Animal Advocate No.5: Gina Bates, activist, vegan crofter and rewilder

Welcome to Gina, who is, in her own words, “a lifelong Biophiliac, a lover of all life.”


Following Art college and a career in design, Gina left London for the far north of Scotland where she rebuilt a derelict watermill. For 18 years she lived in an even wilder part of Sutherland, miles from amenities and people. During this time she’s completed a permaculture design course, studying soil ecology and systems theory; she has also designed a Highland species identification booklet aimed at helping children to connect with nature and wildness.


In 2018 she bought the assignation of an 80-acre Highland croft along with 100+ acres of common grazing which will hopefully soon be reforested under a Native Forest Scheme. Named Highland Veganics, it’s being designed as the first vegan plant protein croft in crofting history.


Gina is one of the founders of Vegan Land Movement. This is a CIC (Community Interest Company) that aims to buy areas of agricultural land to restore to (and by) nature. The aim is to also eventually transform some parcels of land to produce food veganically alongside creating wildlife and animal sanctuaries, raising awareness of complex ecosystems and working with nature rather than against it under the vegan principles of least harm.


Most recently (last month, June 2022) the Vegan Land Movement’s crowdfunder appeal successfully bought a fourth 10-acre parcel of land formerly used for dairy farming. There are many other projects in their sights.


Here Gina kindly answers my questions about her life and work.


Linda:  You describe yourself as a “lifelong biophiliac”. Where did that early love of nature come from? Is it shared by everyone in your family?


Gina: I was a lucky child as my parents both had a love of nature, mainly of birds. We grew up on a council estate but had quite a good size garden where my mum always grew vegetables. There were areas of what we called waste land nearby, where we spent many school holidays catching lizards and collecting caterpillars. I remember my dad making a great cage out of an old fireguard to keep tortoiseshell caterpillars in. We fed them stinging nettles and watched them pupate and then set them free as butterflies. We had all manner of creatures living with us and hand-reared many that were either orphans or injured.


Linda: You made a drastic career change, switching from designing in London to living simply in the wilds of Scotland. Was this a long-held ambition or did something happen to prompt it?


Gina: There were several events that sparked this change. My Nan, who I adored, suddenly died and I hadn't seen her for several weeks due to working such long hours in London. It really shocked me. I used to design window displays for Libertys and one day I left by a concealed back entrance (this was not unusual) to see all of last month’s sculptural pieces all thrown into a skip. These two events were within a few weeks of each other. Both were about loss: the loss of a loved one and the loss and waste of all that time and creation. I felt bereft, and had some sort of an awakening. I was overwhelmed with just how shallow the fashion/acquisition industry was, and is. I already knew this as I'd always been a part time activist and a member of Greenpeace etc, but I realised that I just wasn't living my truth. I spoke to my partner, who felt the same, and we both decided to get out of London and search for a better life. My partner already had a love of the Highlands so we went looking for that new life there. We found it, but parted a couple of years after. I then moved to the wilderness alone and into a semi-derelict remote cottage owned by a sheep club. I would stop it from falling down in return for living there rent-free.


I knew nobody and soon realised that I didn’t really know myself either. Some incredible things happened very quickly - the first was being snowed in two miles from anyone for nearly two months. I was unprepared, with hardly any food or fuel. The snow was waist-high and I had dig under all of that to find the potatoes I'd had planted earlier that year;  I had to live on rations for weeks, as did my two dogs.  I also had to burn furniture and drag fallen branches through deep snow 200 metres from a woodland farther down the hill; it was a very difficult time.


Something clicked and I went into some sort of warrior survival mode. I'd always been practical and solution-based but this was new. I was on the edge and this was, I realised afterwards, one the biggest gifts of my life. I found two really important parts of myself and what it means to be human: my resilience and my resourcefulness. I will never forget this time - it was so life changing and life affirming. 

Linda: How did you cope with the change of surroundings, the distance from other people and the lack of amenities? Were there times when you regretted your decision?


Gina: There is something very strange about being in the Highland landscape. It is very hard to describe and I think there is some sort of primal pull there. It has a rugged untameable quality and the beauty is overwhelming. There's a saying about the English in the Highlands: some last for just two years some stay for four but in the end have to leave, and then there are those who stay for life. I appear to be the latter. 


After the survival experience I really got into Maslow's hierarchy of needs. What is it that we need? The basic ... food, warmth, shelter and if we are lucky companionship. I had begun to strip myself down. So I didn't miss other people at all because I'd started to go on a journey of working out what it means to exist. I was captivated by simplicity and what was really important.


Moving into this semi-derelict remote cottage I soon realised I was not alone. I shared it with wild creatures. The cottage was a hibernation place for hundreds of the same tortoiseshell butterflies I grew up with. It was also home to mice and birds. I decided early on to let them all share the cottage with me - after all, they were there first! So I immersed myself in their lives, letting the mice run over me and making sure they had enough food, too. I would re-hibernate the butterflies if they woke too early, and let the dunnocks and robins roost in the kitchen - the window was always open. 

Linda: Were you brought up to be vegetarian / vegan? If not, when and why did you make the change?



Gina: No, and I had no idea there was such a thing until I went to art college at the age of nineteen and met a vegetarian who I became friends with. I think I first became vegetarian when I was twenty-four or five. I was in my early forties when I became vegan, so around seventeen years ago. Like many others, I've no idea why I didn’t join all these dots sooner, and feel ashamed and sorry about that. 


Linda: A similar story for me. I've been vegetarian since my early twenties, but it took me far too long to take the logical next step of becoming vegan.  

Linda: How did the idea of Vegan Land Movement come about?


Gina: In 2017 a friend made me join Twitter and I was surprised to realise that there were hundreds of thousands of other vegans out there. I’d had no idea there were so many of us.


When I bought my croft I decided to try to create a veganic cobnut farm (hazels are native to the Highlands so it seemed sensible to grow orchards of cultivated cobs and filberts here) but there was no funding to help me, not even to grow basic vegetables. I then heard a shocking story on BBC Radio 4 about how the far right were funding hate blogs by crowd funding. It was awful, but it got me thinking about trying to crowd fund my nut orchards. I looked at the various crowdfunding platforms, realised that none were vegan, and thought: this is what vegans need! Their very own crowd funding platform. So a few of us on Twitter created the not-for-profit (GVCF) and my nut orchard was its first project. It took a while but vegans eventually donated from all around the world.


We then raised money for the 91 pigs saved from horrific cruelty by Beneath The Wood Sanctuary in Wales and globally built them a barn and a feed club.

The Vegan Land Movement CIC (VLM), founded by Kevin Greenhill, Sara Eloquin and me, is GVCF’s sister initiative and GVCF is the platform used to crowd fund the land movement’s buyouts. They also share a website and resources to keep down costs, as we’re all volunteers running both initiatives.


I’m surrounded by animal agriculture in the Highlands and because I’m a vegan environmentalist I realised very early on that the root of animal farming is the land itself. To end the suffering of farmed animals, to save species, to mitigate against climate breakdown and basically save life on Earth, we need to give the land back to biodiversity and the earth and do it under vegan principles. 


So The Vegan Land Movement came into being. The three of us had many discussions about the name, and the creation of something we could all become part of and work together on. The VLM is for us all. A vegan land movement to help create a vegan world acre by acre.  


We then looked into becoming a Charity but as an activist I found it too restrictive. A lawyer suggested that we should consider becoming a CIC (Community Interest Company). A CIC has something called an Asset Lock that locks assets away from humans gaining financially, and this seemed a perfect fit as this was not about any of us. We wrote a constitution that names the Earth and species as the CIC beneficiaries as well as the wider human communities, because we will all benefit from rewilded veganic havens. 

Linda: Did this seem like an impossible dream at first? How did you gather the support to make it reality?


Gina: I really had no idea of what would happen when we launched the fundraiser for the first plot of dairy grazing land. But it was amazing, people donated from all around the world and on the auction day when we started to lose, people donated even more money. Even so, we were outbid, and we were all devastated. Because of our transparency there was a lot of ridicule on Twitter by farmers at the time and in all honestly we feel they may have clubbed together to outbid us.


A few weeks later we went to another auction in secret and won easily.  

This first site has now been planted with various native saplings as has the second site. The third site we are planning planting a veganic community orchard this coming winter. The fourth, that we won on the 20th June, will become a 10-acre native woodland.


Linda: Have you met with more opposition from local farmers and landowners?


Gina: Not yet. Hopefully, if we do, we can talk to them about how important it is to try to save endangered species etc.


Linda: Your plan of non-interference, letting the land decide what it wants to be, is different from other rewilding projects I’ve read about, for example the Knepp Estate, where grazing animals are used to keep scrub in check. What made you decide not to have grazing cattle or sheep? Do you think you’ll ever have to intervene, for example if invasive plant species threaten to smother the native vegetation?


Gina: The Vegan Land Movement is a purely vegan initiative, so we’re opposed to grazing any farmed animals or any hunting and culling. I have always been puzzled by the idea of wild ‘land management’ as it is so anthropocentric. I say to people: Who do we think we are to feel that we might know best when, let’s face it, our track record is nothing but destruction? And what is an invasive species anyway? A species in the wrong place because of us. We have really messed things up and the whole planet has species in the ‘wrong’ places. We also attach human time onto everything when in reality if humans left the Earth tomorrow, nature would heal itself. Maybe that would be a mix of the wrong species in the wrong places but as nobody will be around to point that out then it really wouldn’t matter, nature would adjust. I often think of this: what if humans didn’t intervene at all. What would that look like? The land would go through several stages as it tries to revert back to forest. We need to just let it be and learn to not interfere. We need to observe and learn. We are such an arrogant species. We are very clever and inventive, but this doesn't make us wise. 

Linda: We’re increasingly aware that public consumption of meat and dairy produce has to be drastically reduced if we’re to have any chance of meeting carbon targets. Do you think we can make the changes in time? How can the Vegan Land Movement help raise awareness?


Gina: Sadly, I don’t. I actually think we're facing an apocalyptic future because of the way humans are. We are too greedy - I think everyone needs to get snowed in alone with little food and fuel. The picture is also different from what is being painted. We need a mass behaviour shift and this means moving away from relentless consumerism and acquisition. We must end the consumption of animals immediately because it is the biggest cruellest injustice there is. It is also why we've become so self obsessed. People talk about the loss of connection to the natural world and how we need to reconnect but in all honestly I feel that we have never been connected.


We are at a pivotal point now where we can choose what the future will be as a species. We carry on with business as usual to extinction or we change. That change has to be a huge education initiative. The pandemic gave people a taste of a different life, but sadly they all rushed back to business as usual.


My original dream for the VLM is for every vegan of Twitter to become part of it. For all of us to work together in creating the world that we want. We cannot and must not wait any longer for corrupt governments obsessed with growth. There is every profession on vegan Twitter, from lawyers to builders. We have everything we need to create an alternative compassionate ethical system. It really is that simple. I personally want to create an educational forum as part of the VLM too. so that we can all share ideas in how we go forward.


Imagine if all the animal and planet harmers disappeared, just leaving vegans behind! We wouldn’t need to send out graphic footage any more - but what we would need to do is create a veganic system that works. This is what The Vegan Land Movement is about. Creating the alternative.


We need to move away from protest and outrage towards creating that alternative.


This is one of my favourite quotes: 


“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  Buckminster Fuller

Linda: You must have met with a number of practical problems in managing your croft and woodland. Can you always solve these in ways that don’t conflict with your principles?


Gina: I haven’t really met any problems because it’s really is a research site at the moment. The trees are only three years old and won’t produce for another five to ten years. I rarely go into the woodland lower down on the croft because every time I do I seem to scare the little sika deer and her fawn who live there. I did walk down there a couple of weeks ago but didn’t stay long because of the various alarm calls from nesting birds.


Linda: Do you keep rescued animals on your croft, or are they looked after elsewhere? 


Gina: I have three ponies who I’ve had as companions for twenty years. They are free to just be who they are and I am blessed that they seem to like me. They come and see me in my caravan and often knock on the window to say hello. They have around twenty acres of the croft and seem to keep the gorse in check. In three years there has been a remarkable difference since the previous owner’s sheep and cattle left. So much wildlife has returned. The croft is buzzing with life and every summer more arrives.


Linda: Finally: in your life and work, you really have followed the idea (mis)attributed to Gandhi of  being the change you want to see in the world. What advice would you give to anyone, particularly young people, who want to live as far as sustainably and compassionately as possible?


Gina: I’m not sure I can give advice but I think from my experience and journey, the answer would be one word ... simplicity. We also need to join so many dots. A while back Nestle launched a vegan KitKat. It’s wrapped in single use plastic and contains palm oil as do many other vegan products. Palm oil is not vegan because of the damage to old growth forests and countless species, and neither is single use plastic, millions of tonnes of which are ending up in the oceans killing marine life over and over again for around 500 years.


So with this in mind the questions I ask myself are these. What is this product made from? Where is each ingredient from? Was there ecological damage involved? Have animals been hurt, either directly or indirectly? Is this product ethical? Have humans been exploited too?


If the answers are yes, then boycotting the product will mean less harm for all life. But the biggest question of all is: do I need it to survive?  


Linda: Thanks so much, Gina, for answering my questions so fully. Your project is a really inspiring one which I hope others will follow! 


You can listen to Gina’s Off the Leash podcast, an interview with Charlie Moores at the newly-acquired Somerset site, here. (Off the Leash is a great podcast for all things animal-related.)