Topic: Rewilding in hill-farming landscapes: The socio-political dimensions of the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Skye, Scotland
Rewilding in Europe is often targeted in upland areas, and is commonly linked with large-levels of agricultural abandonment amongst traditional food-production systems. In the Scottish Highlands rewilding has been associated with an increasing prevalence of species reintroduction initiatives, and can be positioned within a broader move towards a post-productivist countryside based around tourism and conservation. However, ideas of a new Scottish ‘wild’ can undermine and conflict with still enduring food-production landscapes which privilege customary land-uses, most significantly crofting, a form of traditional small-scale hill farming practised in the Highlands. Taking as a case study the reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle, this project seeks to understand the tension between these farming systems and rewilding through analysing the direct impacts of predation on crofters’ livestock, and the socio-political and cultural dimensions that shape crofting communities’ views of and engagement with these birds. This presentation takes as an analytical entry point the two principal animal actors in the ongoing human-wildlife conflict: the white-tailed eagle itself, and the sheep that form the bedrock of land-use on much of the island. The eagles are enrolled and represented within new discourses of a ‘wild’ landscape, a set of commodified images and experiences marketed by a growing eco-tourism sector. This idea of landscape, and the birds themselves, find support amongst ‘incomer’ residents from more urban areas, creating sites of tension and conflict within rural communities. The image of a ‘wild’ but benign eagle obscures both the material impacts on livestock production, and the way they are received socio-culturally by crofting communities. The bird’s protected status, and its symbolic currency as a form of wider social and political marginalisation, mean that it is discursively set outside of localised conceptions of nature, wildlife and landscapes. These conceptions hinge upon the role of the sheep as the agent producing the eco-cultural landscapes central to a sense of place and identity amongst crofting communities. The non-material, social and emotional impacts of eagle predation are often centred on the embodied connections between farmers and stock. From this entanglement emerges a different conception of the eagle, a non-native and uncontrolled outsider animal within a controlled, balanced farmed socio-ecology, premised on the self-identification of crofters as managers of land and wildlife.