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Rewilding a corner of the Scottish Highlands

30 September 2021

Multimillionaire Paul Lister is using some of his fortune to rewild a corner of the Scottish Highlands. Red squirrels, black grouse and wildcats are back. Could wolves be next? By Joanna Moorhead.

A Scottish wildcat

Five hours’ drive north of Glasgow, where world leaders will gather to talk about how to save the planet in November, lies the dramatic, rugged landscape of Alladale, where multimillionaire Paul Lister has spent the past two decades thinking about little else.

Lean and youthful for his 62 years, he is a rewilding pioneer, ploughing his time, energy, and the family wealth he inherited from his father, founder of furniture giant MFI, into an ambitious project that he hopes could one day see the reintroduction of wolves to Britain.

As we talk in his hunting lodge, he seems every inch the laird of the manor. But Lister doesn’t view himself as the ‘owner’ of the land; he prefers the term 'custodian', with the responsibility that entails. And Alladale is no longer a hunting estate: it is a reserve, its ghillies reinvented as wardens and an information board erected to outline his plans to reshape this 100-square kilometre (23,000 acre) corner of Scotland.

A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today

Visitors, however, are few at Alladale, which is reached only after negotiating many miles of single-track roads. It feels like a journey to the edge of the world, and driving at a snail’s pace up the two-mile, unmade track from the gate to the lodge, past cascading waterfalls and pine-clad glens, I feel that I’ve arrived in what must be one of the most unspoiled areas of Britain.

Wrong, says Lister.

This corner of Scotland, like most of Britain, has been ravaged by the centuries of human activity - including farming - that have depleted and damaged it. The landscape today is unrecognisable from how it would have been in the days when the ‘Great Forest of Caledon’, as the Romans called it, covered much of this area.

‘People come here and see barren hills and think it’s nature, but it’s not “natural” at all,’ he says.

Rewilding, which he describes as ‘taking land that’s been farmed or manipulated by humans and allowing natural processes to take shape’ will be high on the agenda at the United Nations’ 26th climate change conference, COP26, from 1 November; there are calls for a commitment to rewild a billion hectares of the planet’s surface.

The Scottish Rewilding Alliance has even suggested that Scotland could become the world’s first rewilding nation. So Alladale is at the heart of the zeitgeist; and, as Lister says, ‘We’re at a pivotal point of climate change. This is an extinction crisis, and it’s been caused by everything we humans have been doing up to now. We’re threatening the future of this wonderful planet, and if we continue to ignore it we’ll do so at our peril. We simply can’t continue with our endless siege of the environment. It’s taking away our clean water, our fertile soil, our pure air; and those are the elements wild places produce. And we all need them, for life itself.’

Innes MacNeill, the reserve manager, takes me out in a 4x4 to see what rewilding looks like in practice. We start with trees: less than 1% of that Caledon Forest remains and, says MacNeill, the disappearance of so many trees has leached the soil, reducing its fertility, and fewer trees means more polluted air. He shows me woodland where new trees – they’ve so far planted almost a million – have grown, and hillsides are blanketed in pine, birch and juniper.

But there’s much still to do, he says.

And it’s not just about trees: Alladale is encouraging animals long missing from the landscape to return. Red squirrels and black grouse are already back. So, too, are the enigmatic Scottish wildcats: only about 300 of these rarest of felines exist, but a handful of new kittens are frolicking in an enclosure. The ambition is to release them into the wild.

Back at the lodge, it’s supper time. The only meat served is venison, since the deer population is too high, and threatens tree growth. The rapid increase in numbers explains the reasoning behind another of Lister’s Alladale projects – to reintroduce wolves, last seen in Britain in the 17th century.

‘Wolves are the predators at the top of the food chain, and their absence means Britain has too many foxes, badgers and deer,’ explains Lister. ‘But they’ve been successfully brought back in many parts of Europe, and that redresses the balance.’

‘I want people to experience the wildness of the place, because that has a lot to say to us as individuals – it changes us. ‘The environment is our lifeline. It’s everyone’s lifeline, and it’s everyone to come’s lifeline. If people can't work that out, God help them.’

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