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Aspen and eagles

A former royal ordnance factory close to Glasgow airport might be an unlikely setting for a new rewilding project, but that is all about to change. John Muir Trust’s Nicky McClure reports.

White tailed eagle
 © Mark Hamblin /

Published 26/05/2020

Mention large-scale rewilding and chances are you’ll think of the Carpathians in Europe or the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands. The post-industrial hinterland of Glasgow doesn’t spring to mind. Thanks to the Yearn Stane Project, this will soon change.

Sitting within Scotland’s largest regional park (Clyde Muirshiel), the Yearn Stane Project spans Renfrewshire, North Ayrshire and Inverclyde. Covering around 50 square kilometres, it includes one of Scotland’s most accessible areas of wild land: Wild Land Area 4 Waterhead Moor – Muirshiel. Described as by Scottish Natural Heritage as open, rolling moorland dissected by steep-sided glens and punctuated by several small but steep peaks’. Yet, unlike many areas described as wild, five million people live in and around the area.

It’s a big, wild and remote place in a fairly busy area and I love the views, space, fresh air and the dragonflies behind the ranger centre at Loch Thom,” says Carolyn who uses the park regularly. More community involvement in looking after the park would be great.”

The capacity for positive change here is all the more impressive precisely because of the closeness of people to the land.

What’s in a name?

The Yearn Stane is a boulder next to hill of Irish Law in the regional park” explains Joe Greenless, Yearn Stane’s project officer. It means the eagle’s rock’. At some point in the past someone saw an eagle sitting on it – but you won’t see one today, or any other day.”

The potential for restoration here is huge. The beautiful cross-country route to Lochwinnoch, and the milestone-marked single-track road to Muirshiel Visitor Centre, takes you through an old shooting estate and past the ruins of a grinding mill for a nearby abandoned Barytes mine. You might see a solitary bee buzzing lazily, or the occasional skylark, but otherwise, the land can be eerily quiet.

Grassland habitat at Yearn Stane Rewilding Project in Scotland
The Yearn Stane Project started in early 2017 when a group of volunteers helped plant 100 native trees at an abandoned Barytes Mine in Muirshiel Country Park  © /

Stark comparisons

In recent years, black grouse have become locally extinct, along with mountain hare, adder, red squirrel, water vole and bog myrtle. Hen harriers have not bred successfully for a number of years. Gone are the golden plover, twite and ring ouzel. The trees in this part of the park were few and far between. No wonder the eagle that lends the project its name has left its traditional stone perch for now. Joe and the rest of the Yearn Stane team are ambitious for its return.

In keeping with the pioneering nature of the project, the heart of its operations is a former Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) at Bishopton. Here, the current owner is remediating the 10 square kilometres with a view to new housing, commercial and community buildings, as well as a new woodland park and recreational facilities. There are native and conifer woodlands, and since January 2017 has become Eadha’s tree nursery.

By virtue of the security fence around the post-industrial site, it had become something of an accidental wildlife haven. Surveys have recorded 24 species of mammal, four species of amphibian and 100 species of bird, including badgers, otters, bats and barn owls. This rich enclave is in sharp contrast to the deserted Renfrewshire hills round about. A landscape scarred by a long history of draining and grazing, with very little native woodland and no natural regeneration.

Bees and skylarks are still here but Yearn Stane hopes to see the return of much more wildlife in the future

Opportunity to alleviate flooding

These denuded rolling plains aren’t just bad for wildlife. They contribute to regular and serious flooding to local communities at Lochwinnoch and Kilburnie, and threaten the future of water sports at Castle Semple Loch due to silting.

From the flood statistics produced by SEPA we know the 10-year flood risk in our area is £73 million” says Joe. Research by the IUCN and Moors for the Future suggests that the peak in flood can be reduced by up to 30 per cent. Planting riparian woodland and encouraging regeneration should reduce it further”.

Upland farmers have a crucial role to play in reducing flooding and improving habitat by rewetting the moors, but it’s far from a one-way street. Many are concerned about the impact on livelihoods as we leave the European Union. The project is now in active discussions with several local land managers to plant trees, restore peat bog and store carbon — allowing them to qualify for carbon credits.

We have a golden window of opportunity,” says Joe. Some carbon credit brokers won’t work with individuals, they want them to form a collective and work together. It’s early days, but with Eadha acting as the umbrella, we’re hopeful”.

Healing the land, together

There are multiple strands to Yearn Stane’s web of healing. Aspen expert and Eadha founder Peter Livingstone is working with SEPA and Aryshire farmers to identify and repair areas where cattle are eroding river banks. They’re also working with local crematorium Horizon to introduce native species, whilst the Malcolm Group are planting more natives on landfill sites in Renfrewshire and North Ayrshire.

Aspen in the tree nursery
Eadha’s tree nursery thrives as part of remediating a 10 square kilometre area of land. It's propagating native trees and shrubs including aspen and juniper

The John Muir Trust has a long association in the area, working with the Muirsheil Ranger team to deliver John Muir Awards — helping connect young people, volunteers and families to their local landscape. The Place Woodland scheme in Kilbirnie has also used the Award to help adults realise the therapeutic benefits of spending time outdoors in nature. It also operates as a bridge to employment through skills development and training.

Rewilding people

People are absolutely key to the re-imagining and rewilding of this land. Locals are in the driving seat, but there are huge potential benefits for those living in nearby Greenock, Glasgow, Paisley and Linwood. This means a large pool of potential volunteers to call on.

John Muir Trust’s Head of Land Mike Daniels sums up: Joe, Peter, Liz and the team are driving an innovative and exciting vision for this wild land area that seeks to demonstrate how ecological restoration and respect for wild places can drive social regeneration benefiting local people. It resonates deeply with our own mission at the John Muir Trust and – alongside Rewilding Britain and the Woodland Trust – we’re delighted to be able to help.”

“Yearn Stane is a project led by local people with a passion for community, nature and climate. Rewilding Britain is delighted to support them. We can’t wait to see the project grow, wildlife flourish and new livelihoods develop”

Rebecca Wrigley,

CEO of Rewilding Britain

Find out more:

  • The Yearn Stane Project is supported by John Muir Trust, Rewilding Britain and the Woodland Trust, who have funded the project officer position and research and development work.
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