Call of the wild

Wolves, lynx, boars, bison and bears will return to Britain if millionaire's ecological dream comes true
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The Independent Online

Almost three centuries since the howl of a wolf last echoed through the mountains and glens of the Scottish Highlands, the call of the wild could soon be heard again.

Almost three centuries since the howl of a wolf last echoed through the mountains and glens of the Scottish Highlands, the call of the wild could soon be heard again.

Plans by a multimillionaire conservationist to establish Britain's first ecological game reserve could see wolves, bears, lynx, boars and European bison roaming the countryside within five years.

For decades the idea of recreating Scotland's wilderness from a bygone age has fuelled the fantasies of many wishful thinkers, but the prospect is now closer than it has ever been ­ because of one man.

Paul Lister, a passionate believer in ecological restoration, plans to transform 23,000 acres of his Highland estate into a reserve for indigenous flora, fauna and animals ­ including the big five. Experts and professional bodies believe that if anybody can accomplish the return to Scotland of the European grey wolf, which was hunted to extinction in 1743, and the bear, which was driven out 900 years ago, it is Paul Lister.

"He has the money, the credentials, the land, the contacts and the drive," said George Anderson of Scottish Natural Heritage. "We have heard of numerous plans and schemes to bring back the wolf to Scotland over the years but for the first time there is somebody involved who has the money, land and experience with similar animals to actually do something about it."

After 15 years of planning, plotting and studying, Mr Lister ­ the son of Noel Lister, the co-founder of the MFI furniture empire ­ bought the 153-square mile Alladale estate, which straddles Sutherland and Easter Ross, for £3.2m last year with the intention of creating Britain's first ecological game reserve.

But although the 45-year-old is a committed conservationist he is also a practical businessman and he sees the project as an ideal eco-tourism opportunity.

"Paul Lister is passionate about conservation and ecological restoration," said Richard Bright, a spokesman for the project. "He wants to get more than 20,000 acres of Scotland back to what it used to be with the creation of a fully functioning eco-system based on habitat that was there before the introduction of modern farming methods.

"This is more than just about the re-introduction of bears and wolves. We want to look at sensible planting, the reintroduction of Caledonian pine, the reintroduction of lichen and grasses which will restore the land to what it was before decades and centuries of man-made interference, deer and sheep grazing."

Among the native species the project hopes to reintroduce will be the ancient habitat of Caledonian pine, juniper, hazel and round birch.

Alladale estate covers five glens and two river systems with more than 10 hill lochs tucked away deep in the heart of the Scottish Highlands 40 miles north of Inverness and within within sight of some of the most northerly Caledonian pine woods in the country,

Over the years Mr Lister has built his credentials as an ecologist with frequent visits to conservation areas and game parks across the world.

This Christmas he is spending time in Costa Rica and is a frequent visitor to Transylvania, where he has been involved with developing eco-tourism business in the Carpathian mountains of Romania.

He also has links with the Shamwari and Sanbona game reserves in South Africa, from where he has been gaining advice on how to create a game reserve in Scotland.

"The idea is to create a tourism business and we have been learning from the people at the Shamwari game reserve near Cape Town in South Africa, which is essentially a new reserve created from reclaimed land where they have reintroduced the African big five [leopard, lion, buffalo, rhino and elephant]," Mr Bright said.

"We want to do something similar here and restore the land to re-introduce once indigenous species of flora and fauna and eventually animals. There's no precedent for this in Britain and it is a massive job."

Mr Lister has already engaged the support and co-operation of a team of experts as well as a network of contacts and supporters. They are all aware, however, that it is not going to be an easy task ­ not least in persuading public opinion.

Although, generally, Mr Lister claims to have received a favourable response from the community around his Highland estate and the public in general, he is aware that there is a long way to go before his dream becomes a reality.

"So far there has been nothing negative but I suppose it won't be too long before someone has something negative to say," he said. "I have been thinking about doing this for 15 years and it has taken seven years to find somewhere like Alladale. I am completely driven."

His plans will come under scrutiny from land managers worried about the effect Mr Lister's carnivores might have on their lives.

"We have enough problems at the moment trying to save the capercaillie from pine marten predation without more predators appearing on the scene and making the job much harder," said a spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

"Sheep are easy targets and the problems that farmers would face are enormous. Scotland is far too small to support the reintroduction of such animals."

Mr Lister says that he is not proposing the widespread reintroduction of wolves, bears and the other carnivores, but the creation of a properly managed game reserve.

"I am not advocating a general reintroduction but a controlled one, that is what it is important to remember," he said.

"In this day and age, when they can put someone on the moon, surely we can build a fence to keep a bear in."

Of all the animals that could be brought back many experts feel that the lynx could be the easiest for the public to accept.

David Hetherington, of the University of Aberdeen, who has studied the possibility of reintroducing the lynx, said: "I think Mr Lister has put forward an interesting idea and I would be in favour of it in principle but there are a number of logistical issues to be sorted out."

The big cat, which is known to be extremely shy and wary of humans, died out in Scotland because of human destruction of its habitats, but there is no reason why they could not be reintroduced.

"They have been introduced in quite a few European countries in the last couple of decades and exist in parts of Europe which have much higher population densities than we have in parts of Scotland," Dr Hetherington said.

"The population for the Highlands is less than 10 people per square kilometre whereas in Switzerland, where the lynx has been successfully introduced, the population density is greater than 100 people per square kilometre without any major problems.

"Lynx are not a threat to human safety; they are a very shy animal that prefer to keep themselves to themselves. Their main prey is roe deer but in Scotland they are more likely to go for seeka deer and possible red deer calves. One other part of their diet is foxes.

"As a former native animal whose demise was brought about by humans we have an ethical duty to at least reconsider their reintroduction. Indeed under various international treaties and the European Union's habitats directive we are bound to at least consider the reintroduction of native species. [The lynx] does belong here," he added.

For the past eight years Scottish Natural Heritage have been battling to reintroduce another animal, the European beaver, to Scotland.

Although the animal has a less fearsome reputation than the wolf, lynx or bear, the organisation's efforts have been thwarted by a minority group of opponents seeking to protect their own forestry and farming interests.

Earlier this month Mr Lister held a conference at Alladale with those who might be affected by his plans such as neighbouring landowners, deer management groups, small farmers, estate workers and members of the local community.

"The feelings were pretty positive," said Mr Bright. "There was no emotive stuff about wolves roaming the hills. Most people were more concerned about the infrastructure and how the roads would cope with an influx of tourists to the reserve."

To bring Scotland's traditional animals back to the hills Mr Lister knows he will have to show that it will also benefit the human population. His vision is for an educational project that will restore the environment while bringing employment and economic viability to an area where even sheep farming is subsidised and many pin their hopes on wind farms.

A business model is being developed and it is hoped that something will be in place by early spring which will spell out the progressive steps that Mr Lister and his team of experts plan to take over the next three to five years.

"This is not just some kind of attempt at creating a Jurassic Park," Mr Bright said. "It is a serious attempt at creating a landmark tourist attraction which, in a managed way, with a lot of investment going into the ecology, science and education, will be of immense benefit to the environment and the country."

There is likely to be opposition, however, not least from those who fear that if he is allowed to erect an 8ft fence around the estate to keep the animals in, it will also keep people trying to exercise their right to roam out.

The use of a fence to keep the animals inside the reserve also raises legal questions as to whether it should be classed as a "big zoo" or a reintroduction project.

"It will be interesting to see what happens," said Mr Anderson of Scottish Natural Heritage.

"The powers that be will have to examine all the legislation again as this is a unique case. If the animals are enclosed the rules will be a lot different to those that apply to a widespread reintroduction of a species which is allowed to roam where it pleases.

"But when you're talking about 23,000 acres, is that too big to be classed as an enclosure?"