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Written by Rebecca Woolford
A vision of a wilder land for the Scottish Highlands. Rewilding one species at a time…
I’ll never forget it. It was 2008. I sat wide-eyed, cross-legged on the floor, far too close to the TV screen, tuned into a BBC special. Despite my young age and lack of knowledge at the time, the story of Alladale and Paul Lister’s bold vision for a wilder Scotland caught my attention from the get-go.
A place where wolves could one day return captivated my heart and let my imagination run wild.
So, you can imagine, 15 years on and presented with the opportunity to interview the visionary himself, it was a moment that felt like I had come full circle. To say I was excited (and a little nervous) to interview the man behind it all would have been an understatement.
As you may already know. At Yellowstone National Park, a whole series of benefits have been documented since the reintroduction of wolves. I’ve been fascinated by this story from the moment I first read it in a book, as the wolves did much more than reduce deer numbers. Their presence caused a tropic cascade of ecological change, including changing the course of the rivers.
Reintroducing wolves to the Scottish Highlands is Paul’s vision for Alladale. Made possible with a large-scale fenced wildlife reserve, much like those that exist in South Africa. But wolves will not return on their own. If we want wolves running these hills where they belong, we will have to invite them in. That’s where Alladale comes in…
Discover below why Paul’s nature reserve is working to save the Scottish Wild Cat and what’s missing in order to bring back the wolf for good.
So, let’s start at the beginning. What first inspired you to create Alladale, a wild home from home?
“Well, I was fortunate enough to acquire Alladale back in 2003, a former family sport estate, located deep in the Scottish Highlands, it’s an hour’s drive north of Inverness. For a long time, people thought I was bonkers because I was obsessed with land restoration. In fact, we were one of the first places to focus on rewilding the land and creating a more balanced environment.
During my travels, I’ve seen many inspiring conservation and rewilding projects around the world. These trips inspired my vision for the land at Alladale because I know the impact of restoring natural processes, habitats, and native species. Places like Romania and Poland made me realise what nature can be like in Europe.
Britain is in fact one of the most depleted nature countries in the world. But the view of Scotland is changing with the restoration work that’s happening here.”
Click here to find out more about Alladale Wilderness Reserve.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the reserve as part of a tree-planting project. For those who are totally new to it, what’s Alladale’s mission?
“I don’t describe Alldale as an ‘estate’ – it’s a very archaic and elitist term. Instead, I call Alladale a wilderness reserve. It differentiates what we are doing here.
Our vision is to see an area of 50,000 acres in the Scottish Highlands that is wilder and more biodiverse. This includes the reintroduction of wolves, a critical keystone species, that is missing from this ecosystem.
I don’t think you’ll ever see wolves roaming free in the wild in Britain, not in my opinion anyway. But bringing them back in a fenced enclosure is very doable. This is what we continue to strive towards.
As I get older and greyer, other people are coming into the frame, including nephews, consultants, and experts, who also want to make this happen. I’m very happy to pass the baton on as I also focus my efforts on other places around the world, such as Belize, Portugal, and Romania – places where wolves and lynxes can recover naturally.
I think guests visit us and like our vision because we don’t hunt, shoot, and fish. Because we are focused on nature tourism. We walked away from deer stalking and the income that it can bring, it was a great decision that is coming back fourfold.
What I’m trying to do here is to create a blueprint, a proven path for landowners, other than grazing sheep and hunting deer.”
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One of the conservation efforts at Alladale Wilderness Reserve is on saving the Scottish wildcat. Could you tell us more?
“There is a lot of focus and talk on reintroducing Lynx back into the Scottish Highlands, which is great. But I’m interested in saving a species that is still here and on the brink of extinction.
There are now thought to be around 150 individuals surviving in the wild. In partnership with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), wildcat enclosures have been built on the Alladale reserve as part of a breeding program.
They call it Scottish wildcat, but they’re all over Europe. It’s wild, and it hunts small animals.”
I’ve heard you say, “We’ve managed to put a man on the moon, I don’t see why we can’t get wolves back in Scotland.” What’s missing in order to bring back wolves to Alladale?
“Scale is an issue. What’s missing is the acquisition of more land and/or partnering up with our neighbours. I have 2 land-owning neighbours that are quite animated about the vision and meetings are taking place next week which I’m hopeful for. We would also need local community support.
The high deer population in Scotland causes great environmental damage. Overgrazing by deer has been having an impact on other species, as well as biodiversity. This year we had to shoot 400 deer, just to control the deer numbers on the reserve, which is a ball-aching job. My guys at Alladale are tired of this, they don’t want to play god but we don’t have a choice. We need to restore the balance.”
Has Alladale piqued your interest? Discover why it’s one of the best sustainable, and meaningful travel choices when visiting the Scottish Highlands here.
What impact does the rugged beauty, dramatic glens, and wild rivers at Alladale have on people that visit – even long after they leave?
“Both adults and kids have described the feeling of the penny dropping after a visit or stay at Alladale. I had a group of Americans come to visit, who ended their trip thanking me for enlightening them. Guests will often leave with a better understanding of our role to play and why it’s important we restore nature.
The landscape today is very different from what it was when I first bought Alladale. Guests will see the evidence of lots of restorative work, more trees, and fewer deer. Alladale provides visitors with 23,000 acres of rugged beauty, where the balance of nature is slowly returning. It is a chance to reconnect, a true escape.
The number of people who have come up to me over the years saying that they’ve gone on to become ecologists after visiting Alladale Wilderness Reserve as a youngster is quite something. Its impact can be seen across generations. Education is a fundamental building block of the conservation process and that’s why we focus our efforts here.”
What can guests expect when visiting Alladale Wilderness Reserve?
“Apart from enjoying the comfort of one of our three fully catered luxury lodges, they’ll enjoy a wide range of activities from yoga and mindfulness to biking challenges. There are adventure hikes right on your doorstep, mountain biking, or the chance to relax and make use of our sauna. Our chef prepares guests honest, locally sourced seafood and game, and much of the ingredients are from our onsite organic garden. A stay at Alladale directly contributes to the restoration, wildlife, and educational projects on and around the reserve.”
What’s next for Alladale Nature Reserve?
“We have a new team member called Kate joining us. She will be responsible for reviewing the (HOWL) program, which is a program started back in 2007 in which thousands of children have enjoyed activities such as hiking, orienteering, bushcraft, cooking, and tree planting on the reserve.
We are also putting together an exciting family outreach program, where we host guests free of charge, to show local people what a highland estate used to look like, the vision for Alladale, and the benefit of this restoration work. It’s all about re-educating people on what the Scottish Highlands could be like.”