Hugh Fullerton-Smith – the general manager of the controversial Alladale Estate – gave a talk and took questions from Mountaineering Council of Scotland members on Saturday night following their AGM at Glenmore Lodge.
Hugh began by outlining his own experience, which includes work with deer in New Zealand (producing velvet), project management for both the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota and for the Metis Settlements on the Canadian prairies and assisting nomadic organisations with the setting up of mobile abattoirs in Mongolia.
He also gave some background on Paul Lister, the owner of Alladale and the mastermind behind the plans to introduce predators together with the contruction of electric fences enclosing the estate. He explained that Lister owned forestry plantations in Stirlingshire for their tax benefits and had discovered Alladale and the Highlands through deer stalking. Lister had become interested in the regeneration of Highland habitats and, according to Hugh, had specifically bought the 23,000 acre Alladale Estate because it had no Munros and only a single access road. Hugh said the Alladale plans were intended to be philanthropic and were being done both to regenerate the degraded Highland habitat and to bring prosperity to the area. Viewers of the BBC TV series on the estate – which is currently being repeated in Scotland and shown for the first time in the rest of the UK – may however remember Paul Lister himself specifically saying at one point that the plans were not philanthropic and were commercial.
With regards to introducing predators, Hugh explained that 23,000 acres was not a large enough area to support bears and wolves. Lister intends either to actively buy up neighbouring estates or persuade them to join the scheme until the ‘reserve’ reaches 56,000 acres. Currently the only enclosure covers about 500 acres housing elk and wild boar. This fence has been kept below two metres, which means it does not need planning permission; cross-bred boar were chosen in an attempt to avoid the need for a dangerous animals licence, although it has turned out that the licence was still needed. Hugh said that three stiles had been provided to allow walkers free access to the enclosure, though very few people excercised this right.
The estate has renovated Deanich Lodge – eight miles from Alladale House – but another £800,000 extension and renovation is planned for 2009 to provide further accommodation, as the estate is currently losing £100,000 a year and needs further accommodation to be able to break even.
Hugh said that, coming from New Zealand, he had not initially realised how contentious it would be to fence off a much larger area. He appealed for people to support the plans as an attempt to regenerate the environment of the Highlands. He said access would only be lost from less than 1% of the Highlands and said, finally, that people needed to be kept out to ‘give science a chance’, before inviting questions from the floor.
The President of the MCofS, Chris Townsend, said that the issue of regeneration was separate to that of access. He pointed out that other estates were also carrying out regeneration work – such as the spectacular recovery of the pinewoods on the SNH-managed reserve at Creag Meagaidh – and that this had been done without any restrictions on access.
John Mackenzie, the Earl of Cromartie and a past president of the MCofS, explained that he was an estate owner himself. He said that restricting access was simply not an option. The new access legislation was only introduced very recently and had very broad public support. He said Alladale estate’s managers should realise this is a democratic country and they must obey the law.
There were several angry rebuttals from other members of the audience about the plans to restrict access, though general support for the estate’s tree planting activities and regeneration plans. Matt Dent, the local Access Officer from Highland Council, was at the meeting and pointed out that they were not happy with the three stiles to access the existing enclosure, and that they had written to the estate several times requesting the construction of twelve stiles but had not received any response.
Hugh avoided direct answers to many of the questions either by making a different point or by asking another question back. He said that they had to get the environment right before reintroducing animals but it was pointed out that elk and boars had been reintroduced already and the estate was trying to do something that would take a hundred years in just a year or two. Hugh admitted that the land could not support the animals introduced and that they had to be fed. When answering another question, he said that the estate only wanted to fence 14,000 acres, not the whole area, which seemed to contradict his earlier points about the size needed to support predators. One questioner had been to the reserves in Africa and Romania that have inspired Lister’s plans and said that these were very exclusive places and beyond the reach of the general public; in response Hugh said that Alladale had plans to provide some low cost accommodation, though there was some laughter when he said it could cost as little as £50 a night. Paul Webster from Walkhighlands asked why the government should allow access to be curtailed at Alladale but not on any other estates, as although most estates are supportive of walkers and access there would be others that no doubt prefer restrictions. Hugh tried to defuse anger in the room by saying he was the outsider and the questioners were the experts on the Highlands, and seemed to accept that from what he was being told, that there was little likelihood of being allowed to restrict access. He also appeared to conceed at one point that the reintroduction of predators was not particularly likely to succeed but still said that the fence was part of Paul Lister’s plan.
Chris Townsend stated that, in the light of the concerns in the room and the access situation, Alladale Estate should abandon the plans to build the fence.
The Mountaineering Council of Scotland have published a statement on their position regarding Alladale. In conclusion, it states that
The derogation of access is totally unacceptable in such a large area. It is also unacceptable that the impacts on local communities have not been taken into account. The member organisations of this group find this unofficial, but well-publicised project, as unacceptable as stated. We call for a recognition that the unnatural density, probable artificial feeding and commercial nature shows that this project is a safari park, which would require a zoo licence, and hence is completely different from what it is promoted as which is a re-wilding project. A full project study should be undertaken, followed by an environmental statement stating the legal basis on which this project will be based.
The full official MCofS statement can be acessed via this link.
You can also follow the ongoing debate on Walkhighlands’ Forum.