This is Nature as it Should Be!

Winnie Graham / The Star / March 20, 2006


Paul Lister came to South Africa to view wildlife - and returned to Britain inspired. As the owner of some 100km sq of wilderness in a remote corner of the Scottish highlands, he had learned enough from his visit to Shamwari to know that it was possible to successfully return degraded farmland to indigenous wildlife.

The upmarket safari lodge where he stayed in the Eastern Cape made for the perfect "classroom". The land on which Shamwari was created was probably the first cattle farm in South Africa to be restored to game. The conservation success project initiated by Adrian Gardiner is well known.

Some 16 or 17 years ago, Gardiner bought a farm in the Eastern Cape but soon realised that it was totally unsuitable for cattle ranching. The land was overgrazed and the soil eroded.

With visionary foresight, he set about restoring the environment. If he couldn't farm, he would return the land to the wild.

He reintroduced the Big Five to the area, along with a range of antelope and other species. With the cattle gone, the natural vegetation rapidly returned and the land was restored to life. He built a lodge to accommodate visitors who came in increasing numbers.

In the space of just 15 years, Shamwari became one of the country's top safari lodges, attracting guests from around the world - including VIPs such as President Thabo Mbeki, film stars, writers and sports personalities.

Lister, a London-born entrepreneur, had bought land in Scotland in 2003 for the specific purpose of creating a wildlife reserve. The property, known as Alladale, is a remote wilderness in the central Highlands - a staggeringly beautiful piece of land comprising wooded valleys and grassy plains.

Much of the indigenous wildlife had long since been destroyed, but Lister dreamed of creating a sanctuary that would include bears and wolves, plus other wildlife that once had a home in the area.

Years earlier, his father had bought three pieces of open land in the Scottish counties of Argyle and Perth. The indigenous forests there were gone - along with much of the wildlife - and the land covered with plantations of imported conifers.

In the absence of predators, the red deer that survived had multiplied and though the woods sheltered them, there was little food and the body weight of the average stag had a third of that of a red deer in the forests of Romania.

As a youth, Lister was a "stalker", as deer hunters are called in Scotland. The killing of deer was justified as the woods were sterile and, with the predators gone, the land over-browsed and the animals starving. The numbers had to be kept down.

The hills above Lister's property at Alladale look down a glen, two rivers, 10 lochs and - best of all - a pristine glacial wood that is not only the oldest remaining forest in the UK, but the home to magnificent Caledonian pines, 200 to 300 years old.

The mighty forest of Caledon (Roman for woods on the hills) once covered 80% of the Highlands. Over the centuries this has been cleared for timber and land. Today, just 1% remains in small patches, scattered over the country. Here, the bird life and insect life was phenomenal.

Alladale is home to one of the most northerly remnants of the ancient forest, creating a mystic scene where it lies at the foot of the steep slopes of the glen. Solitary trees dot the rest of the glen and surrounding ridge, creating stark silhouettes against the changing sky.

As Lister looked across the land, the new "laird" knew what he wanted to do: restore the lynx, the wild boar, wolves, bears and other wildlife species still found in many parts of Europe.

"I wanted to create a sanctuary close to home," he says. "I had heard about the success of Shamwari so, the following year, I went there. I wanted to learn from Gardiner. I planned to model my sanctuary on the principles he had introduced on his land."

At Shamwari, Lister listened with interest. Gardiner became his mentor who stood by ready to help him fulfil his dream.

Among the first hurdles he had to leap was the concern of his neighbours. They worried about the impact a wilderness sanctuary would have on their quiet glen. Surely the traffic would increase, and what of their own livestock with predators roaming around?

"I asked Adrian to join me at a meeting with the crofters (farmers) and other concerned organisations because I knew that, with his practical experience, he was in a position to answer their questions," Lister said. "The crofters were naturally worried about their own livelihood, but once they realised how many jobs a wilderness retreat in Scotland would generate, they supported the concept."

His problems were still not over. An organisation known as the Right to Roam objected because the introduction of wild animals would prevent hikers crossing the land - a right entrenched in the law. It's a issue that has yet to be resolved.

In the meantime, Lister has gone ahead with plans to build a hydro-electric scheme, built at a cost of £250 000 (about R2,7-million), that will bring power to the area. A visitors' centre is in place, staff quarters have been built and stables are planned with Highland ponies available for rides.

But the Highland wilderness will only be returned to its untamed splendour once the wildlife is back in the forests. The glens would not be complete without their monarch; the hills are bare with- out the soaring golden eagle; the rivers empty without spawning salmon. Alongside these grand species is a rich biolog-ical diversity that is the heart of this environment.

Lister is determined to create the only controlled, large-scale, self-sustaining wildlife reserve in Europe similar to the successful game reserves in South Africa. An area of at least 20 000ha (only 1% of the Highland area) will be enclosed by a 60km secure fence.

Within this controlled natural environment, once native species, including carnivores such as the European brown bear, European grey wolf and Eurasian lynx will be reintroduced to restore the balance and encourage bio-diversity of the Highland ecosystem. A long-term goal will be to reach a self-sustaining balance between predator and prey, where humans do not have to cull. Wolf, lynx and bear will keep herbivore populations in check.

Herbivores play an important role in restoring and regenerating the natural habitat. European elk, wild boar, heck cattle and roe deer are the key species being considered for a controlled reintroduction within the reserve. The hoof action of the herbivores helps to break up the thick heather, turn over the soil and allow seeds to sprout. The larger herbivores often help to break down the protective out-covering of some plant and seed types, thereby assisting in the germination process. They also assist in seed dispersal.

To support and fund the ecological-restoration programme, the vision is to develop Scotland's largest environmentally and ethically responsible eco-tourism product.

The wildlife-viewing experience of guests visiting the reserve will be either by 4x4, walking or horse-back. Qualified rangers who know the local geology, botany, geomorphology and wildlife will guide the visitors who will learn not only about the fauna and flora of the area, but also the historical and cultural importance of the proposed reserve and surrounding area.

What sort of wildlife can they hope to see in Scotland? In the fullness of time the wolf - Canis lupus - will be seen in the new sanctuary. The last wolves were seen in the UK in the 1700s.

Although extinct in Britain, they have been expanding their current range into Western Europe and are present in all but five countries in Europe.

Wolves weigh in at around 18kg-50kg and can live up to 15 years. They are versatile predators taking prey from deer and wild boar to mice, fruit and nuts. It is believed that they could help control red deer numbers in Scotland as they have had a dramatic impact in preventing forest regeneration.

The brown bear has probably been extinct in Britain since the 10th century due to bear baiting in Rome. It is typically a woodland species but is also known to survive in the tundra environment of the far north. Despite their enormous size and power they are principally a vegetarian species, living off the fruits and nuts of the forest floor. However, they will scavenge meat when it is available to help build up bulk for its winter hibernation.

The lynx once roamed the UK until it was persecuted to extinction sometime during the Middle Ages. It is a magnificent ambush predator that specialises in taking small deer, primarily roe deer.

Red deer are the the largest mammal in Britain and have been there since the British islands were joined to mainland Europe. Red stags are regarded as the most majestic of animals when they are carrying a full "rack" and the thick mane that appears during the rut. As a result, they are known as the monarchs of the glen.

Roe deer are the smallest of Britain's native deer, weighing in at around 27kg.

They are a woodland species that live solitary lifestyles, unusual for deer species. Young deer will be left to lie in high vegetation and so have almost no scent, thus avoiding being sniffed out. Should a kid be discovered, its mother has been known to kill foxes to protect it.

Red fox are one of the most versatile and adaptable species in Britain. They can be found all over the country enjoy- ing an urban lifestyle as much as they would in the countryside.

Pine martens have been recorded throughout history as the most beautiful of all British mammals.

Their fur is so soft that only kings could wear it. Their taste for game birds and their eggs made them highly unpopular with gamekeepers and so they suffered considerable persecution. They are now heavily protected and their numbers are believed to be increasing rapidly in Scotland.

Then there are badgers that are currently heavily protected, and even have their own law - "The Protection of Badgers Act 1992". Along with mountain or blue hare, the badger is one of the UK's only native lagomorph as brown hares and rabbits were probably introduced. It would appear that numbers are falling in areas of Scotland where they used to be high.

Otter are generally secretive and solitary animals, spending the vast majority of their time in or near water. They can live in coastal areas, relying on the marine environment for food or in rivers where they can occupy territories greater than 30km in length.

Water voles originally found fame from The Wind in the Willows, where the character Ratty was in fact a water vole. They were once one of the most common waterside mammals, but the arrival of the American Mink and habitat disturbance, has had a catastrophic impact. They are now Britain's most endangered mammal, suffering 97% reduction to its range.

The golden eagle is another gem, with its range extending throughout the Northern Hemisphere. A splendid flyer, the golden eagle reaches speeds of 240-320km/h when diving. Most of its mammalian prey is taken on the ground, including foxes, rabbits and hares.

The white-tailed or sea Eagle is the largest of UK's birds of prey. It was persecuted to extinction in the early 19th century, but has recently been reintroduced to the islands of Scotland, where it is now expanding its range.

The osprey is a migratory species that spends its summers in the UK. After years of persecution, it is now re-establishing breeding sites across Scotland. It migrates down to Africa for the winter with most UK birds making their way to West Africa.

The peregrine is a spectacular hunter and will gain tremendous height while hunting, then fall into a vertical dive (or stoop). It will then hit smaller birds in midair with their talons clenched in tight fists.

The buzzard is by far the UK's most common bird of prey. It occupies territory all over the country and they can often be seen sitting on fence posts or circling overhead.

They can be mistaken for golden eagles when in the wilds of Scotland, but this mistake rarely happens in reverse as the eagles are so much larger than buzzards.

European elk (also known as the moose) is by far the largest deer species, with the tallest animals standing about 2,4m at the shoulder. Their palmated antlers are also massive, stretching to 2m across in some cases. They have large bulbous noses that fall over the muzzle and are used as a miniature trunk.

They are normally most active at dawn and dusk, relying on acute hearing and sense of smell as their eyesight is poorly developed. They are prolific feeders, needing to consume around 10kg of food a day.

The red squirrel, an iconic native species in Scotland, has suffered greatly from habitat loss, persecution and most recently from competition from the American grey squirrel, first released in 1876. It is most at home in dense coniferous forests, now mainly found in Scottish plantation forestry