WOLF AT THE DOOR

PAUL LIS­TER WANTS TO REIN­TRO­DUCE WOLVES TO HIS ES­TATE IN THE HIGH­LANDS AND TRIG­GER A WAVE OF POS­I­TIVE EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL CHANGES. BUT THE REWILDING MOVE­MENT FACES SIG­NIF­I­CANT CHAL­LENGES FROM THE GAMEKEEPING AND FARM­ING COM­MU­NI­TIES. SO WHAT ARE THE DAN­GERS OF B

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

One man wants to rein­tro­duce wolves to his High­land es­tate. But will it ever hap­pen?

LOOK over there, says Paul Lis­ter. Look at the grass and the heather and the hills. He asks me what I make of it all. It’s beau­ti­ful, I tell him. I’ve been com­ing to this part of the High­lands since I was a child and I love it. It’s stun­ning. Cold and rainy to­day, nat­u­rally, but stun­ning.

Wrong, says Lis­ter. This land­scape isn’t as it should be, he says. He gets out of the car and stands at the end of the track that leads deeper into his es­tate. A few hun­dred yards away are some red deer, pos­ing per­fectly in case a painter should come by. Lis­ter sweeps his arm from one side of the view to the other and tells me what’s gone wrong with this world. There’s some­thing of the preacher about him: com­mit­ted, zeal­ous, all eyes and hands.

The prob­lem, says Lis­ter, is Scot­land isn’t as beau­ti­ful as we think it is. This part of the coun­try – Al­ladale, about an hour’s drive north of In­ver­ness – was once a great for­est, he says, but now it’s re­duced to one or two wind-blown rem­nants. “I don’t like see­ing an eco-sys­tem that’s so messed up,” he says, and he tells me what’s made it this way: the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion, the Bri­tish Em­pire, two world wars, ship­build­ing – all of it needed trees and so they were cut down and no­body has shown any great in­ter­est in re­plant­ing them.

But there’s an­other prob­lem, says Lis­ter: deer and sheep. They eat and eat and eat so trees have no chance to grow, and that leaves the coun­try­side look­ing like this: in Lis­ter’s words, a mess. Which leads to his so­lu­tion. The root prob­lem, says Lis­ter, is the lack of big car­ni­vores in Scot­land – an­i­mals that could keep the num­ber of deer down and so give the trees a chance. And by big car­ni­vores Paul Lis­ter means wolves. “When you take out a big piece of the jig­saw, like the wolf, you end up with a land­scape like this,” he says. “This should all be big for­est.” He says he wants the wolves back in this part of Scot­land as soon as pos­si­ble; in fact, this year, he says, is the year when the first stage of his plan for their rein­tro­duc­tion at Al­ladale will fi­nally get go­ing.

The good news for Lis­ter is that there is good ev­i­dence wolves can be great for bio­di­ver­sity. Take Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park in the US for ex­am­ple. Wolves were re­leased there in 1995 and the changes in the en­vi­ron­ment have been re­mark­able. First, the num­bers of deer were re­duced

so more trees grew. Which meant more birds, and more fish where the trees pro­vided shade on the wa­ter. The re­growth also en­cour­aged beavers, which in turned en­cour­aged fish, frogs and rep­tiles. It was a pro­found trans­for­ma­tion of the ecosys­tem in Yel­low­stone, a cas­cade ef­fect all the way down from the wolf.

Or should that be the big, bad wolf – be­cause that’s the prob­lem, isn’t it? Our at­ti­tudes to wolves; the ef­fect of Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood and all those ly­can­thropic hor­ror movies? They make us hos­tile; they make us feel vul­ner­a­ble. And then there are the peo­ple with other in­ter­ests in the coun­try­side: game­keep­ers, farm­ers, the own­ers of shoot­ing es­tates, peo­ple with chil­dren. Most of them cry out against the wolf and so the plan gets nowhere.

When I ask him about this, it’s ob­vi­ous Lis­ter doesn’t have much pa­tience with the op­po­si­tion and as we get back in the car and drive a lit­tle fur­ther, he ex­plains pre­cisely what his plan would en­tail. Lis­ter, who be­came a multi-mil­lion­aire af­ter in­her­it­ing the MFI fur­ni­ture busi­ness for­tune from his fa­ther, bought the 23,000-acre Al­ladale es­tate for £3.5 mil­lion in 2003 and would now like to cre­ate a re­serve for what would ini­tially be 10 to 12 wolves. The idea at first would be to have a fence around the habi­tat and over time ob­serve the ef­fects they have on the land­scape.

Lis­ter is con­vinced the plan is a goer and says it would at­tract thousands more vis­i­tors to the High­lands, with the eco­nomic ben­e­fits that come with them. “In­stead of hav­ing 1,000 peo­ple a year vis­it­ing Al­ladale, we’ll have 20,000. At the mo­ment, the se­ri­ous walk­ers come up to Al­ladale whereas I’m try­ing to get the arm­chair peo­ple in ci­ties to get up and about and they need some­thing more than just fresh air. They need stuff. The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple want to go and see an­i­mals and wolves will at­tract them. Jaguars do it in South Amer­ica, lions do it in Africa and tigers do it in In­dia. We could cre­ate a new ru­ral econ­omy.”

Lis­ter is also re­laxed about some of the pos­si­ble neg­a­tive ef­fects, such as the wolves roam­ing fur­ther than they should. “I don’t have any is­sues of wolves es­cap­ing,” he says. “Ten to 12 wolves will have no pres­sure in want­ing to es­cape as the area is vast and there will be an abun­dance of red deer to prey upon.” He also be­lieves there would be a very small chance of van­dal­ism. “We are not a zoo or sa­fari park,” he says, “but a wilder­ness re­serve which is a far more nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment for the wolves.”

But away from Al­ladale, in wider Scot­land, there’s con­sid­er­able scep­ti­cism about wolves be­ing rein­tro­duced – in­deed, not just wolves. There is a healthy rewilding move­ment en­cour­ag­ing a wilder land­scape

We are not a zoo or a sa­fari park, but a wilder­ness re­serve which is a far more nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment for the wolves

in which wolves, lynx and per­haps even bears could live; there is also a char­ity, Rewilding Bri­tain, and sev­eral high-pro­file ad­vo­cates in­clud­ing Lis­ter and the zo­ol­o­gist and writer Ge­orge Mon­biot. But how far away are we from any of it hap­pen­ing?

The man who could have some an­swers is David Bal­harry, Scot­land di­rec­tor of Rewilding Bri­tain. He takes the same view as Lis­ter on the po­ten­tial tourism ben­e­fits of rein­tro­duc­ing big preda­tors and feels the same way about the state of the coun­try’s land­scape.

“If you look at Scot­land,” he says, “we have frag­mented the land into smaller and smaller parcels di­vided up by dif­fer­ent types of own­er­ship and each owner has to try to ex­tract out of the land what is best for them, but ecosys­tems don’t work like that. A key ar­gu­ment is that we are not talk­ing about na­ture-based economies every­where – we recog­nise there need to be ar­eas that are the bread­bas­kets of Scot­land. The ques­tion is: is there an op­por­tu­nity to have ar­eas where you have a na­ture-based econ­omy?”

In his role with Rewilding Bri­tain, Bal­harry is al­ready do­ing some prac­ti­cal work on pro­mot­ing rewilding and iden­ti­fy­ing ar­eas where it could progress. This week­end, for ex­am­ple, he will be in Dum­fries to talk about the pos­si­bil­ity of rewilding be­tween 200 and 600 square kilo­me­tres of the Et­trick For­est in the Bor­ders. The char­ity is also look­ing at the po­ten­tial of Glen Af­fric, west of Loch Ness.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MATT CARDY/GETTY IM­AGES

Records sug­gest the last wolf in Scot­land was killed in 1680.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: JOHN PAUL; DAMIAN SHIELDS; KENNETH MAL­COLM PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

From top: Lis­ter on his 23,000-acre es­tate north of In­ver­ness; Loch Af­fric at the east end of Glen Af­fric, which is be­ing con­sid­ered as a lo­ca­tion for the rewilding of na­tive species; beavers have been suc­cess­fully rein­tro­duced to the Knap­dale for­est in Ar­gyll

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