The echoes of Scotland’s predator prince faded into silence three centuries ago. The wolf was once lord of these Sutherland slopes and the forest floors beneath and now a voice in the wilderness is calling him home.
Paul Lister acquired the Alladale estate, 50 miles north of Inverness, in 2003 and immediately set about creating a wilderness reserve according to his perception of what these wild and beautiful places ought to look like. He can’t imagine them without the packs of wolves that once roamed free here.
But his views are considered eccentric by ramblers and conservationists, who view them as a rich man’s caprice, centring their objections on his plans to fence off the vast reserve.
Lister’s plans for the controlled release of a pack of Swedish wolves have been known for years but last week he seemed to issue an ultimatum to the Highland and Islands council, using a local newspaper interview to tell them: “I want to do this, but we would really need to have the details nailed down by the end of 2018.” Yet, when you speak to this man, driven as he is by a vision of how these places should be managed, you form an unshakeable impression that he will strive to fulfil it for as long as it takes.
There are few spaces in the UK more achingly beautiful than Glen Mor and Glen Alladale, the ancient glacial valleys that form this wilderness. The last of the winter snow still coats the top of jagged ridges high above a river that cleaves the land below. At the top of one of these peaks is the only point in Scotland where you can observe the Atlantic on one side and the North Sea on the other. These rocks and this water are as old as Scotland itself and showcase this country in its most majestic raiment.
These places were once rich in a diversity of trees, flowers and wild animals, which rubbed alongside small human settlements eking a sparse existence. The people disappeared in their thousands during the clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, forced to flee their homes in the face of the most ruthless, forced mass eviction of British citizens ever, clearing the way for the introduction of sheep as landowners eyed quicker and easier profits. Later they would be joined by thousands of red deer to exploit the whims of aristocratic shooting parties. These creatures denuded the great forests of their biodiversity, and something more barren emerged.
Lister’s form of land management is a rebuke to the way that much of Scotland has been artificially manipulated by fewer than 500 rich individuals to satisfy the demands of affluent hunting parties. “There will be no hunting, fishing or shooting here,” he said. “My connection to the Scottish Highlands goes back to the 1980s when my family invested in commercial forestry. I shot my first deer then. But over time I began to realise that human predation and selfishness had wrecked these places so that the soil became weaker and only a thin remnant of the ancient forests remained.
“You need to keep numbers of deer artificially high to satisfy the demands of the shooters who have paid a lot of money not to return empty-handed. Thus, an imbalance occurs. I want to restore balance and harmony to this place in accordance with the way it was created and the way it was meant to be. The controlled release of a pack of wolves would help achieve that harmony by changing the behaviours of the deer and keeping their numbers down to proportionate levels.”
Lister’s inspiration is North America’s Yellowstone national park where the introduction of a single pack of wolves in 1995 led to one of the most remarkable ecological turnarounds of the modern world. This is known as a trophic cascade and is the process by which the activity of an apex predator at the top of the food chain eventually stimulates the growth of several other animal species and enriches bio-diversity. It was in response to the way that huge numbers of elk and deer had grazed large parts of the natural landscape of Yellowstone into barren waste.
“I don’t see myself as the owner of the Alladale wilderness,” says Lister. “How can any human, no matter how rich or powerful he thinks he is, assume ownership of a mountain or a river? These were here long before we came along and will remain long after we’re gone. I’m merely a custodian of this place with a responsibility to leave it in a better state than when I acquired it so that future generations can derive some pleasure or solace from its natural beauty.
“My plans for the controlled release of wolves have been misrepresented. This will not mean packs of them roaming all over the Scottish Highlands. We’re talking about a fenced-in area of 50,000 square miles; this wilderness is 23,000 so I am hoping to persuade one or two of my neighbours to buy into this.”
Lister’s plans to surround the wilderness with a 9ft fence has been met with howls of outrage by the rambling community, who insist that it represents an unconscionable restriction on the right to roam that is now secured in Scots law following a long struggle. Cameron McNeish, the author and broadcaster and one of the UK’s foremost authorities on outdoor pursuits, has welcomed much of what Lister is doing at Alladale in terms of wilderness management but feels that his plan to erect a fence around such a wide area is a non-starter. He has also stated that what he believes Lister is proposing is tantamount to a zoo (albeit a large one) for high-paying customers.
“I believe the job of re-introducing large creatures like wolves and bears should be performed by Scottish Natural Heritage,” says McNeish. “Such reintroductions are of national importance and shouldn’t be down to the whims and ambitions of individual landowners who may, or may not, have a financial interest at heart. Lister’s proposals fall within the remit of zoo legislation, and Europe’s habitats directive.
“Having predators like wolves or bears and prey in the same enclosure would introduce animal welfare issues,” he added. “This would need careful consideration as re-introduced grey wolves would have no natural predator in Scotland.”
Lister’s reserve manager Innes Macneill said: “There aren’t any Munros in these glens and we only get around 1,000 ramblers per year. If these plans come to fruition we would expect more than ten times that amount.”
Macneill’s family has worked these lands for generations. He is responsible for planting 800,000 saplings in the hope of restoring a forest of Scots pine. He also wants to see a growth in birch, rowan, ash, alder and willow, among others. “Trees make other trees,” he said.
A personal view? Although the wolf would be installed officially as Scotland’s top predator, in reality it would never attain that status; not while humans are around. No species is more predatory than we who have specialised over centuries in making other species extinct or driven them to the brink of it.
It is ironic that we now cavil at the gentle reintroduction of a magnificent beast that we hunted down remorselessly. If some sacrifices have to be made by the walking community, some of whom invade our most beautiful places and treat them as items to be ticked off on a middle-class bucket list, then so be it.
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