The Alladale Wilderness reserve is a 23,000 acre estate in the Sutherland region of the Scottish Highlands. It was purchased in 2003 by Paul Lister an English philanthropist determined to restore the estate to what it may once have been in the early Holocene period.
Restoring a heavily grazed, deforested upland and undoing thousands of years of habitat degradation was always going to be a big job but Paul Lister had grand plans to reintroduce a range of mammals once common in the British Isles to create a wilderness reserve.
While grazing mammals such as deer and cattle might be useful in restoring lowland woodland pasture habitats it’s hundreds of years of over grazing that has been a major contributing factor to upland habitat loss so reducing numbers of deer and sheep on the hills was a major part of the strategy to rewild Alladale. That’s not to say herbivores aren’t an important part of the upland environment; in addition to the red and roe deer that were already plentiful there Eurasian elk (perhaps more commonly known by their American name of moose), highland cattle (in place of the extinct aurochs), highland ponies (in place of the extinct tarpan) and wild boar were earmarked for release on the estate.
To create a fully functioning ecosystem and control some of the herbivores on the estate there were also plans to release predators, long extinct from the British Isles, back onto the estate. Small predators were already found there; foxes, otters, badgers and pine martens were present but none of them impact the populations of the larger herbivores and for centuries the only thing limiting deer population in the British Isles has the been the actions of humans carrying out culls. Often these culls though aren’t effective and there are currently somewhere in the region of two million deer of six different species in the British Isles causing significant habitat destruction as they limit the regeneration and succession of trees, destroy the understory of lowland woodlands and damage crops not to mention cause almost one hundred serious traffic accidents each year.
At Alladale the plan was to reintroduce some predatory mammals including wolves, lynx, bear and Scottish wildcat. Along with these re-introductions there were plans to plant hundreds of thousands of trees to return Alladale to the forested landscape it once would have been before the highland clearances and the extinction of the larger predators.
While the tree planting and the introduction of some of the herbivores species has been a relative success and the glen is now full of trees with over 800,000 birch, aspen, Scots pine and other trees planted by the end of 2014 through the efforts of Paul Listers charity The Europeaun Nature Trust (TENT) the introduction of predators hasn’t gone as smoothly.
First of all the fencing of the estate to prevent released predators roaming beyond the boundaries of Alladale caused contention with those who had campaigned for years for full open access of the highlands. The fencing has proved unpopular as Alladale is the primary route to Carn Ban, a well known Corbett popular with hikers and ramblers. There are also people who have expressed concern about accessing the fenced area if predators were released due to fears for their safety. This seems a strange concern to have given the popularity of destinations in Europe and North America where predatory mammals are still plentiful and where people are wary of but not overly concerned by the presence of bears and wolves.
In fact it is one of these places that is Paul Listers inspiration for Alladale. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 in an attempt to reduce the overpopulation of elk. Since the reintroduction huge changes have occurred in Yellowstone. The combined actions of wolves and other predators have reduced elk populations and also moved them out of areas where they were causing significant damage. This has allowed woodland to regenerate and increased bird populations and has even been linked to slowing and broadening river courses.
Similar effects are hoped for at Alladale but with or without criticism from hikers and mountaineers or the cynicism of surrounding landowners who might cling to more Victorian attitudes when it comes to the management of the highlands. Commercial deer stalking, grouse shooting, fishing and sheep farming are the dominant land uses in the highlands, forestation and rewilding are a far cry from these traditional land uses and significant criticism has been levelled at the management of the estate.
Whatever the criticism or determination by Paul Lister and his team though permission would still be required before predators could be released and this has not as yet been granted even though significant progress in other respects has been made at Alladale. Paul is hoping to persuade a few neighbouring landowners to help with his project but has currently not been able to make further progress towards a release of wolves. Enclosing 50,000 acres would be a huge project but the enclosure also raises further questions, Cameron McNeish a well known outdoorsman, author and editor of outdoor publications has raised the question of whether having predator and prey in the same ‘enclosure’ however large would put Alladale in breach of UK zoo legislation as well as questioning the ethics of enclosing what should be openly accessible land.
While the conflicts are not likely to subside and it may well take many more years before any predators are released at Alladale the forestation of the glen and the thriving populations of red squirrels, pine martens and other threatened species represents massive progress. The uplands of the UK are typically dominated by heather, a valuable habitat in and of itself but not where near as diverse as woodland or the even more threatened Caledonian pine forest. As these habitats are restored at Alladale there have already been huge benefits for wildlife in the areas and perhaps one day you will be able to her wolves howl in the highlands again.