Moose in the Glen
For BBC Natural World
Multi-millionaire Paul Lister is creating Europe’s first wild nature reserve, in Scotland. He believes that the Highlands are in terrible shape – stripped of the old Caledonian pine forests, ravaged by excessive numbers of red deer, shorn of native animals. At his estate at Alladale, Paul intends to welcome back bears and wolves. He’s beginning with wild boar - and moose.
Paul Lister - the man with the vision at Alladale.
This is the story of Paul Lister’s mission to return five glens and two rivers in Scotland to the wild state they enjoyed at least three centuries ago – in what has been described as the most ambitious, expensive, and controversial ecological project ever undertaken in northern Europe.
The Highlands of Scotland look like the very essence of wildness - primeval and untouched. But solitary trees are all that remains of a very different landscape. Centuries ago, a vast forest of Caledonian pine cloaked the hills: now they’ve been stripped bare. With the timber gone, sheep grazed out many of the fragile native plants – turning a once-diverse landscape into a soggy desert. Crofters have mostly gone: the land is carved up between large estates devoted to hunting shooting and fishing. The Highland landscape looks wild, but in fact it is heavily managed, to raise three animals for sport: salmon, grouse and red deer.
On a visit to untouched forests of Eastern Europe, businessman Paul Lister saw what Scotland might become. But it wasn’t until 2003 that his idea took off. Overnight his fortunes changed as he came into control of millions of pounds made by his father, the founder of the MFI flatpack empire. Lister bought a 23,000-acre estate north of Inverness and set about challenging the centuries-old monopoly of the landscape. His base is Alladale Lodge at the eastern end of his land. Paul wants to create a wilderness reserve, by planting Caledonian pine, juniper, hazel, and round birch to join up the fragmented woodland. He aims to populate his glens with moose, boar, bear and wolf - creatures that were once common here. He thinks that people will pay to come and see this restoration process happen. Paul wants to prove that a rich and self-sustaining mix of native wildlife can make more money and provide more jobs than hunting, shooting and fishing.
Paul’s model is a success story from South Africa. Like the Highlands of Scotland, Shamwari Game Reserve was once over-grazed and impoverished. Local businessman Adrian Gardiner returned the land to its natural healthy state with the help of the animals he brought in. Now leopards, hyenas and lions stop grazing animals – deer and buffalo – from stripping the earth of vegetation. Shamwari faced opposition from neighbours outraged at the prospect of fierce wild animals returning, so a fence was built round its 60,000 acres. Paul Lister has similar plans at Alladale. To protect the 80,000 saplings he has planted, his rangers cull Scotland’s own destructive grazing animals, free-roaming red deer. Paul eventually intends to replace the rangers with natural predators - wolves, lynx and bear.
Paul has supporters. A recent report from top scientific body the Royal Society concludes that wolves could be an economical way to control deer numbers and protect plant species. And Paul receives world class expertise and advice from Oxford Professor David Macdonald. The university’s ecologists are overseeing the reintroduction of the first native species he is bringing back – wild boar. But the very pen Paul builds to contain the boar – for which Paul has a Dangerous Wild Animals licence – illustrates the bureaucratic minefield into which Paul is advancing. The same department that tells him to fence in the boar to protect the public orders him to allow walkers to enter the pen freely.
Things are easier abroad. Paul goes to Sweden in search of moose, European elk, to replace the deer he hopes to lose. But it is the reintroduction of predators that will have the biggest effect – and gives rise to the greatest public anxiety and media scare stories. In Yellowstone National Park in the USA, wolves have been reintroduced without problems. In Scotland ramblers and climbers are up in arms - but not over the presence of wolves, which they have welcomed. The walkers are enraged by Paul’s plans to confine all his animals inside a 3-metre-high, 37-mile-long fence. They see this barrier as contrary to the very first Act of the new Scottish Parliament – the creation of an enforceable right to roam.
That’s not the only law that threatens Paul’s project – though his plan is in the spirit of the recent European Directive on re-wilding. If he encloses Alladale, it may be classed as a zoo. Then he would break the law if he placed prey and predator in the same space. There’s no precedent for a wilderness nature reserve in the UK. Paul goes abroad again to see how this is managed elsewhere. He visits the biggest re-wilding project on the planet, a hundred times larger than his own, run by philanthropists Kristine and Doug Tompkins. They acquire land denuded by cattle-grazing in Argentina, return it to its natural condition, restock it with vanished indigenous species such as ant-eaters, and eventually donate it back to the Government as a national park. Paul’s vision is of a more commercial enterprise. He needs charismatic animals to bring in paying visitors. At last his efforts to import moose pay off. Hercules and Hulda – a bull and a cow – arrive to begin his breeding herd. Perhaps only a maverick like Paul can move the boundaries and wake people up to the urgency and importance of re-wilding.
Quotes from the film
- The habitat here could easily sustain a small population of the wolves and the bears, and the lynx and the elk that I’m talking about, to really make the place come alive. Paul Lister, Alladale Estate owner
- At Alladale there is the potential to do something radical, useful, important and well-founded. Oxford Professor David Macdonald
- It’s the wolves that will keep the red deer away from the valley bottoms where we need vegetation. For the whole cycle of life it’s important to have as many of the creatures back that were once here. Paul Lister
- Wolves have attacked people a few times in North America, but in the past 400 years a wild wolf has never killed a person in North America. I think someday that might happen, but of all the things you have to worry about, wolves are probably just below ground squirrels. Wolves are really not a serious threat to people. Ed Bangs, Biologist, Yellowstone National Park
- To keep these animals in place, he wants to build a fence, electrified to keep a massive enclosure for these animals. Now, one, that’s not re-wilding, that’s creating a zoo. And two, people like myself, and many others have fought for generations for this Land Reform Act, for the legislation that we now have in Scotland. And for someone just to helicopter in to an area like Alladale and say. “I’m going to build this great big fence and to Hell with your Land Reform Act, I don’t care about your Land Reform Act, I don’t care about your access, I want to keep people out, I want to keep my animals in, that attitude I find morally repugnant. Cameron MacNeish, Vice President, Ramblers Scotland
- There’s nothing unique about what I’m proposing at Alladale, there’s nothing unique. It’s literally a plagiarisation of a success story from South Africa. Paul Lister
- Paul has seen what’s happened in Africa, he thinks it can happen in Scotland. I would say, “It can’t”. Cameron MacNeish, Vice President, Ramblers Scotland
- I was in Sweden the other week: there were three or four hundred wolves. You don’t hear horror-stories of people being eaten by bears and wolves in Europe. It’s just nonsense, and it’s about time people woke up to that fact. It’s about time that stories like Red Riding Hood were put into context and people understood that wolves are absolutely terrified of man. Paul Lister
- We’ve managed to surround ourselves in so much red tape telling us what we can’t do. We’re not a zoo, we’re not a Longleat, we’re a wilderness reserve, a nature reserve with a fence around. There’s not a box for us. Paul Lister
- I started by thinking he was a nutcase, but I have to admire him for having a go. The SAS motto, (“Who dares wins”) – he’s put his purse where his mouth is and he’s trying and I admire that immensely. Johnny Shaw, neighbour
- There’s always going to be people out there that go: ”This isn’t going to work. He’s a crackpot, this that and the other”…But as long as I can get the majority, as long as the majority of people can see what we are trying to achieve here, then it will happen...totally it will happen. Paul Lister
Series Editor - Tim Martin
Producer/Director - Mike Birkhead
Narrated by John Hannah
Associate Producer - Kate Munro
Cameraman - Mike Cuthbert
Sound - Dave Eden
Editor - Nigel Buck
Writers - Jeremy Evans, Sue Western
Music Composer - David Mitcham
Music performed by BBC Concert Orchestra