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