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.”