Call of the Wild


Tom Clarke / C4 News / United Kingdom / February 16, 2005

A millionaire environmentalist has bought a twenty-three thousand acre estate in the Scottish Highlands where he plans to reintroduce some of Scotland's native species.

The locals call it Jurassic Park, but he calls it Europe's first wilderness game reserve.

Paul Lister wants to bring back wolves, lynx, bears and wild boar to his land in a plan that's got the backing of conservationists and the eco-tourism industry.

The Alladale Estate north of Inverness is in the heart of land sparsely populated since the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth century, and it's now at the centre of the debate over how to regenerate the landscape.

Our science reporter Tom Clarke had exclusive access to the estate and spoke to Paul Lister in his first television interview:

As far as the eye can see stretches Paul Lister's highland estate. Until now, it's been managed in the traditional way -- as an exclusive retreat for wealthy sportsmen -- stalking deer, crunching through heather, and casting flies for salmon.

But Lister has no interest in keeping it that way. He's a man with a vision of environmental change. He chose this 3.2 million pound, 23,000 acre estate to turn it into Europe's first wilderness game reserve.

"I think I was very fortunate that in my youth I travelled a lot, I went to a lot of different continents particularly in Africa where I visited many reserves. I thought to myself I've always been interested in nature and wildlife and though if I was going to get involved in any project of any type it should be something close to home." - Paul Lister

If the inspiration is African, the experience won't be. Lister wants to reintroduce the highland's long-absent natives: Wolf, Brown Bear, Lynx and Wild Boar. And he's confident their return will draw a crowd.

"It's been something I've been thinking of for a long time. I think it would create a fantastic ecological environment over years to become a bit like Yellowstone National Park it would create a lot of job opportunities for people living in the glen, in the community. It will be a wonderful educational facility."

Grey wolves once roamed the highlands. They're now confined to this nearby wildlife park, where the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has recreated something of the past.

Britain's last wolf -- shot not far from here in the 18th century -- was a milestone of man's influence on his environment.

Same goes for the beautiful predator the Lynx. Lynx disappeared in medieval times -- as the forests they hunted in were cleared.

"We have a range of species which were living relatively recently here in Scotland. Things like the wolf were here 250 years ago, which is a blink in the eyelid in zoological terms.

Species which could be reintroduced are in Europe, living in close relationships with humans now. There's going to be no problem in terms of that" - Jeremy Usher Smith, Highland Wildlife Park, Kingussie

Experts think Lister's estate can provide the necessary habitat.

There are only fragments of the Caledonian pine forest left, but a few thousand years ago it covered most of Scotland and in it lurked the bears, the wolves and the lynx that Paul Lister wants to reintroduce to his estate.

Now if projects in Europe are anything to go by it stands a good chance of success but there's more to reintroducing species than just animals and the habitat in which they live.

It's one of the least populous parts of Europe, but those who do live here depend on the land for a living. Sheep farmers and game shooting estates aren't keen to see long-absent predators returning.

"I think there's a huge concern. You know, wolves and bears escaping would do a hell of a lot of damage to crofters, sheep flocks and small farmers. I think it would be devasting to them if the animals escaped and I believe that's inevitable." - Davie Thomson, Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

There are worries about human safety too. Since the forced evictions of the highland clearances in the 18th century few have lived here.

Residents of the nearest village 12 miles away are weighing the prospect of wild predators living next door against the much needed economic boost a unique attraction might bring.

To get the regulatory approval he needs for the reserve, Lister must have the community's support. Last week he started a formal consultation. And promises to take responsibility for his wildlife.

"Whilst we would be doing our very best to secure the area there might be a very small remote chance of some escapees or some animals getting out. They will be recovered because we will have radio tracking devices so we''ll know where all the species are and recover them very very quickly." - Paul Lister

Roy Dennis is a veteran of several re-introductions and is backing Lister's project. Brining species back doesn't come without a struggle, but he thinks its worthwhile.

"It's exciting, it's kinda making amends for what we did in the past because the human has been a pretty intensive persecutor of wildlife. And it works we've taken the white tailed eagle and although it's taken forty years we've put it back into Scotland and no-one would say we'd want that gone again." - Roy Dennis, Highland ecologist

They're behind fences in the highland wildlife park. But large mammals released in other countries have shown benefits to entire ecosystems. Grazers like European Bison can promote the regeneration of forests. The same goes for wild boar, and predators keep grazers in check. A reintroduction on Lister's estate -- an area the size of Manchester -- might demonstrate similar benefits in Scotland.

"The creatures we're thinking of bringing back don't need the vegetation now. They will help the vegetation. They'll be the ones that will re-create the atmosphere that's missing." - Paul Lister

Fenced-in animals, that benefit the environment could strengthen arguments for a general release of our lost wildlife...

"I would like to think before I die that there beavers on the loch here and in the spey. That there was the chance in future as I walk through this forest that I could see the track of a lynx or the howl of a wolf somewhere. I'd really like that and I really think we should have it." - Roy Dennis