Am Bratach No. 316
February 2018

Wolves not the answer in Alladale
Highland landscapes more natural without trees, says leading ecologist

A new conservation organisation set up by Alladale Estate owner Paul Lister is pushing once again for the reintroduction of wild predators to his Highland estate, writes Anne Macdonald. The European Nature Trust (TENT) has teamed up with London-based consultants Conservation Capital to promote Mr Lister’s vision of a 50,000 acre “Highland wilderness reserve”. TENT’s full consultation paper, published by Community Land Scotland, claims that “due to centuries of human pressure, the Scottish Highlands has lost most of its original native forest cover and several key native species have disappeared”. Consequently, “biodiversity remains low and ecosystem services are failing — a situation exacerbated by climate change.”

The panacea put forward to solve this problem is blanket woodland, guarded by large-scale predators like lynx, wolves and bears. Alongside the release of these “missing” predators, plans for the reserve include: tree planting and peatland restoration, nature and wildlife tourism, luxury, medium-range and camping accommodation, and “nature-friendly consumer products”.

The proposal claims that over £6,000,000 in annual revenues could be generated by the end of ten years and that thirty-seven full time and twenty-six part time job opportunities would be created by the scheme. Most controversially, it alleges that “through a school experiences programme, general communication and community involvement, the Highland Wilderness Reserve will be able to educate and inform local communities and visitors about the importance of ecological preservation and restoration.”

According to Community Land Scotland, “the suggested benefits of employment for local people appears as secondary to the desire to re-introduce species as a philosophical and cultural construct of how TENT think a small part of the Highlands should look and be managed. The suggestion that the TENT reserve would be able to educate local people about the benefits of the ecological preservation and restoration environment appears as patronising.”

This response was endorsed by an editorial in The West Highland Free Press on January 12, which asserted: “Re-wilders such as Paul Lister invariably assume that the residents of this region are careless and neglectful of their environment, and need people like him to intervene and tell them what to do.”

Marcus Munro, proprietor of the Highland Shooting Centre at Altass, was manager of the Alladale Estate under a previous owner, but only lasted seven months of Mr Lister’s tenure. Mr Munro said that the leaving had saddened him, but that Mr Lister’s attitude to the indigenous population made it impossible to continue. “My father was there for thirty years, and I was there for another thirty years. He just ignores that wealth of knowledge,” he said. Mr Munro agrees that the estate’s proposal to educate local people about their environment is ill-conceived. “It’s almost like we’re not important”, he said. “People have invested in the Highlands because they think it’s beautiful. Well you know what? The people that have lived here have taken care of it. That’s why it’s beautiful.”

Although the concept of wilderness contains the suggestion of endlessness, Mr Munro points out that Scotland is a small country. “Yes, we have more countryside than the rest of the UK. Scotland has big tracts of open land and, yes, the new style of woodland schemes are going to create proper habitat. But if I left my house and I went in a straight line in a helicopter you might get ten, fifteen minutes without habitation and that’s it. There’s very few parts, even in the Cairngorms, where it’s that big.”

One of his last experiences as manager of Alladale consolidated this view. “There were some wolf experts from Alaska who came and I took them out and the guys both turned to me and said, ‘Well, I guess you’ve got plenty of deer and stuff like that, but how are you going to keep them in?’ and I said, ‘Well, the fence’, and they just laughed and said, ‘There’s no fence on this earth that’s going to keep wolves in’. These guys didn’t dislike wolves, they were conservation people, but they said, ‘You know, what you’ve got to realise is that when these animals get out, it’s going to be chaos. It’s a small country you’ve got… You can’t blame the hungry animal for wanting to go and eat somebody’s sheep.’ At the moment, some people think shooting a deer is a bad thing to do but then they wouldn’t want the deer on the road, they wouldn’t want the deer in their garden. They’re the ones that would probably say, ‘Oh we would like some bears and wolves.’ Well the problem they have at the moment is that if we let the bears and wolves out they’re not just going to eat deer. They’re going to create problems that we didn’t have before and we’re not ready for them.”

Elsewhere, doubt has been cast on the scientific and historical assumptions underlying Mr Lister’s project. James Fenton, an Argyll-based ecologist, takes a less simple view. Invited to comment on TENT’s most recent proposal, he replied: “The key question raised is: do predators control prey, or prey predators? In certain locations certainly the latter: for example, the number of lemmings sets the number of snowy owls, not the other way round.” Dr Fenton added: “To make a difference to deer populations, wolves would have to kill annually more than are currently shot — which seems unlikely. There could be local impact on deer in the immediate vicinity of wolf dens, but the only way to be certain about their impact in Scotland is to reintroduce the wolf and see what happens. If wolves are reintroduced to Alladale, this will not tell us much about the natural situation if the population is constrained by fences: in the wild, wolves travel hundreds of miles in a short space of time.”

In an interview published on the Alladale Estate website in February 2017, Mr Lister is quoted alluding to the so-called Caledonian Forest which some believe to have existed in Roman times. In the same interview, he attributed the decline of this habitat to the coming of sheep in the era of the Clearances. “The Highlands were once dense with vegetation, the mountain slopes thick with pine forests”, he told a journalist from City AM. “It was the kingdom of wolves and bears. This changed when land owners turned Scotland into a gigantic sheep farm during the clearances. Crofters were driven out of their homes and and pine woods chopped down as timber for the industrial revolution. Even before that, large predators had been hunted to extinction. The bare, bald hills that we think are natural are the result of man’s intervention.”

Wolves are in fact believed to have become extinct in Scotland in the late seventeenth century, although a memorial erected just north of Brora in 1924 claims that the last wolf in Sutherland was killed by a hunter around 1700. Even so, the extinction of the wolf in the Highlands predates the introduction of commercial sheep farming by the best part of a century.

Whether the ancient forest of Caledon, as it is known, ever actually existed has also been questioned by historians. In a selection of essays on the subject, published in 2000, the historian T C Smout asserted that “the Great Wood of Caledon is, in every sense of the word, a myth”. Dr Fenton concurs, arguing from maps and documentary sources that Scotland had only around 4% woodland cover in the early 1700s, with “little evidence” of decline attributable to human causes before 1750. He concludes: “Wolves were present throughout the period of woodland decline: so, assuming red deer were present throughout this period, why would bringing them back make any difference to the woodland cover? We have thousands of years of evidence that the presence of wolves does not result in the maintenance of woodland cover: what more evidence is needed?”

Dr Fenton stresses that he is not against wolves per se. “Personally I am in favour of reintroducing the wolf as it is a missing component of the ecosystem, and if we are asking poorer countries to conserve lions and tigers we have not a moral leg to stand on,” he said. “However, being pragmatic, it will not be politically possible to reintroduce it for many years to come: there is a definite conflict between upland sheep and wolves. And past SNH research shows that even a large island like Rum is not big enough to host wolves. Hence I would not currently argue strongly for it.”

In a lecture delivered to the Botanical Society of Scotland in Inverness in December, Dr Fenton put forward the thesis that countries like Norway, which have more trees, are in fact less natural than the bare Scottish uplands, as the woods are extensively managed. “Reforesting the Highlands is going against natural processes,” he concluded. “It damages the biodiversity by reducing the naturalness of the whole system.We are losing the distinctive landscapes of Scotland, creating instead a common European type.”
Instead of looking to Europe to gather an idea of what Scotland should look like, Dr Fenton contends that the unique look of the Scottish uplands should be appreciated for its own sake.  

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