In 2010, as a student completing her MA in Broadcast Journalism, George Tomlinson made a film about rewilding in Scotland. She interviewed some of the early pioneers of more radical conservation in Scotland such as Alan Watson Featherstone, Roy Denis and the late Dick Balharry as well as some of those working the land who worry about changing land use and bringing back missing species. We spoke to George about making the film and what rewilding means to her.
Rewilding Britain: How did the film come about? Why rewilding?
George Tomlinson: As part of my MA in Multimedia Broadcast Journalism at Falmouth University I had to produce a twenty-minute documentary. A keen naturalist, I always knew I’d make a film about wildlife, but with limited resources and time, I had to choose my subject carefully. Reintroduction programmes were my first thought — cranes on the Somerset levels, large blue butterflies, beavers. But many of the projects were already under media pressure and there was little room for a student film-maker.
I continued to research reintroductions and came across an article in the Daily Telegraph. It was about a report from the Cairngorms National park Authority which identified the previously native species of the Cairngorms and weighed up the implications of their return. I contacted one of the ecologists from the article, David Hetherington, and he told me about other people and organisations involved in rewilding.
Rewilding wasn’t a term I was familiar with so I set about researching it and its connections with Scotland. Fascinated by what I found, within hours I’d decided this would be my project.
Watch the film
What sort of research did you do?
The majority of my research was online — reports and articles on various rewilding projects in both the UK and further afield. The week after I made contact with David Hetherington I attended a lecture he gave at a ZSL seminar on rewilding in the UK and Europe.
David was key to the development of the film and the direction of my research. Having produced a PhD on the feasibility of lynx reintroduction to Scotland, he was a fountain of knowledge and knew many of the key players and projects. He also put me in touch with local land managers so I could get their perspectives.
You have some key conservation voices in the film – Roy Denis, Dick Balharry, Alan Featherstone. How did you decide who to include in the film?
As I explored the subject, I knew the film would be much more than a wildlife documentary. It needed to be as much about people as it was wildlife. I wanted to make sure that I produced a well-balanced film, covering a range of people and opinions to enable the audience to come to its own conclusion.
There were several names that quickly became familiar to me, and if a name crops up in all the articles you’re reading on a subject, you’d be foolish not to include them. It was also imperative to me that the farming and gamekeeping community were represented, as they make up such a huge part of Scottish life, industry and economy.
Logistics also played a part. I had limited time in Scotland so everyone had to be available in the same week. Some decisions were also made in the edit suite. There were at least five interviews that I didn’t use at all. I didn’t want to dilute the arguments too much by having too many voices, so I chose a mix of people who I thought could offer the audience the broadest overview of the subject in the twenty minute time limit.
What was most challenging in making it?
Time, money and resources. With only my student bank balance to fund it, basic equipment to make it and a month to complete it, the film had many limitations. We (Nick, my husband, was my driver and sound man) could only afford eight days in Scotland so I had to create a tight schedule and stick to it to make sure I got everything I needed.
The other biggest challenge was editing. By the time I’d finished all the interviews I had about sixteen hours worth of footage to edit down to just twenty minutes – no mean feat!
What most surprised you in researching and making it?
The biggest surprise in researching rewilding, was that I hadn’t heard the phrase before. As a keen naturalist studying broadcast journalism, I’d spent the best part of a year immersing myself in environmental/wildlife stories and yet the term was completely new to me. Five years on, I’m delighted to see it getting more attention, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in spreading the word even further.
In making the film, I was pleasantly surprised at how balanced the majority of my contributors’ views were – both on and off the screen. As passionate as they were, I think all the people I spoke to were realistic about the pros and cons of rewilding projects.
Where did you get the wildlife footage?
I’m proud to say that I filmed every shot myself. Although I did cheat a little! Gaining access and rights to existing footage would have taken time and money that I didn’t have. Nor did we have the time, money or equipment to film these animals in the wild. So it’s the animals at Whipsnade zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park that mainly star in the film.
We also spent an afternoon at Alladale where we filmed wild boar and elk, and the red kites were filmed at Argaty. There’s also a tiny bit of white tailed sea eagle footage which we filmed on Mull — easy to miss, as it’s so distant, but I was determined to include it as we waited so long to see them!
What conclusions did you come to about rewilding by the end of it?
I think rewilding is essential. Since making the film I’ve had two children and rewilding needs to happen for theirs and their grandchildren’s sake. We’ve lost so much over the last hundred years alone. If we don’t act now we’ll deny future generations the opportunity to enjoy vibrant wild spaces.
As many of my film’s contributors say – it’s all about balance. We need to reconnect with nature and stop treating it as a second-class citizen. But as Alan Watson-Featherstone says, we can’t turn back the clock. We can only restart it. We can’t ignore the fact the population and the towns and cities have grown, and continue to grow. We need to work with nature now, not against it. Help it reclaim and thrive once more in the space that’s left.
Anything else you’d like to say?
There’s a danger with rewilding that people focus too much on the ‘sexy predators’ – the lynx, the wolves, the bears. It makes for great headlines, but rewilding is much more than that. In every corner of the country there’s something that can be done to help rewild Britain.
When you’re passionate about nature it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows (or even cares) about the diversity of British wildlife – past or present. One of the biggest challenges in rewilding Britain is getting people to care. Engaging those who don’t know a house sparrow from a house martin. Inspiring those who don’t get the chance to explore outside their towns or cities. Igniting an interest in the next generation and reigniting the connection between people and wildlife.