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By Matt Mellen
Here’s a fact that may surprise you: what we think of as Scottish countryside – the barren highlands of heather and rock – are not, in fact, natural landscapes. Instead, they are the result of ancient deforestation that has been followed and compounded by hundreds of years of overgrazing by excessive deer populations. The Romans called Scottish wilderness “the Great Forest of Caledon,” once covering 1.5 million hectares; sadly, only 16,000 hectares remain today. Since then, humanity’s assault on nature has been so brutal that all large carnivores, including boar, lynx, bears and wildcats, have been made extinct.
In the midst of this new Scottish landscape lies the Alladale Highland Estate. Unlike much of the surrounding region, the 23,000 acres near Inverness in Scotland are no longer manipulated by land owner Paul Lister to optimise hunting, fishing and shooting experiences for traditional sporting guests. As a result, the land is gradually changing. In this era defined by environmental challenges and species loss, a new way of thinking about how to manage large estates is emerging and offers a new and fascinating travel adventure.
Lister is a pioneer in this movement. A maverick landowner with a big vision, when Lister bought the Alladale Wilderness Reserve ten years ago, he was not only struck by the barren beauty of the Scottish Highlands, but also found himself deeply affected by what has been lost. He decided the way forward in conserving this land was to rewild the predators that once roamed this territory:
“The concept of returning large carnivores, like wolves and bears into a large-scale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands is not an entirely a new concept; South Africa has developed the blueprint very well. It is the right thing to do morally, ethically, socially, financially, economically and environmentally; especially in an area where there is currently so little opportunity. These are all issues that will be addressed in a study that The European Nature Trust is conducting this year”.
It may seem controversial to return carnivores near inhabited areas, but without them, deer numbers have increased above what the landscape can sustain, leading to overgrazing preventing tree saplings from maturing. The consequence is the sad sight of deer starved to death in the winter when access to food declines. Moreover, constant overgrazing leads to a monotonous, homogenous landscape.
But Lister had a vision: he planted over 800,000 trees and protected them from deer with a new fence. New predators naturally control the deer population and in doing so enable the regrowth of forest transforming a part of Scotland for the benefit of generations to come. He has opened an eco-lodge with a capacity of up to 14 guests to stay in traditional Scottish style, and two self catering cottages offer an even more remote experience further off the road in from Inverness. Out hiking in the resurgent lands, it was fascinating to hear about the complex ongoing work required to do something different with a large estate. Seeing the tenacious, luminous saplings rise up out of the bracken and branch out to embrace the sun there is an exciting feeling of transformation. The next step is to bring back the long-extinct megafauna.
Paul’s long-term perspective and passion has been inspired, in part, by life-changing experiences in Europe’s last remaining wilderness. 99% of European forest has been cut down. Of the remaining 1% half is in Romania. This fragile and precious reserve of wild species is testament to the beauty and abundance of a forest that has never been felled. Lister’s epiphany in the wilderness speaks to the psychological, emotional and spiritual nourishment offered by wildplaces and spurred him to take action alongside other environmental luminaries such as HRH Prince Charles – another ambassador for Romanian wilderness. Paul has also been inspired by other ecological visionaries such Doug & Kris Tompkins (Patagonia/North Face/Esprit) who are moving fast to protect wild lands in Chile and Argentina.
This bold rewilding initiative is often misunderstood. The Daily Mail ran an early article on the scheme under the headline “Howling Mad.” Some people have expressed fear of wildstock losses or worse an attack on children imagining wild packs of wolves on the prowl. However, Lister insists: “if we can put men on the moon I think we can keep some animals inside a fence!” Since wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park wolf-related tourism has been calculated to bring in an extra $35.5 million annually to the surrounding local economies of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Ecologically, the impacts are profound and unexpected, a fascinating recent study showed how wolves can actually affect the shape of rivers through their influence on deer populations and distribution.
The legal and cultural objections to rewilding may point to the underlying human prejudices that drive ecological breakdown. Industrialisation and development have often pitted humans against nature and since the scientific revolution notions of progress often seem bound to extraction from, and dominance over, the natural world.
“Its incredible to know that despite the precarious situation concerning climate change, pollution and the extinction crisis only 3% of global philanthropy is targeted to nature and the environment, over 25% is given to religion. Lets not even start to think about what percentage of Global GDP is related to security!” says Paul.
Paul Lister invites us to think differently about the land, not to accept it as it is but imagine how it could be. The success of post-industrial civilisation may lie in establishing a new relationship with the natural world that is not solely extractive and that leaves room for wildness. As Paul points out “it is about time we worked out we share this planet with other species… we can’t survive on this planet alone”
A stay at Alladale Wilderness Reserve starts at £1,200 per night, based on exclusive use for 12 – 14 guests, minimum three night stay.