The man standing in front of me isn’t your average Highland laird. He’s a hyperactive, arm-waving, camomile-tea-drinking, jeans-wearing version whose eyes seem as if they’re about to leap out of their sockets with excitement whenever he speaks.
And he has a plan to shake up the traditional world of the Scottish Highland estates in which England’s tweed set like to spend their summers. He wants to create a money-generating wilderness where nature will exist in harmony, just like it did thousands of years ago, before human beings came along and disrupted the balance. His name is Paul Lister, and he’s more commonly known as the man who wants to reintroduce wolves and bears to Britain.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. The big predators are one of the last pieces of a hugely complex ecological jigsaw, and during a recent visit to his 9,300-hectare estate in the Scottish Highlands, he explains how he plans to realise his vision and where the idea came from in the first place.
‘When I was 20, I shot my first deer and I felt a bit odd,’ says the English multi-millionaire who, as the son of the man who set up furniture retailer MFI, might well have been destined for a life of indulgent shooting weekends. ‘I could understand people shooting something for subsistence reasons, but when it’s a wild animal and you’re shooting it for recreation, you can’t help thinking, “Why?”’
The question got Lister thinking about hunting and its close cousin, culling. His thoughts turned to places such as the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe, one of the continent’s last great wilderness areas, where deer don’t need to be culled in large numbers because their natural predators keep their numbers in check. In comparison, human interference has caused Britain’s ecosystems to become lopsided. Forests have been replaced by livestock and deer numbers have swollen (there are thought to be more than one million in Britain, with about 250,000 culled annually) because humans have wiped out their natural predators. As a result, the forests can’t regenerate because deer eat the seedlings and kill off older trees by nibbling at their bark.
So, why not turn back the clock, Lister thought. ‘I wanted to create a large-scale wilderness and wildlife reserve,’ he says. He was inspired by the Shamwari game reserve in South Africa, where wild animals hunted to virtual extinction were reintroduced behind a giant fence. ‘Somewhere, we could bring back the animals that were made extinct from the British Isles and see them return in a managed way, in a fenced enclosure.’
He suggested the idea to a few estates in Britain but couldn’t find any takers. ‘I was just coming at them out of the blue, saying, “By the way, this is an idea I’ve got, what do you think about it?” It was too big a step for a lot of people. It became very clear that in order to get this thing off the ground, I had to secure my own bit of land.’
It took him ten years to find Alladale, which he bought in 2003. It was worth the wait. It not only ticked many of his boxes – not far from an airport; no Munroes, Scottish mountains higher than 3,000 feet (914 metres), meaning fewer walkers (‘Munro bagging’ is a popular pastime for hillwalkers); on the eastern side of the watershed, meaning less rain; and no tenant farmers, meaning less livestock damage – but it still felt wild and was incredibly beautiful.
Or at least it looks beautiful to the untrained eye. But to those in the know, there’s something missing: trees. This area was once dominated by the Caledonian pine forest, a 10,000-year-old mix of Scots pine, rowan, birch, aspen and juniper that previously covered large parts of Scotland, but of which only one per cent now remains.
Today, the hills are largely bare and covered in heather and bracken. It’s what we’ve come to think of as a quintessential Scottish view, but as head ranger and local resident Innes MacNeill explains as we drive through the estate, it’s a manmade landscape created largely during the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.
At that time, many Scottish landowners began to ‘improve’ their land by driving out the crofters, chopping down the forests to sell for timber and installing cash-generating sheep. ‘About 400 families would have been evicted from this area and their houses burned down,’ says MacNeill. The families fled from here to the coast or overseas, he explains.
One hundred and twenty thousand trees have now been planted on the estate in the hope of repairing some of the damage. And some old areas of woodland still remain, filled with lichen-covered trees and a magical mossy ground. ‘The forest you can see around here is essentially what we’re trying to recreate over the whole area,’ MacNeill says. ‘They’re all native species in there: birch, alder, aspen, holly.’ They would once have spread up from the rivers to meet the ancient Caledonian pine forest, the northernmost remnants of which still creep onto the estate.
And elsewhere, in a fenced enclosure, young trees are sprouting up, at odds with the surrounding bare hills. The enclosure was set up by the environmentally conscious previous owner and proves how quickly woodland can regenerate when the pressures of livestock and deer are removed. ‘It’s a great example to other estate owners,’ MacNeill says.
But ‘fence’ is rather a dirty word in Scotland, following the passing of its landmark ‘right to roam’ legislation. Still, MacNeill believes that they’re necessary. ‘It would be good to do it without fences, but at the moment, we need them so we can give the trees a head start,’ he says. In the long term, Lister plans to reduce the deer numbers and keep them down with wolves but, currently, MacNeill has taken on that role.
And it isn’t just wolves that Lister would like to see on the estate. He’s also planning to reintroduce red squirrels, lynx, bears and wildcats (of which there are thought to be fewer than 400 left in the Highlands) and possibly bison. But the large predators are still years off. ‘If you picture Alladale as going from A to Z, we’re currently at K,’ he says.
However, the estate is already brimming with wildlife. There are mountain hares, pine martens, wild brown trout, otters, osprey, peregrine falcons and even two nesting pairs of golden eagles. And, in the past couple of years, all of these have been supplemented by two European elk and a small herd of wild boar, kept in a 180-hectare fenced enclosure.
We stop off at the enclosure and meet Alladale’s general manager and Lister’s right-hand man, Hugh Fullerton-Smith, an ex-jackaroo who has worked on conservation projects around the world, doing everything from creating mobile slaughterhouses for Mongolian nomads to setting up a bison reintroduction programme with the Sioux in the USA.
Fullerton-Smith explains the problems that they’ve faced as the local bureaucracy came up against something it had never encountered before: a wilderness reserve (call it a zoo and the animals wouldn’t be allowed to eat each other) containing potentially dangerous animals. ‘We’re not allowed to put a fence up over two metres,’ he says. ‘But in a couple of years, the bull elk will be so tall I’ll have to stretch right up to touch his nose.’
The paradoxes don’t end there. Although the enclosure contains wild boar and elk (which can turn nasty when defending their young), the council have insisted on stiles to allow access for ramblers. A sign on the gate reads: ‘Do not enter. Dangerous wild animals.’ The second part is fine, says the council, ‘but we can’t say, “Do not enter”,’ says Fullerton-Smith.
Behind the fence, research into the wild boar’s role in forest regeneration is continuing. ‘They break up the heather and create somewhere for the seedlings to grow,’ says Chris Sansom, an Oxford University postgraduate student who is carrying out his PhD research on the estate.
Lister is hoping to restrict access to his reserve on the grounds of the scientific work being carried out at Alladale and the benefits the reserve will bring to the local economy. Right-to-roamers have already expressed concerns, but Lister hopes that they will be won over by the fact that the project is unique.
If they are, and his plans for a wilderness reserve populated with reintroduced species are realised, he and Fullerton-Smith believe the benefits to the local economy could be significant. ‘We’re already employing 18 people. In five years’ time, we could easily be employing 45,’ says Fullerton-Smith, who sees this as a huge boon to an area ‘dying on its feet’.
The local town, Ardgay, backs up Fullerton-Smith’s diagnosis – there’s little life there. A sign in a café window reads ‘Closed for refurbishment’ but it doesn’t look as though it’s going to open up any time soon. During my short stop in Ardgay, I only see one man and his collie dog. ‘There’s nothing else going on here,’ says Lister. ‘There’s no other industry.’
Lister believes that this will change as wealthy visitors are drawn to Alladale’s luxury lodge and take part in activities such as deer stalking, fly-fishing, hiking, mountain biking and horse riding. These, he hopes, will soon be joined by bear and wolf spotting, although there won’t be any wolves unless Lister can acquire more land.
‘Wolves need about 20,000 hectares,’ says Lister. ‘I’ve got 9,300 so I need 11,000 more.’ He’s hoping to get one or more of the neighbouring estates involved, but in order to do so, he needs to prove his plan is economically viable. ‘We can’t say to people, “Come and do what we’re doing. We’re losing loads of money. Isn’t it fun?”’ he says.
And that means getting ‘bums in beds’, as Lister puts it. To achieve this, he’s pushing the 16-person lodge as a destination for corporate and family gatherings, and building two new eco-bothies and an eco-lodge elsewhere on the estate for smaller families and couples. They’re being built from reclaimed croft stone and will be geothermally heated and hydropowered.
But what happens if the neighbouring estates don’t join him and his vision can’t be realised? Lister is optimistic and used to going against the grain. ‘I’m not your usual Highland lodge owner,’ he says. ‘I don’t hunt; I don’t fish; I don’t drink; I don’t wear a skirt. But I’m just going to stay here until I drive everyone insane.’ Then he lets out a burst of crazy laughter and heads off to bed.
This article was originally published in the August 2008 edition of Geographical magazine.