Rewilding project aims to return iconic Scottish estate to its wild roots

An ambitious new project at the Alladale estate is allowing tourists to experience a rewilding project in action. Environmentalist Matt Mellen heads to Scotland to witness the transformation and is inspired at what it might herald for the future of Britain’s wilderness

Alladale is not a typical Highland estate. Unlike much of the surrounding region, the 23,000 acres near Inverness in Scotland are no longer manipulated to optimise hunting, fishing and shooting for traditional sporting guests. As a result, the land is gradually changing.

What we think of as Scottish countryside – the barren highlands of heather and rock – are not, in fact, natural landscapes. They are the result of ancient deforestation that has been compounded by hundreds of years of overgrazing by excessive deer populations.

The Romans called the Scottish wilderness ‘the Great Forest of Caledon’, once covering 1.5 million hectares. Today only 16,000 hectares remain. Since then, humanity’s full-spectrum assault on nature has rendered every single large carnivore extinct. The wolves, elk, wild boar, lynx, bear and wild cat that once roamed the forest are now only present in the fossil record.

“With large predators removed from Scotland, deer numbers have increased beyond what the landscape can sustain.”

If the primary use for an estate is stalking, then an over-abundance of deer serves a purpose – not least because it is profitable. But from an ecological perspective the land, utilised in this way, offers but a fraction of its full potential – capturing carbon, creating soil and offering habitat are just some examples. In this era defined by environmental challenges and species loss, a new way of thinking about how to manage large estates is emerging and offers a new and fascinating travel adventure.

Pioneering this movement is Paul Lister – a maverick landowner with a big vision. When Paul bought the Alladale Wilderness Reserve 10 years ago, he was not only struck by the barren beauty of the Scottish Highlands, but also found himself deeply affected by what has been lost.

“The concept of returning large carnivores such as wolves and bears into a large-scale wilderness reserve in the Scottish Highlands is not an entirely a new concept – South Africa has developed the blueprint very well,” he says. “It is the right thing to do morally, ethically, socially, financially, economically and environmentally, especially in an area where there is currently so little opportunity. These are all issues that will be addressed in a study that The European Nature Trust is conducting this year.”

A trophic cascade describes the ecological repercussions of removing species. With large predators removed from Scotland, deer numbers have increased beyond what the landscape can sustain. This leads to overgrazing preventing tree saplings from maturing and to sad scenes of dead, starved deer in the winter when access to food declines.

Constant overgrazing leads to a monotonous, homogeneous landscape that lends itself well to commercial shoots but offers almost nothing in terms of ecological services. Like a collapse of dominoes, diversity gives way to a simple denuded landscape.

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Alladale still offers traditional sporting activities such as stalking and trout fishing but now comes with the added element of seeing first-hand a large-scale, ecological restoration project under way. The traditional Victorian highland central lodge has capacity for up to 14 guests to stay in style and two self-catering cottages offer an even more remote experience. These well-equipped abodes are the perfect launch pad to investigate the beginning of an extraordinary initiative that will evolve for centuries to come.

To date, 800,000 trees have been planted and protected from deer by a new fence. This is just the beginning. Lister wants to reintroduce the predators, which will naturally control the deer population and enable the re-growth of forest – transforming a part of Scotland for the benefit of generations to come.

While hiking the resurgent lands it was fascinating to hear the complex ongoing work required to do something different with a large estate. Seeing the tenacious, luminous saplings rise up out of the bracken and branch out to embrace the sun creates an exciting feeling of transformation. The next step is to bring back the long-extinct megafauna.

Paul’s long-term perspective and passion has been inspired, in part, by life-changing experiences in Europe’s last remaining wilderness. Some 99 percent of European forest has been cut down. Of the remaining 1 percent, half is in Romania. This fragile and precious reserve of wild species is testament to the beauty and abundance of a forest that has never been felled. Lister’s epiphany in that wilderness speaks to the psychological, emotional and spiritual nourishment offered by wild places, which spurred him to take action.

Lister set up The European Nature Trust to both help protect Europe’s largest remaining wild place and, in Scotland, demonstrate that denuded lands can be brought back to life with careful management. His vision is to increase the estate size to over 50,000 hectares – comparable to those on African game reserves – enlarge the fence and introduce wolves, bears, elk and lynx. The ambitious project would create jobs and drive tourism. The scheme is anticipated to draw in excess of 25,000 visitors from year one.

“Lister wants to reintroduce the predators, which will naturally control the deer population and enable the re-growth of forest.”

This bold rewilding initiative is widely misunderstood. The Daily Mail ran an early article on the scheme under the headline Howling Mad. Some people have expressed fear of wild stock losses or worse, an attack on children, imagining wild packs of wolves on the prowl. However, Lister’s enthusiasm is infectious and he guffaws at doubters. Using slightly more colourful language he booms: “If we can put men on the moon I think we can keep some animals inside a fence!”

Lister maintains that a large-scale game reserve will be good for the land, good for the economy and the best possible legacy for future generations. But there remain a series of legal hurdles to overcome before any wild species can be imported. For example, the giant enclosure of wild animals may interfere with Scottish right-to-roam legislation.

Ultimately, it may be the economic arguments that persuade Scottish lawmakers to evolve their ambitions for the land. Since wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park wolf-related tourism has been calculated to bring in an extra $35.5 million annually to the surrounding local economies of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Ecologically, the impacts are profound and unexpected, a fascinating recent study showed how wolves affect the shape of rivers through their influence on deer populations and distribution.

The legal and cultural objections to rewilding may point to the underlying human prejudices that drive ecological breakdown. Industrialisation and development have often pitted humans against nature. Since the scientific revolution notions of progress often seem related to extraction from, and dominance over, the natural world.

Paul Lister invites us to think differently about the land, not to accept it as it is but imagine how it could be. The success of post-industrial civilisation may lie in establishing a new relationship with the natural world that is not solely extractive and that leaves room for wildness. As he points out: “It is about time we worked out we share this planet with other species. We can’t survive on this planet alone.”

Whether you want to stalk deer (helping to reduce the population), fish for brown trout, mountain bike or hike, Alladale Wilderness Reserve is open for business. Additionally, guests are able to see the fascinating first phase of one of the world’s most exciting and ambitious rewilding projects in action. Seeing the emergence of a complex ecosystem carefully nurtured by these charismatic custodians is deeply inspiring. It also offers us hope. If this taste of wildness is contagious we might see other lands rehabilitated which could become a major part of responding to environmental challenges. Our children could also benefit from greater opportunities to interact with other species. The thrill of seeing a wild bear might soon be coming to these shores.

A stay at Alladale Wilderness Reserve starts at £1,200 per night, based on exclusive use for 12 – 14 guests, minimum three night stay.

Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar, he writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.