“This is the litmus test – whether or not capitalism has a survival reflex,” Jeremy Leggett says. We are standing in his kitchen on Bunloit estate, in what used to be a schoolhouse. The huge picture window overlooks Loch Ness. Lazy clouds drift up from the south, towards Inverness and the Moray Firth.
‘This’ refers to Leggett’s nature-based solutions start-up, Highlands Rewilding and the three Scottish estates it’s snapped up; Bunloit, Beldorney in Aberdeenshire and – days after our interview – Tayvallich in Argyll, whose crowdfunder Leggett has agreed to discuss.
Highlands Rewilding will do what it says on the tin. Leggett and his 22-strong team plan to buy country estates – up to 20, says the Scottish rumour mill – to rewild. They will restore the sites to sell carbon and biodiversity credits to big-money investors.
Leggett’s mission is to close what the Green Finance Institute calls a £97 billion funding shortfall for the UK to meet its nature targets by 2032. Restoring Scottish landscapes will unlock finance in nature-based solutions, he says, and inspire other UK landowners to get on board.
That morning, ranger Dan Holm walked me across the estate, pointing out young junipers and ancient oaks, a new-planted orchard and waist-high mixed broadleaf saplings. Behind the schoolhouse, the team has felled a plantation of lodgepole pines but not yet cleared the brash. “Right now, it looks like a battlefield,” Holm says cheerfully.
We cross the hillside towards the woodland, skirting scars of gouged earth. Sounders of wild boar creep out at night to forage in the cowpats for grubs. Feral pigs are notorious in this corner of the Highlands. Holm has a soft spot for the marauding beasties. “They turn the soil, which helps new seeds to establish,” he explains.
Bunloit is a mosaic of habitats. Highlands Rewilding has made baseline assessments of the woods, timber plantation, peatland, soils, wildlife and habitats. The previous owner clear-felled some woodland four years ago, planting 77,000 sitka spruce stems that Leggett plans to remove.
“We think we’ll get permission,” Leggett says. “The sitka drown out the broadleaf trees. Scottish Forestry said that if we have as many broadleaves as sitka, we can cut them down. But the sitka plantation is currently the estate’s most valuable land – it’ll be like standing in the rain, ripping up £100 notes.
“We’ll need the investors to approve this act of short-term economic destruction. But in the long term, doing that is much more effective for both carbon and biodiversity uplift. Playing the long game, it’s the right thing to do.”
Leggett is playing a long game and a short game. His immediate plans include afforestation, rotational grazing, forest gardening, executive retreats for stressed city slickers and community energy.
But that won’t deliver the “ethical returns” of “at least” 5 per cent annualised over ten years that Highlands Rewilding has promised its investors, Leggett admits. So how? “By managing land for carbon and biodiversity uplift… [creating] a model capable of encouraging other landowners to pivot to net-zero carbon and nature-positive practices.”
Poacher turned gamekeeper
Leggett is a big-picture thinker, an eco-entrepreneur and former chair of Carbon Tracker. He started out in academia as an earth scientist. Fossil-fuel firms funded his early research. But Leggett grasped the implications of climate change earlier than most.
In the late 1980s, he became Greenpeace International head of science. He left in 1997 to launch renewable-energy firm Solarcentury. In 2020, during lockdown, he sold the business to Statkraft for a reported £117.7 million and quit the Home Counties for the banks of Loch Ness to start up a rewilding business. He wants to bring Highlands Rewilding to market in 2028.
“Ultimately it’s about carbon uplift through carbon-credit sales – fully verified,” he says. “We’re not getting into the game, ex ante, of selling things that don’t yet exist… We’re going to be patient. We want to lead a gold standard in triple-A-rated uplifts. That’s what we’ll sell. Until then, we’ll hold the fort with ecotourism and other revenue streams.”
UK Infrastructure Bank has committed £12 million “to support the ambitions of” Highlands Rewilding. Leggett must persuade more institutional investors – and the global financial markets – that there’s profit in nature and carbon sequestration.
Investors are still cautious, Leggett admits, though more now understand “we’re in the last-chance saloon”.
“In this fundraising round, we talked to seven big financial institutions. The message has been, we know this is a growth story. Come back in six to 12 months. It’s like the solar revolution. Before solar energy took off exponentially and globally, financial institutions were saying the same things.”
But solar panels are pieces of kit – design smarter, produce more; down come the costs. Nature is not so predictable. Restoring it becomes harder, riskier and more expensive, as our climate changes and as competition for land heats up too.
Leggett disagrees. “Costs will come down. The more we understand, the more baselines we have, the fewer bits of kit we’ll need – whether that’s satellites, or sensors, or audio moths hanging in trees to record birdsong or insect numbers – to get a verifiable outcome for a particular habitat. That will bring costs down.
“You’ll need fewer boots on the ground to verify what’s happening. So the cost of data to monetise your natural capital will come down.”
The other reason solar took off is “the seeing-is-believing factor”, he says. “People looked at solar panels and said, don’t be ridiculous. That’ll never produce enough reliable electricity. Then they fitted one and watched the dial go round…
“We expect the same effect on other landowners – for vertical and horizontal scaling of rewilding. Horizontal scaling is where we offer our data-driven land-management service to other landowners. We take their pain away, offering it on a win-win basis. The vertical scaling is the businesses we build into our portfolio.”
Buying land to restore nature sounds benign. But it’s dividing opinion in Scotland – amid growing disquiet about so-called green lairds. Wealthy outsiders – American businessman Christopher Bently, Danish ASOS billionaire Anders Holch Polvsen, the Swedish-born Tetra Pak heirs Sigrid and Lisbet Rausing – have snapped up Scottish estates and country homes, promising to care for and restore the land.
The influx of rich buyers is pushing up land prices – almost double for Scottish hill ground, say some estimates. Five hundred rich people own more than half the country’s land.
Critics have singled-out Highlands Rewilding, with headlines slamming the venture’s “taxbreak trees”. Land set aside for rewilding could farm livestock or timber, argue naysayers. Or host sports shooting. Or build houses for young families. Or create jobs with – god forbid – yet more Nessie-themed bars and giftshops.
“Unless it has, say, a windfarm or asset strips/speculates, I’ve yet to hear of a Highland estate that returns 5 per cent+ dividends,” tweeted writer Alastair McIntosh. “But to me, the big question will be governance structures. Rewilding must grant local communities power to the point of veto, or it’s land colonisation.”
McIntosh points to successful community buyouts on the Isle of Eigg and at Langholm in Dumfriesshire. Thanks to Scottish land reforms, one-time tenant communities have bought more than 200,000 acres – around 3 per cent of Scotland’s land – back from powerful landowning families. Supporters of this model says Highlands Rewilding is unequal: one share buys one vote.
“Langholm is a model that can work,” Leggett says. “But it relies on philanthropy, not investment. That model doesn’t bother the trillions of pounds that pension funds invest in unsustainable things. I don’t think our model is the only way to go. But if we don’t bring private capital into the game we won’t win.”
Leggett pledges – on the record – not to take on “a serious community buyout”. “If they find philanthropic funding themselves, we will never compete,” he says. “We’ll pull out.”
He will not say how many estates he plans to buy. To him, the stakes are higher than that. “The biggest risk is that we won’t have a world to do business in,” he concludes. “If biodiversity collapse and climate meltdown continue, we’ll slide towards a total meltdown in which social cohesion collapses too.
“A lot of investors do get it. It’s like they’re in a straight-jacket. People say I’m overstating this but I believe it: this is the litmus test of whether or not capitalism has a survival reflex. I like to think it does. I’m cautiously optimistic. I, and my compadres, must persuade this suicidal system to change its course.
“Because it is suicidal.”
Highlands Rewilding made its debut purchase in 2020 after Leggett sold Solarcentury and bought the 1,200-acre estate on the west bank of Loch Ness, Inverness-shire.
In 2022, Highlands Rewilding bought the 860-acre estate near Huntly, Aberdeenshire, having tapped £7.5 million from 50 international investors. Backers include Slumdog Millionaire scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy and former Unilever boss Paul Polman
In March, Highlands Rewilding bought the 3,500-acre estate from the heirs of social worker turned conservationist Catherine Pollock, after a £10 million crowdfunding appeal. The estate includes several islands in the Sound of Jura.
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