The wolfman and his pack of wild beasts

This used to be a dangerous island, populated by bears, lynxes and other animals which have since disappeared. Now a Scottish landowner is setting up a nature reserve to bring them back but not everyone is happy.

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When Hercules and Hulda arrived in Britain from Sweden three weeks ago the first members of their "lost" species to land here in 3,000 years they quickly settled into their new home: a muddy hillside in the Highlands of Scotland.

The two European elk, one bull and one cow, have been getting accustomed to the rather inclement weather north of the border ever since. "They are already using the shelter we built for them," said Hugh Fullerton-Smith, general manager of the Alladale Estate and Wildlife Reserve in Sutherland, 40 miles north of Inverness. "We think they are going to do just fine."

Known as "moose" in North America, the mammals are expected to mate within two years, growing up to 8ft tall and weighing three quarters of a tonne. But while they look faintly comical, the motivation behind their immigration is anything but. Hercules and Hulda are in fact early participants in the most ambitious, expensive, and controversial ecological project ever undertaken in northern Europe.

Fast on the heels of American billionaire Donald Trump and his plans to convert part of the precious Scottish coastline into the "world's greatest golf course", Paul "the wolfman" Lister, multi-millionaire philanthropist and heir to the MFI furniture fortune, is attempting to claim the title of ultimate monarch of the glen for himself. Having been granted a licence to breed dangerous wild animals by the Highland Council in August, Mr Lister is now ploughing ahead with plans to create Europe's first wild nature reserve. The plan is to pack his sprawling Scottish estate with wild beasts not seen in Britain for centuries.

In due course, Hercules and Hulda will be joined by other members of the "big five" of ancient British animals: up to 15 free-roaming grey wolves, 30 European brown bears and as many as three pairs of lynx. An as yet unspecified number of beavers will also be settled on the reserve.

Wild boar have already been introduced to a 500-acre enclosure between the Alladale and Carron rivers, where they will be joined by the elk.

Dubbed "McSerengeti" by locals, Mr Lister has taken his inspiration from the upmarket Shamwari game reserve in South Africa, where animals driven close to extinction by poachers including the leopard, lion, buffalo, rhino, and elephants have been re-introduced successfully to a habitat untouched by man.

"In effect what we are doing is plagiarising what has been seen to work very, very well, right across southern Africa," Mr Lister said. "Animals that have been driven to extinction in Africa have been re-introduced to very large fenced reserves and been shown to thrive under careful management. We want to bring that model here."

But there is a crucial difference between the Shamwari reserve and Mr Lister's project. Whereas the species found in Shamwari had survived in neighbouring countries, if not South Africa itself, Mr Lister will be bringing to Scotland species that have not roamed free on these isles for centuries.

The last wolf in Britain was shot in Sutherland in 1743 after it attacked two youngsters walking home to their croft, both of whom died from their injuries.

The brown bear, meanwhile, has not been seen in this country since Roman times, while the lynx is thought to have survived only up until the seventh century, according to the recent discovery of remains in Yorkshire. To successfully re-introduce them all to Britain would be an ecological first.

Mr Lister's estate already has 23,000 acres to its name. But he will have to double the size of his land if the animals are to be left untouched by man, eating or being eaten by each other as nature intended. He is thought to be in talks with the owners of adjacent estates, hoping to negotiate a massive increase in the size of land available for the project.

"If you have wolves and bears and lynx then we have to let the animals take priority," he said. "If a pack of two wolves hunts down red deer then that is as nature intended and you will end up with a far stronger deer herd by dint of natural selection. We have to have the courage to let nature take its course," he said. It is part of a deeply personal mission for the 48-year-old animal lover, who founded a charity dedicated to the protection of wolves in Romania's Carpathian mountains.

Five years ago his father Noel, who co-founded the MFI furniture store in 1964 and sold it for an unconfirmed 60m in 1985, suffered a serious stroke. For three months his son was by his bedside, as Mr Lister Snr made slow progress toward a full recovery. By then his son's own furniture company was struggling to stay above board, and drowning in debt.

Realising he would never be able to emulate his father's business success, he put his business into administration in 2003, leaving behind a trail of creditors. "I felt guilty about the debts. It was a horrible place to be," he said. "I was desperately unhappy. I couldn't even get out of bed."

After checking himself into a clinic where he was surrounded by recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, he came to an epiphany of sorts, realising his true calling. "I found out about myself," he said. "Instead of making furniture, global conservation is what concerns me now. I realised how delicate life is."

He promptly pursued his new-found ecological fervour with gusto, buying the Alladale estate for 3.2m and setting about covering its five glens and two river systems with indigenous flora, fauna, Caledonian pine, juniper, hazel, and round birch.

Mr Lister said the driving force behind his project was a desire to retain a distinction between man and nature, and to create an area in which the former leaves the latter well alone. "Over generations, the Highlands have been deforested to the extent that we have lost 99 per cent of our old growth forests," he said. "We have the potential to at least put some normality back into that landscape by putting in animals like the wild boar, which eat certain plants, ignore others, and encourage the return of the trees."

Indeed, Mr Lister may have a stronger ecological justification for his plans than even he realises. A report published earlier this year by the Royal Society, written jointly by scientists from Norway and Imperial College London, suggested the re-introduction of wolves could prove a very economical way of protecting other species in the area.

The wolves' main prey would be the red deer that roam the Highlands. The deer are thought to be close to maximum capacity and their voracious appetite for the sparse vegetation in the area is starving other species of a diminishing food supply.

Besides, deer culls cost a lot of money; the wolves would cost the taxpayer next to nothing.

The millionaire's plans are not without some apparent contradictions, however. He is keen to admonish members of his own species for their inept approach to fellow animals. "We humans are a useless species when it comes to having a relationship with animals," he said. "We have lost all connection with nature."

Yet the "useless" species that Mr Lister is a member of, is charged with building a 9ft high, 37-mile electric fence, lest the wolves get too excited and roam into human territory. Nor will the animal's bodies be untainted by the human stain. "The animals will have satellite chips stitched under their skin," said Mr Lister. "There is no way they are going anywhere. We will know where they are at all times." It turns out the wild beasts' "freedom to roam" will in fact be heavily policed.

Nor is the project without strong local objection not least because of suspicions over whether the 27,000 fee for parties of 16 to spend a week viewing the animals might not just be a get-rich-quick scheme for Mr Lister. He retorted that, for 125 a night, visitors can have a bed and full board at the estate but admitted that ultimately he would like to see 30,000 visitors to the reserve each year.

When he said that "the Highlands of Scotland is an area which is particularly under-exploited economically", as he did to this newspaper last week, some worry that people like Mr Lister and Mr Trump, the American property tycoon, are in it for themselves to the detriment of the wider public.

Cameron McNish, the Scottish mountaineer and author, recently commented that "it would be like the start of the Victorian sporting estates all over again", with "areas reserved for... the privileged few who were willing to pay for access".

Mr Lister's greatest obstacle may be the Rambler's Association, which is concerned electric fences will stop walkers from fully enjoying the extraordinary landscape. "We can appreciate why [local] farmers are worried," its spokesman, David Black, said. "Wolves roam naturally through places in Europe like Bulgaria's national parks, but there is plenty of space over there."

Concerns about the safety of the public in an area roamed by wild, and sometimes aggressive, animals are paramount too.

Mr Black said: "The key question is, 'are they potentially dangerous to the public?' Our members have concerns."

Doubtless many other objections will be raised between now and the project's completion, which could take several years.

There are major hurdles for Mr Lister to cross, not least the extension of available land into his wealthy neighbours' territory. This week he plans to place advertisements in the local press, in an attempt to counter "some of the myths" surrounding his plans.

But for now the man who inherited a furniture fortune, and who re-invented himself as an ecological warrior when at his lowest ebb, remains convinced that he has made crucial progress in the most exciting British wildlife project of his generation not least because Hercules and Helda "have settled in extremely well".

Welcome to Scotland

Brown Bear

Together with its cousin, the polar bear, this mammal is the largest land carnivore. Regularly reaching half a tonne in weight, this bear survived in Britain until the later Roman period. Biologists have largely hailed resettlement projects in Italy, Austria and France, though they are more controversial with the general population. A brown bear called Bruno was shot dead in Germany last year, after crossing the Italian Alps, where it had been re-introduced. It went on a killing spree, savaging dozens of sheep.

Wolf

The last British wolf was killed after an attack on two youngsters in Sutherland in 1743, but wolf attacks on humans remain rare. The common grey wolf thrives in a host of different climates and habitats, and should adapt easily to the Highlands. Successfully re-introduced to the Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995, other re-introduction projects are taking place in Germany, Denmark and Italy. Mr Lister plans to introduce two packs, comprising 15 animals.

Elk

The second largest species of deer, they can grow to a huge 8ft tall. Males have large antlers which are shed each year. Closely related to Scotland's red deer, they are found mostly in North America and east Asia. Attempts to introduce them to New Zealand and Argentina have been largely successful.

Lynx

One of the closest wild relatives of the domestic cat, it has a fondness for higher altitudes. Remains from the Craven caves in North Yorkshire suggest it survived in Britain until the seventh century at least, radically revising earlier theories about its demise more than 10,000 years ago. Found widely in Siberia and the Carpathian mountains of central Europe, the lynx has been successfully re-introduced in the Balkans in the past decade.

Beaver

Still living on a number of private estates in Britain, this semi-aquatic rodent was hunted to near extinction in Europe. Both its fur and castoreum, a secretion from its scent gland, were highly sought after. It became extinct in Britain in the 16th century, but was gradually re-introduced at the end of the 20th century in Gloucestershire, Kent, and Lancashire. Its need for water will be more than met by the rivers Alladale and Carron in the Highlands.

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