A London-based company is currently consulting with stakeholders on the feasibility of creating a Highland Wilderness Reserve for the release of wolves. Cameron McNeish knows who is behind it.
HE’S back again. Every so often the millionaire owner of Alladale Estate in Sutherland invites a metropolitan journalist to his luxury hotel near Ardgay, wines and dines them, and feeds them his version of re-wilding. In particular he offers a romantic story of re-introducing wolves into Scotland.
This normally results in an emotive feature in a glossy magazine or national newspaper, gets picked up by other media outlets and the whole thing flares up into another media frenzy with calls from people who should know better for wolves to become Monarchs of the Glen once again.
He even persuaded BBC Scotland to feature him in a six-part television series a number of years ago, a series that backfired in many ways and actually raised some serious doubts about his real intentions and motives.
This time the wolf-obsessed landowner, Paul Lister, appears to have taken a different tack.
He has hired a company called Conservation Capital to lead a consultation on the feasibility of a ‘fenced wilderness reserve in the Scottish Highlands.’ The consultation is being carried out on behalf of The European Nature Trust (TENT) of which Paul Lister is a trustee and founder.
Conservation Capital, whose CEO is an old friend of mine, Neil Birnie, an environmental lawyer and former trustee of the Wilderness Foundation and John Muir Trust, has been asked to explain the vision of the so-called Highland Wilderness Reserve at Alladale to potential stakeholders like the Scottish Government, conservation organisations, local community organisations, outdoor access organisations and other ‘opinion leaders’ whoever they may be.
While much of the vision for this Highland Wilderness Reserve includes key aspects like significant tree planting and peatland restoration it is perfectly clear that this is predominantly a money-making enterprise, and while there is nothing wrong with that, the big stumbling block is the ‘controlled release of missing species into a fenced reserve.’
Forget for a moment the issues about releasing wolves or bears or lynx into the highland landscape but instead consider this. The fenced reserve in question would cover some 50,000 acres and be surrounded by a three-metre high electric fence to keep the animals inside.
More crucially the fence would also prevent the public from accessing an enormous chunk of highland landscape that includes a remote Corbett called Carn Ban.
The idea is to invite people to stay at the top-end hotel at Alladale and take them into the reserve in safari treks to view the beasts, just like an African game reserve. There is some vague talk about “creative solutions” to the access issue, such as setting up stiles for the public with signposts advising the public to avoid areas where the wolves may be, but at the moment there doesn’t appear to have been much consideration about access impacts on the public, which doesn’t surprise me.
At a meeting with Paul Lister about 10 years ago he admitted he had never heard of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and complained bitterly that hillwalkers should have the common courtesy of asking him for permission to walk on his property.
It was clear from the conversation that he knew very little about Scottish access rights and it seemed public access was very low on his list of priorities. I don’t see anything in this consultation to suggest he’s changed his attitude and learnt anything since about Scottish access laws and traditions.
Access campaigners are already showing concern. Dave Morris, former director of Ramblers Scotland, said: “Sounds like this project should be totally opposed – the landscape impacts from the electrified fence and associated facilities (including a road around the fence for maintenance purposes) plus excessive restrictions on public access contrary to the 2003 Act. It’s also impossible to guarantee the animals would be confined within the fence. A severe snowfall could create drifting that could cover the fence so the animals would simply walk out.”
The Ramblers and the John Muir Trust have also expressed concern about the access issue.
Other considerations are that animal welfare groups could deliberately cut the fence to allow the animals to escape or more importantly that such a fenced reserve could create a precedent in Scotland in which other landowners would propose massive public exclusion zones so that they could create a so-called ‘wildlife reserve’ for the exclusive use of paying guests. Within such reserves would be hunting or wildlife viewing opportunities, from deer to boar or even lynx.
It’s pretty clear that Paul Lister wants to create a private zoo, with exorbitantly high entrance fees for an exclusive clientele. Such a project is completely unacceptable in a place where anyone can wander at will, as of right, in a wild landscape valued for its absence of high fences, roads and other intrusions.
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.
Such a 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 co-ordinated by that organisation and not by a profit-motivated businessman.
To be fair, Paul Lister is to be congratulated on some of his activities at Alladale and 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 the access and landscape issues are vitally serious.
The access provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act were hard won and we should remember the court cases with Ann Gloag and Ewan Snowie. They were only allowed to retain ‘privacy zones’ around their houses in both cases which amounted to about 12 acres of garden ground, including the buildings. Any notion that Paul Lister is going to get permission to extend his personal privacy zone from 12 to 50,000 acres is patently absurd, with or without wolves.
Also, 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. The Brexit fiasco raises grave doubts about such consents and what will happen in the future.
According to a representative from Conservation Capital, the next stage in the consultation is the creation of a report to TENT with a recommendation for either:
(a) not going ahead at all
(b) going ahead at Alladale or
(c) going ahead at another site (as yet to be confirmed) in the Highlands
Like many hillgoers I would be thrilled by the prospect of wolves being returned to the Highlands and if there was a feasible solution to the reintroduction that didn’t include putting the animals into a huge fenced enclosure with the associated public access restrictions then there might be a way forward, but frankly, I doubt there is such a solution.
Look how long it took for the Scottish Government to approve the reintroduction of beavers. Re-introducing wolves into the Scottish wilds is a whole different ball-game and Paul Lister is unlikely to be one of the players.