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Scottish glen takes highland fling with big beasts

  • Story Highlights
  • Landowner wants to reintroduce lynx, bear and wolves to Scottish estate
  • Large-scale felling and introduction of sheep and deer have ravaged landscape
  • Landowner wants to provide a blueprint for what could happen elsewhere
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By Dan Hayes
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CNN Traveller

(CNN Traveller) -- The Highlands of Scotland were once home to large predators such as wolves, bear and lynx. Landowner Paul Lister plans that they should pad through the glens once again. Dan Hayes reports

Alladale could soon be home to lynx, bears and wolves.

It is a big day at the Alladale estate, 80km north-west of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland; the hydro-electric turbine is arriving. "You have to be around to sign a rather large check," quips the estate's general manager, New Zealander Hugh Fullerton-Smith, to owner Paul Lister.

"No change there, then," replies the latter, breaking into a loud laugh.

The 49-year-old Lister has a dream, recreating a segment of ancient forest on his 9,300 hectare estate and populating it with the animals that would have once roamed this region.

Initially, that means wild boar, elk, red squirrels and wildcats, but ultimately the aim is to reintroduce the big predators such as lynx, bear and wolves.

"What I want to do is to create a large-scale wilderness and wildlife reserve," says Lister, "I wouldn't call it a safari park, it's more somewhere we could bring back the animals that have gone extinct in the UK in a managed way in a fenced enclosure."

Lister is a wealthy man, heir to a flat-pack furniture fortune, but his interest in conservation is long-standing and is not the flash-in-the-pan brainstorm of an eccentric millionaire.

While the headline-grabbing aspect of the project is the idea of the large carnivores returning, he is keen to stress that there is much more to the plan than that.

While it is undoubtedly beautiful, Alladale is a degraded landscape. Its expansive sweep of heather- and bracken-filled moorland would once have been cloaked with trees, but a combination of large-scale felling and the introduction of sheep and deer in the 18th and 19th centuries have totally changed the face of the landscape.

Lister's dream is to provide a blueprint for what could happen elsewhere. The key start point to this, a tree-planting project in conjunction with reducing deer numbers that allows the trees to grow. "Trees and deer are fine," he adds, "It's just there are far too many deer.

"It's important that this project we have here is scientifically based and scientifically sound, that it ticks all the boxes," he adds, and, with that in mind, he has joined forces with several leading conservationists, in particular Professor David Macdonald of Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).

The university is currently engaged in several scientific projects at Alladale. Perhaps most importantly, it is investigating the influence wild boar can exert on a degraded landscape, in particular how the animals can encourage the growth of trees.

Alladale's 50-plus boar currently occupy a range of enclosures where they are performing the role of porcine rotavators, up-ending bracken, breaking up soil and creating conditions in which seedlings will grow.

"It's amazing what they're doing," says Fullerton-Smith, whose impressive CV includes working with native peoples in Canada and Mongolia. "They're clearing huge patches of bracken and heather and they¹re proving particularly valuable under the Caledonian pine trees where they are exposing the ground, allowing seeds to germinate."

The boar were joined in 2007 by two elk, imported from Sweden, which are also impressive clearers of underbrush and are currently Alladale's flagship species. Lister has also put £50,000 ($96,000) into a riparian (riverside) tree-planting project. The plan is that leaf litter will add nutrients to the estate's rivers and that trees will provide shade and shelter to migrating salmon as well as habitat for birds.

The UK's Forestry Commission has added £2m to the pot for this project with the aim being a corridor of trees 100 meters deep that runs for 60 kilometers along five rivers.

If all goes according to plan, wolves could prove key to the riparian woodland project at Alladale, keeping valley bottoms clear of deer to allow the bank-side trees to flourish.

This is just the kind of progress Lister hoped for when he bought his estate in 2003, after a lengthy search: "It took me about six years," he says. "I had 10 criteria. I knew what I wanted regarding rainfall, rivers, forestry, lochs, buildings, Munros --­ lack of them"

The last item on the list are mountains over 914.4 meters, named after Sir Hugh Munro, who, in 1891, published the first complete survey of them. These are popular with climbers and walkers, many of whom aspire to climb all of Scotland's 284 Munros.

The same holds true for Corbetts, 220 Scottish mountains that measure between 762m and 914.4 meters,­ of which there is one on the estate.

Herein lies a potential problem for the Alladale vision. Since 2003, Scotland has had right to roam legislation, allowing members of the public access to the countryside, but Lister's plans include a boundary fence, which, critics say, will keep the walkers out ­ unless they are prepared to pay for a guided tour­ as well as keeping the animals in.

Cameron McNeish, vice president of the Ramblers' Association of Scotland, says: "Why should walkers who have fought for 100 years for the right to roam have to give it up on account of one man's obsession? The last thing the Scottish Highlands needs is some kind of Jurassic Park project. Especially because, if Lister doesn't get his way, there's no guarantee he won't walk away."

Lister appears exasperated by such arguments, however. "What the walkers are worried about is that this is going to set a precedent for other, less scrupulous, landowners to stick up a fence, put a few wild boar behind it and charge £40 admission.

"I don't think anyone would object to having one place like this as an experiment. I want to see this project happen. I'm not after money from access. And if the project brings with it lots of jobs, I don't care how many walkers there are out there, they're going to have a real job fighting the local Highland communities. Ultimately, when the majority want something to happen it'll happen and at the moment a lot more people are for this project than against it."

Lister is currently seeking deregation, essentially a move that will exempt Alladale from right to roam legislation and from animal welfare laws that forbid one species predating another in an enclosed area.

"Enough's enough," says Fullerton-Smith, "We had to get a dangerous wild animals licence for our main, 180 hectare enclosure where we have 13 wild boar and two elk. Then, once the council gave us the licence, we were told we had to build stiles to let the public into the pen. So, we did that, and put lagging on the electric fence at the top so that nobody gets a 7,000V kick when they climb in. Though I think the lagging might put people off."

Looking across the Alladale estate it is easy to appreciate the beauty of the place, with its sweeping valleys, lofty ridges and meandering river. When I visit, children from a local school are planting the latest tranche of saplings as rain drifts across the glen. They are part of a project run by the Challenger Trust, another of Lister's interests, which gives young people a taste of activities and conservation issues in the region.

"It's amazing how the kids connect with what we're doing," says Fullerton-Smith. "Even though they may only live 50 kilometers away, they have almost no connection with the Highlands when they arrive; their parents don't bring them here. But they go back home and talk all about what they've been doing. Children are great conduits of information and great promoters of the project."

But will these youngsters ever see Lister's dreams become reality? Access laws notwithstanding, the laird needs more land ­ his existing space is insufficient for a successful reintroduction of the big predators. Fullerton-Smith says: "Most people say the habitat is not right for bringing back the wolf. But actually wolves are used to the kind of country we have, especially this dense bracken and heather. It would be very easy for them to do well here."

"Our only constriction is the area," he adds. "We will not release wolves with the existing amount of land. If we got more land next year, say, we'd be full on to do it. "With species such as bear and elk ­it's more a habitat issue. We'd need to control the deer numbers to acceptable levels and accelerate planting. We'd need to strike a balance between habitat restoration and release."

In the case of bears, this is because they are omnivorous, predating deer, but also eating berries, nuts and honey food they will only find in an established woodland ecosystem. "We're trying to break all the red tape," adds Lister.

"And we'll do it. I feel as though I'm going from A to Z and I'm currently at K. I can't speed it up, either. If I were to ask today for what I want to do, I'd probably get a 'no,' but when I get to Y I'll get a 'yes.'"

In the meantime, the plan is to focus on tree planting, to keep the wild boar busy and to make Alladale increasingly self-sustainable and environmentally sound ­ all of which may well require the signing of a few more rather large checks.

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