Paul Lister, the multi-millionaire heir to the MFI furniture fortune, is a firm believer that wolves and bears are far more effective culling machines than men with guns – and much better for nature.
After pondering the matter for years, he has recently taken a firm decision to press ahead with his plan to bring about 20 wolves and a dozen bears to Britain – for the first time since they were hunted to extinction 300 and 500 years ago, respectively.
And he hopes to have both beasts roaming around a 50,000 acre enclosure on his Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Caledonian Forest in the North East of Scotland within three to five years.
Mr Lister believes that bringing these animals back after an absence of hundreds of years will help return the area to the way it was before mankind started controlling it.
“Wolves and bears are much better for the environment than a man with a rifle – nature manages far better by itself than with the input of man,” said Mr Lister, pointing to the experience of the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, which reintroduced wolves 15 years ago, after a 70 year absence.
“Before the wolves returned the number of deers was soaring, despite human attempts to control them, because there had been nothing to hunt them,” said Mr Lister.
But that was just the beginning, he said. Not only did the wolves curb the deer population, they also changed the animals’ behaviour. The deers started avoiding certain areas of the park, such as valleys and gorges, where they were especially vulnerable to preying wolves and, as a result, aspen, willow and cottonwood trees sprang up.
The growing tree population attracted bears, which feasted on the rising berry-count. It also attracted birds and beavers, which eat trees and are like wolves, in that they are ecosystem engineers. The dams they built in the rivers provided a habitat for otters, ducks and muskrats. Furthermore, the trees helped to stabilise the banks, making the rivers more fixed in their course and reducing soil erosion.
So the wolves changed the physical geography of the banks as well as the ecosystem.
Mr Lister hopes to kick off a similar train of events – the process of letting nature restore the ecosystem is known as ‘re-wilding’ – on his Scottish estate which he bought in 2003 with a view to creating a wilderness reserve.
Since then, he hasn’t let the grass grow under his feet, planting 800,000 native trees, restoring peatland, releasing red squirrels into the area for the first time in decades and, more ambitiously, reintroducing elk to Britain three millennia after they died out. The elk experiment was partially successful – they were doing too much damage to the “relatively fragile forest” of his Sutherland estate, so he gave them to another wildlife park in Scotland, where they are thriving.
Now in his fifties, Mr Lister inherited a fortune from his father, who sold his share of the furniture chain he co-founded for £52m in 1985. He used his money to travel the world as a young man and spent a while working in the furniture business, before seeing the light after turning 40.
“Over 90 per cent of philanthropy is concerned with humanitarianism and just one per cent is concerned with nature and the environment. We need to stop thinking about ourselves and be more sympathetic to other creatures. If we don’t change the way we have been living we don’t stand much chance,” he said.
“I could build a giant windfarm, or commercial forest or large-scale hydro project, but I think it’s about time to do something different. It’s very clear that people love seeing nature and wildlife. I’m doing this for Scotland, for Britain, for nature.
“I don’t want to leave behind a massive windfarm or hydro plant. It’s ugly. It might be necessary, but it isn’t for me.
“My agenda is wildness, without which our lives would be diminished. That’s what gives us hope, life, longevity – not concrete jungles,” he said.
“It could have a huge economic impact as well. Instead of an area with a sleepy lodge that attracts a few visitors, you would have B&Bs all around and employ people in hospitality.”
Lister decries the rise of social media, which he says is making people, children especially, ever more disconnected from nature and says more needs to be done to harness its power to inspire the younger generation.
“We are at a precarious place in the global consumption crisis. But putting up videos on YouTube – for example two bears rubbing backs – you could get millions and millions of hits. If we can connect children to nature, that’s a great thing to do,” he said.
However, even he concedes that getting permission to house bears and wolves is not going to be easy.
Asked where he would source the beasts, he replied: “Scandinavia, particularly Sweden – that would be the perfect place. But that is the least of my problems. The biggest problem is proving to the British public and the Scottish government that this is the right thing to do.”
Lawyers say there could be legal challenges to Mr Lister’s plans. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gives everyone a right of responsible access over most of the land and inland water in Scotland, and this access could be obstructed by the proposal, which could also fall within the remit of zoo legislation.
Still, if anyone can get bears and wolves back to Britain, it will be Lister. He is in the process of appointing an agency to do a feasibility study, which will be followed by consultations with the government, environmental groups and local communities.
“We been bumbling along on this for a while and I’ve got sidetracked with other things, but I’m attacking this with renewed vigour now,” he said.