The Wolf Man of Scotland

It's not a compliment when his neighbours call him the Wolf Man. Paul Lister, inheritor of a cool £50 Million fortune from his parents' furniture chain, MFI, has become the most vociferous proponent of rewilding Scotland has seen, but his plans are contentious.

Ironic that a dynasty who made furniture from felled trees has spawned a man who wants to give all that timber back to nature: in the last ten years he has planted 900,000 trees, mainly pine and beech to help reintroduce the original tree-filled landscape that existed in the time of the Romans. 

Alladale, 23,000 acres of wilderness in Sutherland, already accommodates herds of mountain ponies, highland cattle, and if you pay a considerable sum of money you might see a sounder of wild boar trotting through the undergrowth, or a great antlered elk poking its nose between the trees.

This year though Lister plans to begin phase one of his ultimate project, wolf reintroduction. He intends to fence off a large reserve for the wolves, have an initial pack of ten to twelve animals, and observe over time their effect on the landscape. If this is successful, and it is a commercial venture, he hopes it will increase tourists and jobs in the area.

Paul Lister sees the return of large predators like wolves as a solution to the many problems that exist in the ecosystem as it is at present: destabilised over centuries by the industrial revolution and two world wars, shipbuilding and the ambitions of the British Empire. All the native trees were chopped down to service man’s upheavals and none replanted. Sheep and deer have proliferated, eating what poor tree shoots remain, leaving the uplands looking like a bowling green where once they were covered with forest.

How does this relate to wolves you may ask? Back in 1995 Yellowstone Park reintroduced wolves and the effects on tree growth have been demonstrable. The wolves controlled the deer population more successfully than human culling programmes had yet managed, and for much less cost. Fewer deer meant more tree growth. Then came the profound knock on effect that no one had dared to dream: more trees nourished more insects, increased numbers of birds, and increased the fish, which like to spawn in shady waters. This encouraged the beavers, frogs, reptiles and all manner of tiny creepy crawlies that live in the cavities of fallen trees. Today Yellowstone Park boasts more biodiversity than ever. So the evidence to support wolf reintroduction has been overwhelming.

But, and there’s always a but, in the United Kingdom feeling tacks strongly in the opposite direction. Lupophobia runs deep in the British Isles. It infests our nursery stories. The all devouring wolf who swallows grandmothers and all but the cleverest of pigs is still a staple in the stories we tell our littlest ones, perhaps for good reason. In our smaller islands, compared to the vast open spaces of America or Europe, there is less room for farm animals and wild wolf packs to co-exist without loss of livestock.

In Norway, where lynx have been reintroduced, the government has had to pay compensation packages to farmers for the loss of up to 10,000 sheep to marauding lynx. This, according to research, is the exception to an otherwise negligible problem, as Norwegian sheep had an old habit of roaming deep into woods until the lynx came. Keeping sheep in enclosures diminishes the problem considerably. But the fears of our economically stretched farmers are there and have to be balanced against the positive effects. That been said, if anywhere in Britain is best placed for rewilding, it is the remote highlands of Scotland, away from all intensive areas of commercial farming. 

The other and equally loud objection is to Lister's plan of fencing off large areas of Alladale, including walkers' paths to cherished parts of the Highland landscape. Scotland's right to roam legislation is hotly defended, but Lister makes enemies here with his scathing attitude to people walking over land he considers to be his private property. Which is better, argues Lister, a hundred new tourism jobs in an economically depressed area, or the rights of a handful of walkers? It is an uncompromising argument which people fear might encourage other large landowners to re-fence the countryside. 

Although Paul Lister is anxious to get his project finally off the ground - it has already been postponed since 2010 - David Balharry, Scotland director of the charity, Rewilding Britain, is more circumspect. He does not expect to see wolves introduced to Scotland in his lifetime. Some estimate it will take two generations to win hearts and minds over to the idea of wolves in the Highlands, though Lynx reintroduction in the near future is a realistic prospect.

We shall see if Mr Lister, a man of considerable determination, gets his way. Even if he doesn't, men like Lister are the thin end of the wedge, the beginning of a revolution in thinking which will gather momentum. Even the cautious Mr Balharry envisions a future in which his descendants are more in tune with a rewilded landscape, and even, he suggests, more confident as a people because of rewilding. 

What do you think? Have your say in the comments below.