One Man’s Ambition To Go Wild
Paul Lister’s vision for the Highlands of Scotland
Written February 17, 2009
A reduced version of this piece was published in the Daily Telegraph
May 30, 2009
By Clive Aslet
A few minutes into the interview, Paul Lister removes his walking boots, followed by his thick socks. ‘I do apologise,’ he says after yawning extravagantly. ‘It’s been a busy week.’ We are at Alladale, Paul’s 23,000 acre estate in the Highland, where he has become famous for his plans to introduce wolves, bears and lynx. Since buying the place in 2004, he has thrown himself into it. When here, he works manically until – as now – he’s ready to drop. ‘We’re running a project that requires absolute passion and commitment,’ he tells me. The ‘re-wilding’ of Alladale – encouraging the habitat and wildlife that would have flourished before man cut down the Caledonian forest – is a personal mission, which remains highly controversial. Only someone of obsessive commitment could summon the energy to confront the sometimes contradictory obstacles presented by the laws and ramblers of Scotland. Wolves do not roam as yet. But visitors to the stone-built Victorian lodge, as well as two new cottages that will be ready for the spring, can already experience the wonder of this remarkable project, which is creating a landscape quite unlike that of other Highland estates.
Paul, aged 49, had a millionaire’s childhood. His father, Noel, co-founded the furniture business, MFI, in 1964, selling his 8% stake for a reported £52m in 1985. Holidays would be spent sailing, often in exotic waters, which excited a love of the natural world in the young Paul. ‘I remember climbing up volcanoes in St Lucia, in the Caribbean, and seeing the sulphur, then going into the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania from quite an early age.’ On leaving the progressive public school Millfield, in Somerset, to which his nephews have followed him, he travelled the world. ‘In the US, I picked tobacco with convicts, at the age of 18. I went to India and Nepal, and travelled right round Australia when I was 21.’ Coming home, he spent five years working his way around the different departments of MFI, before starting his own business as a furniture trader. ‘The business allowed me to travel a lot. When I went to Brazil, I visited the Patanal, which is the biggest wetland in the world.’
But it was only when Paul had turned 40 that he discovered ‘what he really wanted to do.’ The catalyst was Noel Lister’s illness. ‘He had a stroke in 2001, that brought things to a head. I thought: I don’t need to carry on with this commercial world, ever trying to emulate my father and be him, trying to beat him at his own game.’ Being already financially secure meant that he didn’t ‘have the hunger for it. I am very hard working, always have been. But it takes away the last 2 or 3%.’ Recently, Paul has made a home in Miami, to be near the Bahamas, where his parents live. But Alladale is the project that has given his life purpose. ‘I thought I must do something. Scotland was on my mind because it was so gagging to have a bit of life breathed back into it.’
Throughout the morning, I have been walking down the glen. When the lodge was first built, it nestled down by the burn, but the Victorian owner – said to have been a maharajah -- found he had made a mistake, and it was bodily moved onto a hillside. The world that it surveys is, today, white. Snow has covered the scene in what looks like a thick layer of Christmas cake icing, softening contours, hiding bushes and making the edges of paths disappear. A couple of moose lope up to see us. Paul chartered a private plane to fetch them from Norway: transporting moose is a delicate operation, as the pilot discovered when their sedatives wore off before landing and a flailing hoof disabled the electrics. On the way to the wild boar, who have a fenced enclosure of 500 acres to play in, we pass a hut, built, like all the new structures on the estate out of boulders picked from the hills. Inside this rustic pavilion is a gleaming blue turbine, providing hydro electric power for all the buildings on the estate. Though it cost £650,000 to instal, the electricity it provides is now free (in fact better than that: the Scottish government pays a subsidy according to the amount used.) It therefore makes sense to put up three greenhouses, which will provide organic vegetables and berries throughout the year. The new cottages, rising on the site of old ruins, were just being finished at the time of my visit. Gloriously romantic in their isolation, where one of the few sounds will be the splash of a salmon rising to take a fly, they will, courtesy of the turbines, have underfloor heating beneath the Caithness slate to keep them toasty warm. We stomp back past the backs of two lorries, donated by the bakery firm Brakes. They are now being used to dry out the locally sourced timber which is being used for building works at Alladale. I am ready for soup and venison pie by the time a late lunch is served at the lodge. But a map shows that the morning’s route only covered a minute fraction of the estate.
Against that white immensity of valley and mountain, trees stand out like flicks of black ink. But even in a rare patch of old forest there are not many of them. The biscuit-tin image of Scotland is of heather-covered, deer-grazed mountains – what Sir Walter Scott liked to call the ‘purple hills’ of the Highlands. But this landscape is a relatively recent creation, formed after the felling of the slow-growing native pine trees to make ship’s rudders on the Clyde after the Industrial Revolution. Heather and bracken have formed into a blanket that smothers other forms of vegetation. Paul had been introduced to Scotland in his twenties. ‘My dad had brought some commercial forestry plantations. I went up twice a year to go stalking. It’s a great way to spend time in the open air – it’s the same as when I play golf, to enjoy it I have to walk.’ But he found that this sort of forestry is just as inert as the denuded mountainsides: ‘lines and lines of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Norway pine – dense, sterile forest, with nothing living underneath the trees.’ Talking to ghillies and stalkers made him wonder what sort of habitat had existed before. Having visited the Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa, where an over-farmed landscape has been restored as a habitat for big game, he formed an ambition to do something similar in Scotland. He realised it when he bought Alladale.
The great obstacle to biodiversity in the Highlands is, paradoxically, an animal that most people, Paul included, hold in affection: the deer. There has been an explosion in red deer numbers, according to Scottish Natural Heritage: they’ve doubled since the 1960s. Unlike moose, who browse, like giraffes, on the green tops of trees, deer will nibble away the stem of a growing sapling; and they do this on such a scale that hardly any young trees can survive. Deer have no predators in modern Scotland, except man. While stalking culls some of the old stags, the difficulties of reaching deer which are hidden in inaccessible tracts of land has defeated many lairds, who cannot afford the manpower necessary to keep the population boom in check.
Which is where wolves come in. ‘They are just an animal that is going to do the job of the rifle. Wolves would keep the deer moving, so they could not get onto a lush area and annihilate it by over-grazing. They would also hunt over those parts of the estate which are impossible to get to – where there are no tracks or anything, so you can’t drag a carcass back.’ Wolves were indigenous to Scotland, until they were hunted to extinction in the 18th century. They still co-exist with the human and animal populations of ‘80% of countries in Europe,’ according to Paul, who is adamant that they don’t attack humans. His wolves would live behind a 2m, electrified fence; neighbouring farmers could therefore sleep happy in the knowledge that their sheep would be safe. By keeping down the deer, the wolves would trigger a renaissance in Alladale’s biodiversity. ‘We’re missing trees, we’re missing animals. The deer are the problem. Introduce a predator for the deer, and the forest will create a huge canopy for other species as well.’ The wild boar are also part of the regeneration programme. By grubbing up the ground they act as animal rotivators, preparing the soil so that seeds can take root. Over time, they will be moved along the banks of Alladale’s five rivers in preparation for a planting programme which will improve the habitat for salmon.
We’re talking about all this over a mug of tea when Paul jumps up. ‘It’s my attention deficit kicking in,’ he jokes, as he takes down a picture of a wolf on one wall and asks me to help him swap it for one of a moose on another. ‘They look better like that,’ he comments as we resume our seats. Where were we? Oh, yes: the vision for Alladale. Paul had hoped that it would be realised by 2010, but he admits that he’s running behind schedule. Was his marriage in 2005 a distraction? ‘Don’t let’s talk about that,’ he pleads; it was short-lived and the former marital home in Oxfordshire is now on the market. Personal life apart, delays at Alladale are hardly surprising, given the radical character of the idea. In 2004, an astonishing 400 people packed into Ardgay’s modest village hall to hear Paul announce his plans. ‘When there’s someone saying he wants to bring back wolves and bears, they come and listen.’ The air was thick with suspicion. He believes that, locally, the mood has now softened to one of acceptance. The Highlands have few industries, beyond tourism and the sporting estates. Alladale is showing that another future is possible: in place of the three people and a contractor who were employed under the previous regime, there are now jobs for 23 people. But not everyone is convinced.
The issue focuses on the fence. A notice on the wild boar enclosure reads: ‘Do Not Enter. Dangerous Wild Animals.’ To comply with the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act, which provides a statutory right of access to all wild land, the first three words must be removed. Wooden steps have been built to allow determined ramblers to climb over the fence. But ever since crofters were driven from their villages during the Highland Clearances of the mid 19th century landowners have been viewed with antipathy by some Scots, for whom the freedom to walk and climb where they will is emotionally important. And even if the conflict between access and wild animals can be resolved, more land will be needed. While 23,000 acres would support a wolf pack, the form of the mountains means that not all Alladale can be fenced. Paul is therefore looking for partners. But his confidence is undented. ‘You have to have faith and believe that neighbouring bits of land will come forward, and I’m sure they will. It’s just time.’ By the next century, Paul foresees that Alladale will have become a ‘big forest, with a few openings and glades, teeming with life. It will be a national treasure.’ And his reward for creating it? ‘I’m someone who’s very lucky to act out their dream.’