IT’S perhaps fitting that the world’s first rewilding centre is situated near Loch Ness as there can’t be many wilder creatures than its legendary monster.

The creatures at Dundreggan are much smaller but they play just as ­important a part in the local landscape.

There are now 4000 plus species of plants and animals at the 10,000 acre estate and the new centre has been opened so that visitors can enjoy the stunning scenery while also ­learning more about the restoration of the ­ancient Caledonian forest.

Dundreggan offers an opportunity to appreciate the richness of ­Scotland’s landscape before widespread tree felling, the introduction of sheep, and inflated deer numbers took their ecological toll.

However, as well as a look into the country’s past, Dundreggan is also a hopeful view to the future as the ­project seeks to demonstrate the ­economic, community and cultural benefits that rewilding can bring.

Although now owned by the ­charity Trees for Life, chief ­executive Steve Micklewright (below) is keen to emphasis that the transformation of the former deer stalking estate is ­being achieved with the involvement of many ­volunteers and increasingly, the local ­community, some of whom are now employed at Dundreggan.

Since the charity bought the estate in 2008 from an Italian landowner, the number of jobs has risen from one to 30 with around 60,000-80,000 trees a year grown in the nursery and planted on hillsides.

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The jobs total includes the deer stalker who worked on the estate ­before it was sold and who has stayed on with the charity ever since.

“We are trying to show how this change that we are trying to bring about is going to benefit people ­because what we have across much of the Highlands at the moment isn’t ­really working,” said Micklewright.

“If you look at the amount of ­people deriving a living from this sort of landscape it is really, really low and I think what we have done here is demonstrate that rewilding ­actually delivers benefits for communities and livelihoods – if you look at other ­rewilding projects there is generally a 50% increase in staffing. People are perfectly entitled to run their ­estates as deer staking estates but if you

want to deliver benefits for nature, the ­climate and livelihoods then ­rewilding is where it’s at.”

Micklewright added that while ­rewilding might be seen as a threat by traditional rural estates, much of the management is similar but with a ­different goal.

“A lot of the elements of gamekeeping are things we need to do for the management of wildlife – we are just doing it for a different kind of ­purpose,” said Micklewright. “We know it can happen because our deer stalker came on that journey with us and 15 years later he is still here.”

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Just eight miles from Loch Ness, the centre is a good base for ­visiting the impressive locks at Fort ­Augustus on the Caledonian ­Canal and historic ­Urquhart Castle near ­Drumnadrochit, where Nessie ­souvenirs can be picked up by those who fail to spot the ­monster.

There is much to see at the ­centre too for both day trippers and guests who stay over at the pristine and very comfortable 40-bed residence, An Spiris. This is available for group bookings or individuals and boasts ­ensuite bedrooms, a large sitting room/kitchen area with fridges, ­kettles, and crockery. There are no cookers but breakfast and lunch are available at the lovely café in the ­centre with evening meals soon to be offered. There are also plenty of ­places to eat nearby.

“We want people to spend time and money here but also in the ­local area and there are lots of nice places around,” said Laurelin ­Cummins-Fraser, Dundreggan Rewilding Centre Director.

As well as the cafe, the centre, which features a stunning tree ­sculpture of reclaimed metal created by ­acclaimed artist Helen Denerley, offers a ­gateway to the wild forest, with fully accessible trails, ­child-friendly forest experiences, and more adventurous walks.

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Displays in English and Gaelic ­introduce rewilding and the Gaelic language and a storytelling bothy showcases local history and heritage.

A refreshing change to the usual visitor information boards in many other places is that the Gaelic explanation comes before the English one, highlighting the importance of the language in the history of ­Glenmoriston.

“We knew there were Gaelic roots here from the place names and the people who speak it in this glen,” said Cummins-Fraser. “Our two fantastic Gaelic consultants, Roddy Maclean and Ceit Langhorne have drawn out a lot of the stories from here in the glen because we really wanted to do this in a way that was authentic and not seen as tokenistic.

“It is another lovely part of what makes Dundreggan so worth ­visiting, along with more than 4000-plus ­species here of plants and animals and our amazing tree nursery.

“It’s a really lovely place, uniquely beautiful and our staff are very welcoming and warm. There are plenty of activities but if you want to enjoy some quiet time you can do that too.

“Whether a visitor has just an hour for a quick visit or wants to stay with us for an immersive rewilding experience, our centre will welcome ­people to discover stunning landscapes, unique wildlife and Gaelic culture, while connecting with the wonders of the natural world.”

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Building the centre was not without its problems, however, as the first meeting with architects was in March 2020, during lockdown, so all planning was done online in the early stages. Inflation increased costs also spiralled from £4 million to £5m, which created extra challenges in the construction process.

“It was a massive shock to the ­system as we had to find more ­money but we see it as an investment for the community and rewilding,” said Cummins-Fraser. “We want to be an example of an estate that provides socio-economic benefits – to show that rewilding has benefits for people and well-being but also has financial benefits.”

The extra costs meant that plans for staff accommodation were put on hold for the time being but it is hoped this can be provided in the future to support staff recruitment, which has been challenging since Brexit and Covid and has affected Dundreggan as well as the rest of Scotland.

The expectation was that there would be a slow build-up of visitor numbers until people learned about the centre but there has already been a lot of interest since its April official opening.

Micklewright sees Dundreggan as a place of hope.

“We want to breathe life into the huge potential of the Highlands to help nature return in a major way – providing people from all walks of life with fantastic experiences while supporting re-peopling, boosting ­social and economic opportunities, and tackling the climate and nature ­emergencies,” he said.