Mention the Scottish Highlands and what comes to mind, besides perhaps kilts and bagpipes, is wild vistas of low-lying grasses and windswept mountains. That vision, while largely accurate today, is wrong, according to Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, 50 miles north of Inverness, Scotland. What should be there, he insists, are woodlands as there were thousands of years ago, full of native vegetation and wildlife, including deer, highland cattle, wolves and bears -- and he's determined to bring it all back, including, most controversially, the wolves and bears.
Since purchasing the 23,000 acre estate 10 years ago, Lister has made Alladale an ecological testing ground, replanting over 800,000 indigenous trees, reintroducing red squirrels, managing local red deer populations, and restoring peatlands as an economically sustainable way to capture and offset carbon emissions.
A businessman and self-professed nature lover, not an ecologist, Lister assembled a team that includes ornithologist and wildlife consultant Roy Dennis, who helped reintroduce red kites and ospreys to Britain; and David MacDonald, professor of wildlife conservation and director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford.
Rewilding efforts have been slowed by governmental red tape and reluctant neighbors, but 10 years on, Alladale’s work is gaining support from conservationists and enthusiasts alike, including survivalist and TV star Bear Grylls, whose Bear Grylls Survival Academy runs a Survival in the Highlands course in Alladale, the only Scottish venue on offer.
On my visit to Alladale, I was amazed by the gorgeous views of hills and glens, dotted with trees, with a river winding its way between. However, ecologist Roy Dennis of the Highland Foundation for Wildlife likens the area to the Sahara, noting that even the heather that covers the ground is actually a sign of degradation of the land, choking out other plants.
The vision for Alladale involves restoring a healthy ecosystem of grazers and predators. In practice, that means essentially undoing the damage done by man. Mature forests were cleared over thousands of years, in part for Scotland’s thriving wool trade. Sheep were so valuable that men cleared the land of brambles and anything else that might snag the precious wool. Any young trees that took root were rapidly consumed by a red deer population that exploded without natural predators like wolves and bears. A depleted forest in turn meant less shelter and food for remaining species.
There haven’t been wolves in Britain since the 1700s, when humans wiped them out. If wolves are to be re-introduced, they would likely be brought in from Scandinavia. There’s precedent for the rewilding of once degraded areas. Many of Alladale’s principles are modeled on the Shamwari Game Reserve on the East Cape of South Africa, as well as American philanthropists Doug Tompkin and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins’ conservation work in Patagonia. As for wolves, they were successfully reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
Believing that the ecosystem of the Highlands was broken, Lister’s team started with reforestation. Since 2010, 77,000 trees have been replanted in the reserve, at a cost of about £3 a tree and funded in part by the Scottish Government’s Rural Development Programme. Led by Alladale Reserve Manager Innes MacNeil, a small team plants 1,000 saplings a day, including native species of Scotch pine, oak, and willow. Each sapling is only 18 inches high, with the goal to get them to knee-height in five years. Besides providing future food and shelter for animals, trees planted along the river help to shore up the banks and slow erosion. Currently, rangers actively cull the red deer population within Alladale’s fenced areas, reducing deer density by two-thirds to 6-7 per square kilometer, allowing the young trees to grow. Ideally, the reintroduction of large predators would allow for a natural rebalancing of animal species.
Some object to the proactive approach of replanting trees, much less the reintroduction of predators, but reserve manager MacNeil, who has worked on the land for 22 years, points out that the existing trees, old growth Caledonian pine, are not enough to bring woodlands back. Quoting American wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold, MacNeil says, “Conservation is not just about doing nothing.”
The pioneering Peatlands Plus program is another key part of making Alladale’s vision economically as well as ecologically sustainable. Healthy, moist peatlands naturally capture billions of tons of carbon in their layers of decaying vegetation, while “drained peatlands in the United Kingdom alone emit approximately 10 million tons of carbon a year,” according to Alladale. Peatlands Plus connects owners of damaged peatland to corporations wanting to offset their carbon footprint, giving landowners an income for restoring peatlands.
Large predators aren’t the only animals in Alladale’s menagerie. Previous experiments have included importing a pair of moose from northern Sweden, and reintroducing wild boar to the land, as part of scientific research by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. Other efforts include a breeding center for Scottish wildcats, and a highland cattle initiative for moorland management. In early 2013, a small population of red squirrels, indigenous to the area but devastated by disappearing woodlands and disease carried by more prevalent grey squirrels, were reintroduced to Alladale and neighboring areas.
Despite the many animals about, Lister makes it clear that Alladale is not a zoo. Currently the estate’s 23,000 acres have plenty of fences out of necessity, in order to control the red deer population and protect saplings. Neighboring estates, which operate on traditional models of hunting, shooting, and salmon fishing, see no benefit in reducing the number of deer. If and when Lister reintroduces wolves, it would also be within a fenced area, a point often missed in the debate over the reintroduction of large predators. Ironically, it’s these fences meant to protect people that brings objections from another group: ramblers and hikers citing the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which grants right of access to most of the country’s land.
Though frustrated by inconsistent government policies, Lister claims not to see a conflict with cyclists and walkers, who enter the estate through gates in the fences, saying he would be happy to see thousands a year come through, instead of the current hundreds a year. Regenerating land and reintroducing native species attracts more people, and eco-tourism creates jobs, he points out.
In person, Paul Lister is enthusiastic, intense, and full of plans. Next year, a feasibility study for the re-introduction of wolves will be conducted to assess the environmental and socio-economic impact. He wants to acquire more land, estimating that he needs at least 50,000 acres total to successfully re-introduce large predators to Britain. Work continues with The European Nature Trust (TENT), founded in 2001 to preserve Europe’s last remaining areas of wilderness. Plans for expanded eco-tourism are expected in the spring, with a main lodge and two new self-catering lodges all powered by a 150kw hydro turbine that reduced the estate’s energy requirements by 70 percent.
Some of Lister’s plans are controversial, but his resolve and willingness to be proactive with his own resources are undeniably admirable. Alladale’s 23,000 acres are a real boon to environmental research, as a way to test real strategies to regenerate land and take a whole ecosystem approach to conservation. There’s a lot of talk about how to save the earth and undo the ecological damage we’ve done, but not necessarily a lot of action. At Alladale Wilderness Reserve, you can see conservation and regeneration in action.
Lead image: © Richard Moss
Photos by Charlene Lam for Inhabitat unless otherwise credited