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Alladale Estate: Walking with Wolves

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WOLVES. The very name stirs the emotions. To some the thought of wolf packs roaming the highlands would be a dream come true, the ultimate in re-wilding. To others the prospect strikes fear, alarm and concern, not only because their childhood bogies are still alive and well and feature a certain Red Riding Hood, but because they have a genuine disquiet about the effect of roaming carnivores on their livelihood. Wolves are natural predators and are as liable to take a sheep as a red deer.

Paul Lister. Millionaire heir to the MFI furniture fortune and a name that, depending on your stance on re-wilding, keeps cropping up like a bad penny. Ten years ago Lister, bought the 23,000 acre Alladale Estate in Easter Ross with the aim of re-wilding the estate and re-introducing various species that have become extinct in Scotland, including wolves and bears.

The proposals sounded exciting and I was invited to visit Lister along with wildlife experts Roy Dennis and Dick Balharry and Ramblers Scotland boss Dave Morris. Lister met us and enthusiastically showed us around and it was very clear he was a multi-millionaire with a vision. The plan was to rejuvenate his remote estate by reducing deer numbers, encouraging the native woodland and refurbishing the 100-year old lodge into a luxury hotel. He also wanted to populate the area with European grey wolves, bears, lynx, boar and European bison. He hoped to convince neighbouring landowners to turn over some of their land to his project, potentially creating a 50,000 acre game park for Scottish indigenous species.

All went well and his little audience was both receptive and encouraging until he mentioned The Fence!

Lister wanted to encircle the estate with a three-metre high electrified fence, a barrier that would not only keep the wild animals inside the reserve but would also prevent the public from accessing an enormous chunk of Highland landscape that includes a remote Corbett called Carn Ban.

Paul Lister has strong links with the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project in Romania and the Shamwari and Sanbona game reserves in South Africa, both of which charge large fees for entrance. He believes his Scottish “Big Five” species could also attract high-paying guests who would be willing to pay up to £20,000 for a week at Alladale Lodge. Day trippers would also be welcome, provided they paid for the privilege. They would be offered conducted tours by rangers.

It was clear that Lister wanted to create a zoo, with exorbitantly high entrance fees.

Paul Lister

Paul Lister

At that first meeting it became evident that Lister knew nothing of the access provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act. Several times he accused hillwalkers of walking on “his” hills “without permission” and he appeared disinclined to accept that the public could freely roam the estate without his permission, provided they did so in a responsible manner.

We left Alladale that day with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, like much wild land in the highlands, a lot of his property is badly degraded. Many of the hillsides have been over burnt and high numbers of deer have had a serious effect on much of the vegetation but here and there pockets of woodland offer a reminder of what this estate, and many others in the highlands, could be like given sensitive management. Lister clearly intends to create a long-term project that will restore the indigenous Highland flora and fauna of 2,000 years ago, but will his dream of reintroducing wolves, and bears and lynx come to fruition?

I think it could, in time, but our advice to him was to forget about building his 50-mile electric fence. It was highly unlikely that he would get planning permission for such a fence and if he attempted to stop the public from accessing his estate, or indeed charged people for access, there would be public outrage. Our views were supported by Mike Dales of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland who later said; “At a time when we should be having a sensible, calm debate about reintroducing beavers and wolves, this theme park idea threatens to polarize and confuse that debate.”

The reintroduction of wolves is a valid debate but if we are going to reintroduce any indigenous species it should surely be into the wilds, and not into a game park, or a large zoo. That debate has to be carried out in a calm and inclusive way and although Scottish Natural Heritage has its critics, any reintroduction programme should be scientifically controlled and coordinated by that organisation.

Four years later Lister hit the headlines again. His manager, Hugh Fullerton-Smith, had announced plans to apply for a zoo license. Highland Council officials confirmed they received a ‘Notice of Intention’ from Alladale Wilderness Reserve as required under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981.

Since my visit to Alladale, European elk and wild boar had been introduced to the estate and were kept within enclosures. These enclosures have also been the subject of controversy with a local gamekeeper telling me “the boars have rooted granny pines throughout and decimated the beautiful ant hills that used to be in abundance on the Stronukie Ridge. They are gone – wiped out.”

The same keeper told me: “These plans sends alarm bells ringing in my ears. If Lister gets away with it he could set a precedent and every estate in Scotland could get closed off for the same reasons. That would deny freedom of access for the public, allowing Lister and others to control the most beautiful parts of the country for their own pleasures.”

Ramblers Scotland boss Dave Morris shared fears that public access would be wiped out. “Approving such a project would be contrary to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 as it would prevent people exercising their statutory rights of access over a large area of land,” he said. “There are already problems with his existing enclosure, with its high fence and electrified wires which make it near impossible to cross.

“The Alladale situation suggests that it is time for us to ask the Scottish Parliament to prohibit the use of electric fencing in Scotland in association with deer fencing or other forms of high fencing.”

In papers lodged with the local authority, manager Fullerton-Smith stated: “The Alladale Wilderness Reserve facility will be unlike any present conventional UK zoo, both in types of enclosures it uses and ways in which only a limited number of resident visitors and environmental education groups will view the animals.”

The animals were to be kept in enclosures and fed on a range of carcasses and game off-cuts and only guests staying at Alladale would be allowed to see them. Exclusive guests that is. According to the estate website, if you’d like to book a Christmas holiday at Alladale it will cost you in the region of £300 a night, per person.

It was clear that Lister and Fullerton-Smith had changed their plans. The original idea, as Lister explained it to me, was that the whole 23,000 acre estate would fenced off and the wolves allowed to roam free. There would be access points in the electrified fence for the public. Sometime later that plan appeared to change and it was suggested that the public should be prepared to “sacrifice” access for the sake of the “re-wilding” scheme. Now, the plan had changed again and the wolves, I assume, were to be kept in a smaller enclosure, within a zoo. It seems that the original altruistic motives for re-wilding and re-introductions had been abandoned in favour of a pay-to-see-the-animals zoo.

Highland Council officials told me that there would be a public consultation period regarding the application, with notices advertised in local and national newspapers.

I’ve no idea of what happened to the zoo license application. I assume it was rejected and we’ve heard little from Lister for four years. However, a six-part BBC television series, Monarch of the Glen, didn’t appear to do him any favours. In those programmes he came across as arrogant, impatient, bullying and quite eccentric.

In 2010 it was revealed that the estate had shelved plans to introduce wolves, in the interests of “animal welfare”. According to a BBC report at the time Mr Fullerton-Smith said wolves remained part of Alladale’s vision. Previously, the general manager said two wolf packs could be released into a large, but secure, area but this would require collaboration from neighbouring estates to make available 50,000 acres for the animals.

Grey wolves: is it a reintroduction if they are fenced in?

Wolves: is it a reintroduction if they are fenced in?

In February 2010, the estate had its license to keep 17 wild boar and two European elk renewed. Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross licensing committee unanimously approved the application although Highland Council’s local access officer had warned of concerns from hillwalkers that the animals’ enclosures limited the right-to-roam at Alladale. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland said the licensing committee’s decision was disappointing.

In 2012 Fullerton-Smith left Alladale to become Executive Director of Change for Climate Change, a registered charity, and last month the BBC reported that Lister’s long-term plans remained unchanged. He told BBC Scotland: “We’re going to do a feasibility study on the big vision and the vision is to have a minimum area of 50,000 acres, have a fence around it, and bring back wolves and bears into that area.”

Needless to say his comments have attracted a mixed response. Other landowners are currently challenging the access provisions of the Land Reform Act (at Ledgowan, near Achnasheen) and Lister’s intentions to restrict access at Alladale to fee-paying guests will attract much opposition. Even Scottish Land and Estate, formerly the Scottish Landowners Association, are wary of Lister’s plans and advise caution.

“We would support what Mr Lister is doing in terms of peatland restoration, work with red squirrels and Scottish wildcats, which are native animals.

“But the reintroduction of big carnivores would require great care and it’ll be many years before we can get to a point where there could be a general release of these, said Drew McFarlane-Slack .”

Far be it from me to agree with the landowners’ organization, but Drew McFarlane-Slack is an old pal of mine and I’d be happy to support him on this issue. Paul Lister is to be congratulated on much of the work he is doing at Alladale. I’m pragmatic enough to realize that despite his wealth running such a set-up is expensive and the estate needs to produce cash to keep everything going. But I have two great concerns about Alladale Wilderness Reserve.

Firstly, I would actively oppose any plans to restrict access to 50,000 acres of the Scottish Highlands because someone wants to create a zoo. The access provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act were hard won and there is a grave danger that if Lister built a 50 mile long electric fence around his property others may want to try something similar. Remember the vindictive court case with Ann Gloag of Stagecoach when she wanted to build a fence around her Perthshire Estate to keep people out?

Secondly, with all due respect to Paul Lister, I believe the job of re-introducing large creatures like wolves and bears should be carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage. Such re-introductions are of national importance and shouldn’t be down to the whims and ambitions of individual landowners who may, or may not, have a financial interest at heart. Lister’s proposals fall within the remit of zoo legislation, and Europe’s Habitats Directive.

Having predators like wolves or bears and prey in the same enclosure would introduce animal welfare issues, and human-management of protected species requires special consent from the European Commission. This would need careful consideration as re-introduced grey wolves would have no natural predator in Scotland.

No matter your own viewpoint, it looks as though the re-introduction of wolves or bears into the Scottish landscape is still a long, long way off.

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