.
“We do get a lot of bad news about losses and extinction and, for me, sometimes it’s a challenge to remain positive. But, it is by finding the optimism and remaining confident that we are collectively making a difference,” she added.
Karen studied biology at university before going into teaching and, eventually, the publishing industry. But, environmental issues were her passion and she went back to university where she studied natural resource management. Years in the “wilderness” of European policy followed, trying to influence policy to benefit nature.
But, she learned, people had to be included for nature conservation to succeed.
“I had been very focused on nature and wildlife and people for me were just in the way. But, gradually, over time, I moved more into roles that involved communication. I started to learn more about psychology and what makes people tick and how to encourage pro-environmental behaviour. I learned about people’s values, what drives them and what their needs may be.
“I wish I had figured out earlier that everything comes down to communication. You can be speaking all you like, but if people cannot hear you, then the message is lost and meaningless,” said Karen.
Part of her learning process was understanding that people are motivated by different things and therefore approaches should be varied. While some may be driven by curiosity and nature, for others it could be the appearance of success, or looking good in front of their peers.
“It is still possible to influence and connect with those people. But, I do not expect to make them think like I do. I think sometimes with conservationists, the messaging tends to be from our value sets, rather than being towards the kinds of things these people connect to,” she explained.
Trees for Life offer a variety of ways to connect people to the forest. This ranges from using the red squirrel’s natural cuteness to draw people in, right through to “survival” weekends for those who want to test their mettle.
Her next venture is in virtual reality, working alongside the Northern Film School, to produce a film to immerse people who may not otherwise have access to the forest. The film will give them a sense of what it is like to walk through the forest, the smells of the pinewood, what it sounds like underfoot. It is hoped this will inspire people to protect it.
The flexible approach works. Trees for life – which began 25 years ago – has planted over 1.5 million trees so far – the equivalent to an area of 4,000 rugby pitches.
As well, it has been helping red squirrels to recolonise forests in the north west Highlands of Scotland. To date, 140 red squirrels have been translocated to seven woods.
Talks are already in place to look at beaver re-introduction – although these have stalled following an illegal release of beavers in Tayside.
“The government position at the moment is to say no to any new licensed releases of beavers – even though they are now officially acknowledged as a native species – until the ‘delinquent’ beavers in Tayside have been dealt with and that conflict has been resolved,” she said.
The charity is also providing trainee placements for people to learn the skills needed to restore the forest, creating a workforce which understands both traditional land management and new approaches to forest restoration.
“Remembering there are people who are coming to hear about or experience the Caledonian Forest for the first time ever, and are being moved by it, and will be starting to take action to help protect it – that is what gives me a boost…It is like a conveyor belt of new people all the time that we can turn into activists and rewilders,” she said.
“I think we are living on the most amazing planet. My antidote to my sometimes despair at the wreckage of the wonderful life that we have, is to do anything that will help nature,” she added.