Let’s put the wild back into our wilderness

There would be nothing like a few bears and wolves in the Highlands to keep us on our toes by Kevin McKenna

Tian Tian: why do we keep these wonderful creatures locked up? Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA
Tian Tian: why do we keep these wonderful creatures locked up? Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Eight months into the 10-year rendition of Tian Tian and Yang Guang and already we are discovering exquisite new ways of torturing them. Last week, it was Tian Tian’s ninth birthday and so the beast-masters at Edinburgh Zoo made a birthday cake for the poor and bewildered panda. It was a three-tiered effort with carrots instead of candles and made to a secret recipe of rice, soya and honey.

We can only guess at the reasons why the recipe is “secret”. Perhaps the zoo has “secret” plans to market it as a high-protein and healthy alternative to Mr Kipling’s stalwart confections. Unsurprisingly, the birthday girl refused to co-operate. Did anyone ask her if she wanted to mark her big day with an absurd piece of home baking while being watched by hundreds of idiot human beings?

The barbaric deal our government struck with the foul Beijing regime to lock up the two giant pandas simply reveals Scotland‘s perverse attitude to wildlife. For, despite being gifted some of the world’s most breathtakingly wild and vivid countryside, we only consider allowing breathtakingly wild creatures to stay here on condition that they are safely locked up.

Indeed, even those few majestic species we do allow to bide in Scotland are at risk from gamekeepers, those rural social misfits whom absentee landlords pay to keep their sporting estates well stocked. Thus the nation turns a blind eye when another golden eagle suffers a cruel death by poisoning. In the Highlands and islands, farmers are trying to convince us that no child under the age of five is safe from rampaging sea eagles.

These beautiful creatures, which are just as partial to a bit of lamb and pork as the rest of us, must be controlled, say the farmers, or their livelihoods will be damaged.

It is a curious quirk of Scottish social life that, while we consider ourselves to be modern, enlightened and socially inclusive we nevertheless permit unimaginable psychological cruelty to be visited on animals each day at places such as Edinburgh Zoo. Fifty years hence, we will all wonder what we were thinking of, paying money to gawp as some of the world’s most magnificent creatures die a little each day, padding around a straw-floored detention centre. Perhaps, instead of keeping these disreputable places alive, we could shut them down and turn our national parks and wildernesses into havens for animals that will give us complacent human beings a right good run for our money.

For what is the point in conferring national park status on the Cairngorms if we know that there are absolutely no animals in it that could eat you? Or, at the very least, give you a right good kicking if you are not careful or fail to follow the countryside code or neglect to wrap up warm with your name sewn on to your mitts?

North America’s splendid Yellowstone national park would, quite frankly, be embarrassed to call itself such if there were no bears and wolves in it to keep all the outdoors types on their toes.

So, I think the SNP should seriously consider pledging to bring bears, wolves and lynxes back to Scotland’s hills and glens. And could we not persuade the WWF to send us over a few tigers? After all, in Scotland they’d be treated with a bit more respect than they are accustomed to in their disappearing habitats elsewhere in the world where they have been poached to the point of extinction.

I’ve heard all those arguments about the ecosystem being completely screwed if we bring back the big beasts. Two years ago, though, I went hunting for a colony of wild beaver up in Angus that were said to be running amok in the wilds and, yes, doing in the old ecosystem. As far as I know, they have been multiplying gaily ever since and our seasons are all still falling in the right order.

Of course there will be a concomitant threat to human beings if bears and wolves and tigers are jouking about our great forests and glens. I think, though, that it is too easy to exaggerate this. In the great spaces of the African savanna, grizzled old rangers have always said that so long as you simply let them get on with it and don’t poke them with big sticks it should be all right.

With the exception of the tigers, these animals were all once native to Scotland before we scared them off. Nor would I listen to the farmers who whinge that their livestock would be affected. This disreputable lot nearly destroyed the food chain some 10 years ago after years of forcing their beasts to eat toxic cocktails of feed eventually caused mad cow disease. And then loads of them became millionaires with a hasty and unscrutinised get-rich-quick compensation scheme.

And so what if a few stray hill walkers and Munro climbers got slain by the wolves and the bears? It’s not as if we don’t have enough of them. It would give your average hill-walking expedition a bit of an edge and soon the adventure tourists would be queuing up to pay big money for a trek in the Highlands, thus giving a much-needed boost to the rural economy. And it might even force them to stop wearing all that garish outdoor frippery and dress more appropriately for the Scottish outdoors.

They should all be more circumspect in choosing the colour of their bucolic apparel.

Much as I cherish the Cairngorms and love to go walking around the place, well… you soon get bored with the same old deer and birds and rabbits. There would be nothing like the distant and primeval growl of a big brown bear or the eerily beautiful howling of approaching wolves to put some hairs on your chest.

If nothing else, Scots kids everywhere would get out from behind their laptops and start rushing to join the Boy Scouts again. I might even be persuaded to go for my Duke of Edinburgh once more.

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