On the lawn outside the lodge of his Highland estate, Paul Lister cups a hand to his eye and scans the hillside with an invisible telescope. "Imagine," he says, "we could be sitting here watching wolves over there in the woods. Or we could be down by the river and watching a brown bear hunting for salmon.
"It's totally do-able," he says. "It's just whether or not we can deal with all the red tape we've managed to swamp ourselves with in this country."
In the three years since he bought the Alladale estate 50 miles north-west of Inverness, Lister has got used to being called a dreamer. "But we don't dream here," he insists. "We mean business."
If the new laird gets his way, Alladale will become Britain's first wildlife wilderness reserve. To some, the 47-year-old's desire to see not only wolves and bear but also lynxes, elk and wild boar roam his land, as they would have done centuries ago when the ancient Caledonian forest blanketed Scotland's Highlands, seems like a rich man's folly. (And, as the son of Noel Lister, the multi-millionaire co-founder of the MFI furniture group, Paul is undoubtedly a rich man. A few years ago, the Sunday Times Rich List estimated the family's fortune, which Paul controls, at £60m.)
One of the most frequently repeated jibes has been that he's building a Scottish "Jurassic Park". More than a few of the locals are suspicious or fearful: when he outlined his plans last September, at a public meeting in the nearby village of Ardgay, a picture was circulated showing a man who had been mauled by a bear.
Others - not least Lister himself - regard Alladale's new owner as a visionary and philanthropist, willing to risk huge sums of money to improve both the environment and the local economy. Comparisons are drawn with the founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall, Tim Smit, whom many thought to be mad when he first proposed transforming a disused clay pit into an ecological theme park.
According to George Holden, a sheep farmer in the Carron valley below Alladale and one of Lister's most outspoken critics: "He's coming up here heavy-booted with his own ideas which are misplaced at best."
"I'm just someone who's got an idea that no one else thought of first," Lister says, "and people are taking a long time to come round to it." Whoever one chooses to believe, the prospect of a wolf on the loose has not caused such controversy since Little Red Riding Hood outgrew her cape.
It's a perfect June day and I'm walking beside Lister in the heart of the Alladale estate. The view is widescreen and filled with colour: a patchwork of yellows, browns and greens, heather as far as the eye can see and, away in the distance, a clump of ancient pine trees. The deep ridges that define the valley hark back to the ice sheets that formed them. Who wouldn't want to be a Highland laird on a day like this, the master of all he surveys? But for Lister something is missing.
"I call this my Highland desert," he says. "It does look beautiful, of course. But those who know what it used to look like centuries ago, like me, feel a bit depressed at the thought of what's happened. Ecologically it's pretty barren. In Britain we have only got one per cent of our original old wood forests left and that's very, very sad. So what I am going to do with this desert of mine?" he asks. "Put in a golf course and a casino? I don't think so."
Under Lister's proposals, the introduction of wild animals would not only give tourists something to look at, but also form part of a new eco-system for the estate. "A lot of people are doing good work with forestry," he says. "But nobody's really pushing the boundaries as far as the fauna is concerned. What I want to do is build the pyramid that humans have managed to break - the pyramid of life, of evolution, of man not being at the top of the heap".
Wolves would ultimately control the (largely red) deer population, making culls unnecessary and providing carrion for golden eagles. With the number of deer diminished, trees would have a better chance to grow, while the wild boar would root the ground and clear the undergrowth that chokes young saplings.
Entry to this gated community of animals would be strictly for native species only. Bears, European elk, wolves, lynx and wild boar all qualify because they inhabited the area in human history. (The last wolf in Britain is said to have been shot in the Highlands in 1743.) This is good news for capercaillie, black grouse and red squirrel, but less positive for the small seeka deer that currently share the estate with red deer. Originally imports from Asia, they would be eradicated and replaced with roe deer.
Some argue that this idea of an "authentic" landscape or eco-system is a chimera, but Lister doesn't seem the type to worry too much about theory. "I tend to look forward. I don't look back. I don't like looking back at anything to be honest with you."
What he has brought us to see today is the first test run at containing wild animals. After tramping across the heather and over a small stream, we come to a tall chain fence behind which a dozen or so boars churn the earth with their snouts.
Hugh Fullerton-Smith, Lister's New Zealand-born project manager, switches off the smaller electric fence that runs inside the enclosure ("It would feel like being hit in the back with a pickaxe if you touched it," he warns us), and we step gingerly over the wire and through the gate.
The boar approach menacingly. Our photographer nervously crouches down to get a pig's-eye view. "I wouldn't lie down like that with that big male behind you," shouts Lister before roaring with laughter.
"You can get an idea of how big this project is," he says after calming down. This pen, he explains, is just 20 acres; Alladale is 23,000 acres, and to have enough space for wolves and bears he would need to acquire a further 27,000 acres from the neighbouring estates, with whom, he says, he is already in negotiation. To enclose the total 50,000 acres (an area bigger than the city of Glasgow) would require around 50 miles of 10ft-high fencing, much of it across very high ridges. Even for a man whose millions come from flat-pack furnishings, that is a huge construction job, and one that remains some way in the future. "I'm a realist," says Lister. "There are a lot of hurdles to cross which is why I'm talking about 2009 or 2010, not 2007."
Lister has been called eccentric and intense. Does he agree with those descriptions?
"Anyone who buys a Highland estate is eccentric," he says. " That's that one dealt with. As for intense... I'm not intense. Do you find me intense?"
Manic might be a better word. He is constantly jigging one of his long legs as he speaks, often too distracted to finish a sentence. His conversation is punctuated with a nervous laugh - the kind of hee-haw that went out of fashion with Terry Thomas - and his long face flicks effortlessly from blank lugubriousness to mirth. Imagine if Richard Briers and Jim Carrey had a lovechild, and you might get the idea.
Given his manner, it's easy to see why some might write him off as a dilettante. But back at the lodge, he stresses his commitment to doing something previously untried in Britain. It was five years ago that the idea took shape.
"I was living in London at the time. My father had a stroke and he was on his deathbed, really. I had to spend three months with my mother, every day in hospital for three or four hours. It was very traumatic. He was in and out of intensive care but amazingly he pulled through. The experience really plunged me into an abyss. And from that abyss I arose a new man - and I thought, right, let's take control of my life."
First he got out of the furniture business. Then, partly inspired by trips to Romania's Carpathian mountains, one of Europe's last wilderness areas where wolves run free, he bought Alladale for £2.5m in 2003. Apart from its size, the estate has four major advantages: the land is among the cheapest in Europe ("acre for acre the value is of land in the Highlands is about the same as Kenya"), it is near an airport, has no crofters or tenant farmers, and is in the east where rainfall is lower.
A template for how the Alladale reserve might work came from South Africa. In 1990, Adrian Gardiner, a businessman from Port Elizabeth bought a 3,000-acre estate near Cape Town. Buying up neighbouring farmland ravaged by overgrazing, Gardiner began to repopulate it with species once common in the Cape: elephant, rhino, hippos, buffalos at first; then, around the turn of the millennium, large predators such as cheetahs, lions and leopards. With its mixture of high-end tourism and conservation, the Shamwari Reserve has benefited the environment and the local economy.
Lister seeks a similar double gain. If he gets his way at Alladale, he envisages up to 30,000 visitors a year, and the creation of 100 jobs. A visitor centre would be built in the village from where tourists could be taken by minibus or four-wheel-drive up to the estate, and (omega) an educational centre would spread the ecological message to children. The lodge already hosts yoga weekends and life-coaching courses, as well as welcoming conservation volunteers.
"Economically, Ardgay is on its knees," Lister says. Things have never been the same since a bridge across the Dornoch Firth was opened in 1991. The new crossing meant that drivers heading north from Inverness no longer needed to travel through the village on their way across the river at nearby Bonar Bridge. Ardgay's petrol station closed recently and the corner shop endures against the odds.
"It's a very depressed area. You've got people trying with great difficulty to make a living out of farming, people who've retired and those who leave the area to go to the cities because they can't get a job. Wouldn't it be lovely if all those communities down in the glen could be united?"
Perhaps so. But historically Scotland has had more than its share of landlords willing to inflict social and economic experiments on the surrounding population. During the Highland Clearances - when the peasantry was evicted from the land, often forcibly, to make way for sheep - such schemes were euphemistically known as "improvements". And, while many locals welcome Lister's proposals ("The people I've spoken to think it will bring opportunities that we haven't had round here before," says Laura Maclean, a care worker in Ardgay), there is a rump that resists being improved by an outsider whose main home is in Oxfordshire.
"It's not a playground," says Bill Knott, a ship's engineer from Ardgay. "It's all very well having these ideas but there are people who live and work here. They have to go about their business. He's talking about 30,000 visitors a year. That would change the whole way of life here, and it's going to affect the tranquillity of the traditional sporting lodges round here, and have a knock-on effect for their business."
Standing on her bungalow's doorstep, Jacqueline Murray quivers with rage when asked about Lister: "I'll tell you about that git - he's nothing but an overgrown schoolboy throwing his money around. Overwhelmingly people here just aren't for it. But he refused to take a vote on the matter at the public meeting. He was there to put his opinion over and that was all."
Jacqueline's husband, Alex, expresses his fear that animals will escape. "A Welsh farmer was attacked by a wild boar the other week and he was nearly killed," he says. "His son hit it with a pitchfork and it didn't do anything. Eventually his wife turned on a high-pressure water-jet. That's what saved his life."
Worries about escapes - especially wolves - are natural given the number of sheep farms in the area. The National Farmer's Union in Scotland is opposed to the scheme. Yet in many ways these are the easiest concerns for Lister to deal with. All predators will be satellite-tracked, he insists, and any losses covered by insurance. Trickier to resolve are questions about public access. The "right to roam" was among the first pieces of legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament. Those who campaigned for it are unlikely to welcome the exemptions needed for a 50-mile fence.
"In principle we don't have problems about reintroducing certain wild animals in the Highlands," says Dave Morris, the director of Ramblers Scotland, who was invited by Lister to Alladale last summer to discuss about his plans. "You can look to other European countries and see wolves roaming free. But we do have problems seeing large swaths of the uplands fenced off this way. It's not only very, very intrusive in the landscape but we could see it setting a precedent. Even allowing for entry and exit points for walkers, it's hard to see where there can be a compromise."
George Holden, whose 4,000-acre croft sits off the road between Alladale and Ardgay, agrees. "At one point [he] was saying, 'We'll allow people to come and for a fee we'll escort you though with a ranger.' I find that the most arrogant statement imaginable. It will be absolutely abysmal if the right to roam legislation is laid aside. Every damn landlord in the Highlands would say, I'll keep a few boars here, I'll put up a fence there. You know that in law a precedent is halfway to an alteration."
But, for Holden, this is just one of many objections. He doubts if Alladale has the right habitat to support wolves, is sceptical about the number of local jobs that would be created, and believes Lister's scheme would break animal-welfare laws. "His whole thesis was that he would control excessive deer numbers by having predators. But that is illegal. You cannot feed live animals to other animals. In every zoo that exists, they have to feed the predators dead meat.
"The man's opening himself up to ridicule. He's a Johnny-come-lately at Alladale. I was up there clipping sheep while he was still at primary school. Enthusiasm is no substitute for experience."
Such barbs seem unlikely to bother Lister. ("You're never going to convince those who are determined to be sceptical at all cost," he says.) It hasn't stopped him assembling a team of experts, including Dr David Macdonald of Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. Consultations with bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage and the Highland Council continue; and so do the preparations.
This month, High Fullerton-Smith begins construction of a 1,400-acre enclosure, surrounded by five miles of fence. In the autumn, Lister says, this will become home to 14 boars, approximately 10 red deer and five roe deer. In the spring, these will be joined by the first of the three elk from Norway - the first, he hopes, in a succession of imports.
"When something's feasible for the good of the planet and mankind, then why wouldn't I want to do it now?" he says. "If it doesn't work, we'll take all of the fences down and go back to being a deer-stalking estate or invite more people in to do yoga and cookery courses. I'm not obsessed.
"But can you see that happening? The only wilderness wildlife reserve in Europe not working, when you've a population that likes to travel thousands of miles, to Canada, to South Africa, to see wild animals? Well, can you?"
Biting back The beasts that once roamed free in the British Isles, and are set to make a comeback
Hunted to extinction by the mid-18th century, due to a combination of superstition and fears over the safety of livestock.
The last wild British bears are said to have died out around 2,000 years ago.
Not seen in Britain for around 4,000 years. Also known as the moose in North America.
Died out in the early 16th century, but reintroduced on farms in the 1980s and now found in the wild.
Last seen in UK in about 230AD, they like to live in high altitudes forests, Andy SharmanReuse content