Public opinion is seen as key to any plans to reintroduce animals like the wolf to Scotland.
IT IS more than 250 years since the lonely howl of the wolf has echoed in
the farthest reaches of the Highlands, but if Paul Lister gets his way,
that will soon change.
The millionaire businessman wants to transform his estate in Sutherland
and Easter Ross into a home for not only the European grey wolf, but also
the bear, lynx, boar and European bison which were once native to this
Listerýs vision is a conservationistýs dream and, in his own words, one of
the “most sensational, inbound eco-tourism opportunities the Highlands
have ever seen.”
Others, less sympathetic, might dismiss it as a furry-animal Jurassic
But whatever the objections Lister will face in bringing this cast of
characters to a fenced wilderness on his Alladale estate, nobody could
accuse his project of smacking of the fly-by-night.
“Iýve been thinking about it for 15 years and looking for somewhere like
Alladale for seven years,” says Lister, who purchased the 153-square-mile
estate last year.
As he sits in the lodge at Alladale, 12 miles west of Bonar Bridge, and
within sight of some of the most northerly Caledonian pinewoods in the
country, you sense Lister has waited long enough. “Iýd like to think we
could achieve something within the next five years,” he says. “The habitat
is perfect for these animals and we could do most of the reintroduction
within a 12-month period, from the minute the perimeter fence went up.”
Whether Lister will be allowed to forge ahead at this pace is in doubt -
and he knows it. Scottish Natural Heritageýs attempts of the past eight
years to introduce the relatively “cuddly” European beaver to Scotland has
been fraught with minority, but vocal, opposition from forestry and
What the wider community will make of his plans to reintroduce Scotlandýs
“big five” is not yet fully clear – but some commentators believe he faces
a Herculean task in convincing all those with a legitimate interest that
his dream is a good idea.
Aware of this, at the weekend, Lister held a conference at Alladale with
those who might be affected by his plans. This included neighbouring
landowners, deer management groups, local small famers, estate workers
other interested agencies – people he will need to convince if his dream
is to be realised.
Speaking to The Scotsman ahead of the event, he was resolutely upbeat,
“The community seems to be adopting the idea, and thatýs even before Iýve
had the chance explain it fully,” he said. “Obviously, it would be silly
of me to go ahead prematurely.
“So far thereýs been nothing negative, but I donýt suppose itýll be too
long before someone has something to say.”
Lister is the son of Noel Lister, the co-founder of the MFI furniture
empire, but at the age of 45, he has put the retail trade behind him.
Although he maintains a family business based in Beaconsfield,
Buckinghamshire, he now spends at least a week every month at Alladale.
Much of the remainder of his time is spent visiting conservation areas and
game parks across the world, particularly, Transylvania, where the
pristine forested landscape of the Romanian Carpathian mountains boasts
the highest concentration of sizeable carnivores anywhere in Europe.
It is here that much of his conservation credentials have been honed – and
those which could bring a tourism boost to Alladale, should his plans
succeed. For the past few years he has been active in the Carpathian Large
Carnivore Project, helping it to develop a viable “eco-tourism” business.
He has also forged links with the Mantis Collection, a South African
organisation which combines running two game reserves, Shamwari and
Sanbona, with quality tourism.
Lister has also looked to South Africa for expert advice on the kind of
secure fence that will encircle much of his estate: “There theyýve been
used to controlling the ýbig fiveý. If they can do that in Africa, I would
have thought we could contain slightly-lesser creatures.”
He laughs. “In this day and age, when they can put someone on the moon,
they can surely build a fence to keep a bear in.”
Lister hopes that this fence, his “halfway-house” approach will be key to
convincing the wider Scottish community to welcome the wolves and other
beasts back to Scotland.
“Iým not advocating a general reintroduction, but a controlled one, and
thatýs whatýs important,” he says.
But his plans for Alladale are about much more than putting some of our
native animals back onto the hills.
His vision is based on what he calls the “four Es – “environmental
restoration, educational enhancement, economic viability and employment
opportunities,” and he adds a fifth, “to enhance cultural heritage.”
Lister sees Alladale marrying conservation with “green tourism” in
Scotland. Instead of travelling all the way to Africa to spot the
much-vaunted “Big Five” of elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino,
visitors will be able to watch a Scottish “Big Five” of wolf, bear, boar,
lynx and bison.
He believes his animal park could create at least 30 local jobs, and he
points to the economic spin-off associated with Americaýs Yellowstone, or
the “wolf howlers” who escort enthusiasts in Alaska.
He is due to travel to New Jersey to visit the Willow Schools, based on
holistic education, which he extols for their inclusion on the curriculum
of topics such as environmental issues and ethics. Within six months, he
says he hopes to have an educational unit, informed by these values,
established on the estate.
In the meantime, he maintains rather more traditional deer-stalking at
Alladale, although himself is no longer a shooter. “I shot many deer in my
twenties, but Iýve grown out of that and I want to see a bigger picture. I
believe there is something bigger out there weýre all missing.”
Lister is not the first to advocated the reintroduction of wolves in the
Highlands or islands – among them the late David Stephen, for many years a
widely-respected nature writer for The Scotsman, who kept a pair of wolves
in an enclosure on his pioneering, Palacerigg Countryside Park, near
Cumbernauld. Others, however, believe that to bring the wolf or other
vanished species back to a landscape which has been vastly transformed,
and settled, in the ensuing centuries, is simply inappropriate.
George Anderson, a spokesman for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) believes
that among many hurdles, Listerýs greatest could be public opinion.
“Weýve had people in the past suggesting this kind of thing, but theyýve
never done anything. This is the first such idea Iýve come across in my
time at SNH where the guy seems to be serious and has some credentials.
So, weýre taking it seriously and there will be discussions.”
Anderson points to SNHýs own proposals for the reintroduction of the
European beaver to Scotland by way of a warning about the power of public
opinion in such issues. “Scaling that up to the large carnivores he has in
mind, I would hope that his thinking is quite long-term, indeed.”
Also looking on with interest is Jeremy Usher Smith, manager of the
Highland Wildlife Park, near Kingussie, which keeps a pack of 11 wolves in
a purpose-built three-hectare enclosure. Wearing his hat as a zoo
inspector for the Scottish Executive, he also sees many practicalities to
“You need to meet Health and Safety regulations and all the rest of it,
and some sort of management of these animals so they donýt roam. It would
certainly have to be looked at by the local authority, which would be the
licensing authority and it would seek advice from the Scottish Executive.”
Despite this, he believes that, effectively, Listerýs vision could be
feasible. “I donýt know the estate or what the habitat is like, but it
would be great to bring these animals back, and it would probably help
take the fright out of them for some people.”
Another problem for Lister may be the recently-legalised “right to roam.”
If, as of necessity, Alladale becomes securely fenced off, might there be
objections from walkers? “We canýt keep everyone happy all of the time,”
Lister says. “If we want to have the benefits of what weýre talking about,
there will have to be some compromises. But I believe the majority of
people wouldnýt mind a small area of the Highlands given over to this kind
Bearing in mind the sort of money it could bring the area, compromise
might not be too hard to find in some quarters.
Guests who come to see the dreamed-of Alladale “Big Five” could pay as
much as ý20,000 for a week at the lodge, and daytrippers will also be
welcome. “Everyone will be welcome. If they want a walking tour, thatýs
possible, but there would be a charge of some sort.” Lister headed off to
New York immediately after his conference at Alladale, but a spokesman for
the estate described the event as “very productive, agreeable and
generally positive.” Perhaps rather tellingly, there were more questions
raised about the impact of traffic on access roads, and tick control, than
about “the more emotive issues you might expect”, he added.
Traditionally, the last Scottish wolf is said to have been killed – and
decapitated, just to make sure – by a Highland hunter called MacQueen in
1743. The bear has been extinct here since the 10th century. Some
supporters of reintroduction, such as nature writer Jim Crumley, prefer to
believe “that the last wolf in Scotland hasnýt been born yet.”
Paul Lister would like to think so, too. “Iým completely driven and Iýve
got lots of energy,” he says. With the red tape he faces, he may need it.