The governance of rewilding in Scotland
: discourse, process, and practice

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by UHI)


This thesis aims to achieve a better understanding of rewilding governance and the
processes which frame and steer rewilding within Scotland, with a particular interest in the
ideas and practice of participation and the place of local communities in rewilding
endeavours. This is important, for although rewilding is about natural ecological processes
underpinned by ambitions to champion and facilitate nature’s autonomy, the human
dimensions of rewilding are critical to the long-term success of rewilding at scale. Greater
understanding as to whose interest a rewilding approach represents and how this is enacted
is essential if we are to address current and potential future rewilding conflicts. Such an
improved understanding also has implications for how the benefits (and costs) of rewilding
are realised and distributed. My research sits within a social science tradition and the
paradigm of social constructionism, and utilises a range of methods, including document
analysis, interviews, and participant observation, all within a qualitative research design.
To address the overarching question of rewilding governance, firstly, I examined how the
role of people in rewilding discourse in Scotland was being articulated, how had it emerged,
and how it was evolving (Chapter 4). New storylines were identified which emphasised the
role of people and their interactions with rewilding. This represented a shift from traditional
rewilding definitions with their strong ecological associations. Despite the role of local
communities and the need for public engagement becoming a specific concern for many
contemporary rewilding efforts, the research indicated that such participatory approaches
were conditional; demonstrating an interaction between land ownership and degrees of
empowerment which underpinned rewilding activity and decision-making - aspects that
were further investigated in Chapter 5. Whilst within Scotland the importance of people in
rural communities in rewilding was being developed as a compelling narrative, the detail or
practical evidence of the mainstream participation of communities or the wider public in
rewilding decisions was lacking. In response to this, Chapter 6 therefore explored an unusual
rewilding project - a formalised partnership between a local community and a national
conservation organisation seeking to combine ecological restoration with community
benefit. This revealed a more nuanced set of social processes at play than suggested by conceptual collaborative governance frameworks, including the importance of compromise,
and trusting when not to collaborate. However, the foundation of shared land ownership
embedded within the partnership structure, was fundamental in ensuring a level of
collaboration, and reflected the critical role of land ownership within rewilding governance
which was highlighted throughout the research.
My analyses contribute to an improved understanding of the human aspects of rewilding,
specifically in terms of rewilding governance and decision-making, through illuminating; (a)
aspects of rewilding discourse (how rewilding is discussed, how this changes and why), (b)
rewilding process (who gets to be involved in rewilding decision-making and in what way),
and (c) rewilding practice (the practicalities of different organisations working together to
rewild). Without consideration of these aspects, policy shifts providing opportunities for
rewilding risk exacerbating inequalities and reinforcing a system that is considered to
underpin the crises of the Anthropocene.
Date of Award29 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
SponsorsThe Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland
SupervisorMelanie Smith (Supervisor), Anke Fischer (Supervisor) & Rob McMorran (Supervisor)

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