Alladale: A Rewilding Journey

posted 08 Sep 2020 13 mins

A vivid account of rewilding in the Scottish Highlands drew a large audience to C. Hoare & Co.’s online event on 8 September.

Paul Lister is founder of the European Nature Trust and owner of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Sutherland. Over the last 17 years he has worked to restore 23,000 acres ravaged by centuries of exploitation. “Scottish woodland – what the Romans called the ‘Great Wood of Caledon’ – has been depleted to the extent that only 2% of the original forest cover exists.’ he explained. “We were one of the first group of landowners to put nature first and focus all our energy on putting the landscape back together”.

To date, just under a million native trees such as Scots pine, rowan, birch, holly, hazel and hawthorn have been put in the ground at Alladale, with a riparian-zone habitat given over to food-plant species beneficial to red squirrels and songbirds. Hill drains, ploughed into the landscape in the 1960s to provide drier vegetation for grouse and grazing animals, have been filled in to restore healthy peatland, while market-garden produce is grown using a zero-waste aquaponics system. The reserve is also host to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Scottish wildcat breeding programme, and Paul has a long-cherished plan to reintroduce wolves to the landscape.

Alladale is proof that ecology and entrepreneurialism can work hand in hand. An imaginative educational programme welcomes local schoolchildren, while private guests can stay in luxury lodges and join activities ranging from yoga and hiking to survival courses and cold-water therapy involving full-body immersion in Highland streams.

“I wanted to offer an alternative to the traditional ‘hunting, shooting, fishing’ estate.” Paul pointed out. “More people now are interested in shooting wildlife with a camera than with a gun or a rifle.”

Paul’s passionate advocacy of native flora and fauna, along with presentations from his reserve manager Innes Macneill and hospitality manager Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen, sparked wide-ranging questions from our online audience. Streaming straight from the wilderness, however, is not without hazards, and a bout of particularly ‘dreich’ Scottish weather interrupted the internet connection at some points in the evening.  A full transcription of the Q&A session is therefore provided below as a ‘real world’ record of an exceptional virtual event:

What has most surprised you about how the landscape has changed?
When you remove sheep and cattle in large numbers, and reduce the number of deer, the ground has a chance to breathe. Alladale is a place in recovery, and I think you feel that when you visit. It’s very peaceful, and not having to step around sheep dung every moment is definite plus!

These days, livestock accounts for 27% of all useable land on the planet (that’s land that is non-ice and non-desert), while just 3% of global philanthropy goes to air, water and soil. Unless we reverse that trend, whether it be in the Scottish Highlands, Brazil, or anywhere else, the future doesn’t look very bright to me. 

There is a definite international dimension to rewilding.  Can you discuss how this project compares to others elsewhere?
I think we have been in the vanguard of rewilding in the UK, but there are now many more places, globally, where they’re managing the land in a more thoughtful way.

A lot of mistakes have been made over the centuries, whether it was felling forests to build ships to fight the Spanish Armada or build railroads from Nairobi to Mombasa, and we haven’t always learned from those mistakes. For example, the European Nature Trust currently has an important conservation project in Romania. The country has recently come out of Communism and they have what they think is natural capital in the form of timber. Timber barons go in there from Austria and start felling those great old forests – the last big stretch of wild forest in Europe, apart from little pockets in the Carpathians, Spain and the Baltics. The temptation is there for capitalists to come in, see the opportunity, make money and take that money to a foreign country. This is a shame, because there’s far more long-term value to a country like Romania in terms of revenue tourism and carbon sequestration than there is in cutting forests. So, our focus abroad, for now, is very much on preservation and conservation rather than rewilding per se.

Are beavers part of the project, and what are your thoughts on the effect of more widespread introduction of beavers to the UK landscape?
Beavers are not part of our project at Alladale, as we don’t have the most suitable riparian habitat for them. But where there are opportunities to introduce beavers, I think it’s an excellent idea; they add to the biodiversity pool and the dams they build make rivers more healthy by slowing them down.

If you go to parts of Bavaria, you can see wonderful examples of farming and fishing communities who fully support the beavers, and I think that’s great. In fact, the European Nature Trust has just co-sponsored a film about beavers in the eco-system to support community engagement.

Have you thought about introducing any extinct herbivores, for example, European elk, European bison or wild boar?
I should say that over the last 17 years we’ve made forays with all those species. We brought a pair of elk back from Sweden in 2007, and they bred very well. Too well, in fact, so we moved them to a safari park.

Wild boar do a great job of scarifying the ground and opening it up for plants to grow. Unfortunately, however, we found that wild boar will not survive in a highland environment.

Did you establish base surveys on flora and fauna, as to what was there when you first bought the estate?
At the very beginning, we made an assessment of what was here. Our main goal was really to provide more forest cover, but recently there has been more of a focus on flora and fauna. We recently found a very pretty little woodland flower called the twinflower which has probably been dormant in the ground here for a thousand years. We’ve sent it away to have its genome tested, and we hope to do translocations of the flower in due course.

What changes have you seen in the flora and fauna?
Wildflowers are an ongoing project. The rewilding project here is about intervention; we’re having  to carry out ground disturbance, and with that you want to put the right species back, repairing some of the damage that was done centuries ago. So far, we have concentrated on woodland species, for example ox eye daisies and yarrow, and species that are going to be of benefit to bees.

On the fauna side, we had a white-tailed eagle on the reserve for approximately three months last year. We’ve now decided to build an eyrie for the white-tail, in the hope that other birds passing through will see this very specific nest and use it. We’ve been approached by the BBC to film the project, so watch this space!

Why have you stopped stalking?
Basically because it conflicted with so much other business potential. Less than 5% of the UK population is interested in field sports, and once people realise you’re not killing deer and hosting hunters, the market opens up. Stalking was bringing us in £80k - £90k per annum, and we’ve more than tripled that in a couple of years with our current business model. So we feel we that it was a good decision, and we can do the job of culling deer more efficiently ourselves.

How do you measure success?
I’d say success lies somewhere between achievement and legacy. Roger Federer winning eight Wimbledon championships is a tremendous achievement, but it’s not a legacy. Roger’s legacy is the work he does with his children’s charity in Malawi. Achievement is what you have managed to do or create for yourself; legacy is what you do for the greater good. For me, legacy is more important.

Our success at Alladale could also be described in terms of the schoolchildren who have been through our Highland Outdoor and Wilderness Learning programme, or the number of people who come up here, wanting to learn about what we’re doing and taking the message forward. About 20% of visitors come because they want to adapt what we’re doing in some way, and that definitely feels like a measure of success.

Did you take any grants from the Scottish government?
We were involved with the Scottish Rural Development Programme, which helped support reforestry projects in 2010-2012. The grant wasn’t there for us to make money, it was there to be reinvested in the land, the people and the project.

How many miles have you had to fence?
We’ve put in 20-plus miles of fencing over the last 20 years. It takes a little supervising, but it’s a short-term loss, long-term gain. The fences are there to help us establish woodland and better habitat areas for wildlife. In 25 years’ time, when we have the deer population where we need it to be, we will remove the fences.

With wolves and fencing, how would the estate continue to maintain free public rights of access (under Scotland's rights of access legislation)?
We fully respect the access-code legislation. It is hardly surprising that, in a relatively small island country with more than 65m people, such a requirement should exist. It’s a great idea to encourage more people to explore, enjoy and appreciate the great outdoors. The mission of the European Nature Trust and Alladale is, after all, to “connect people to nature”.

Currently about 2000 people enjoy the surrounds of Alladale each year and we employ 11 full-time staff. With a 50,000-acre fenced reserve, the numbers would increase to approximately 50-60 staff and 20,000 guests. However, this proposal would only be possible with a derogation from the law, and negotiation would take into consideration the “right to roam” legislation.

However, I would like to add that if Disney wanted to build a Disneyland between Edinburgh and Glasgow, they would need approximately 10,000 acres and have a secure area with an admission fee. So in reality this is not a dissimilar ‘scenario’ to the one we are proposing.

At the end of the day it’s about giving a much needed boost to the local and regional communities, along with all the other downstream benefits. Wolves are present in every country in mainland Europe – they deserve to be back in the British Isles, albeit in a managed area.

How has your work and your vision been received locally, versus what we have read nationwide?
I don’t live in the community, so it’s difficult to say, but over the years I think people have become accustomed to the fact that what we’re doing here is good work. A lot of the local children have been up here, participating in our education programme; other local people have walked, or hiked, or cycled through the glens. In all the time we’ve been here, not one local has ever written to me with anything negative. We had one question from a shepherd who was concerned about wolves killing sheep, but I think the two words ‘electric fence’ solved that issue.

Is there a plan for how the wolf population would be managed as the habitat reached carrying capacity?  Is there a possibility of them being culled in future?
The female wolves would be neutered. I think that’s the solution.

What scale of resource would be needed to copy your plan?
The resource is 50,000 acres. For anyone with 50,000 acres of contiguous land that doesn’t have lots of public roads dissecting it, there’s an opportunity to introduce wolves. Alladale isn’t the only place that can have them.

Can you tell us a bit more about the carbon sequestration arrangements? I have heard of this with regard to woodland, but not with regard to bare peatland.
They say there is as much carbon stored in healthy peat bogs in Scotland as in all the trees we’ve got in the UK. The International Carbon Action Partnership (ICAP) invested in the first peatland project we did here, and we are about to embark on a new forestry scheme where we will be tapping into that resource. There are a couple of other schemes, too, who are keen to partner with us, so perhaps we can share more information at a later date.

From a commercial point of view, will you in the long term open up to rewilding tourism so that visitors can experience what you have achieved in a similar fashion to a South African safari?
Yes. That’s exactly the blueprint. We’ve taken inspiration from nature preserves such as Shamwari and Londolozi in South Africa as they have already proven that nature tourism is the way forward. The South African model is also part of the reason why I want to introduce wolves at Alladale. You don’t go to Africa to look at zebras and giraffes, you go to see them being chased around by a pride of lions (at least that’s what you’re hoping for). When you bring carnivores back into the landscape, it alters the dynamic.

Isn’t there some organisation uniting all the different projects in the EU?
No, there isn’t one particular body that is coordinating things, and it’s a problem. There’s very little joined-up thinking. In Belize, for example, there are probably 25 or 30 organisations working in the wildlife and nature space but how often do they sit down and discuss things? Probably never.

The European Nature Trust’s plan was to sponsor a ‘Belize 2020’ event, to invite all the people in the country involved with wildlife and nature conservation and put them in a room together for two days. Unfortunately, COVID-19 stopped that plan, but in a small way that would have been a blueprint for something bigger on a European scale.

What was the rationale behind the target age group of your community engagement camping? There are, for example, current projects in Kenya looking at similar opportunities for children to learn about their environment from age 11-13.
For our residential programmes, we just wanted to catch that sweet spot, around 14-15 years of age, when kids are ready to absorb things and we feel that our current arrangements work well. However, we also engage with primary schools and do day trips, so we have that interaction with kids from 8 and 9 years upwards.

We don’t really want kids coming from all over the world to Alladale. In fact, we don’t really want them coming from Bristol or Leicester or London – I’d rather they were coming from Inverness, because even here in the north of Scotland, not enough children have walked up into the hills. Being ‘eco-local’ is what we’re all about.