Some of the Scots pines up the glen are 460 years old,” says Innes MacNeil, manager of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve. He delivers the information matter-of-factly but it stops me, quite literally, in my tracks.
I look ahead to where the glen widens. A soft rain is falling, hiding the Highland valley’s upper reaches in shifting wraiths of grey. Some distant pines are silhouetted against those damp curtains.
I shift my mental bearings back over four and a half centuries to the 1550s. A teenaged Mary is yet to be crowned Queen of Scots, while her cousin, Elizabeth, ascends to the English throne. Wild beavers still live near Loch Ness and wolf packs roam here in Sutherland and other parts of the Scottish Highlands.
Where once wolves roamed
The last wolf in Sutherland died not far from here, in Glen Loth, in 1700. Tradition has it that the last wolf in Britain would die to the south of Inverness a few decades later.
By then, some of the pines in the Alladale mist would already have been tall and casting seeds to the Sutherland winds, to little avail, perhaps. For here, as in so much of the Scottish uplands, grazing pressure has shrunk forest cover and held back re-growth for centuries.
Sheep and deer are the main culprits; their numbers determined by the people who used this land. Those same people also suffered, being forcibly removed to make way for sheep in the notorious Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. Not surprisingly, such events still colour the debate about ownership and use of land, including access to it, in Scotland.
Reawakening the wild
Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale estate since 2003, explains what the dearth of trees, and the absence of large carnivores and people here, means to him. “Ever since I shot my first deer,” he says, “I realised we’re in a landscape that’s been managed by man. Now it’s become a sterile place. My vision is to make it come alive – so you can go for a walk and see a bear or hear the howls of a wolf pack. The only feasible way to do that in Scotland is in a large-scale enclosure.”
By large, Lister means a 50,000-acre fenced-off area, big enough to contain viable populations of wolves and bears. And that’s a problem, as freedom to roam is a sensitive issue in Scotland.
Following new access legislation enacted by the Scottish parliament a few years ago, the country now has greater right-to-roam laws. As a result, any talk of fencing-off glens sparks cries of protest from Scottish walking groups and others in the national media. Since Lister courts that same media to gain support for his vision, he’s been a target for criticism during his decade at Alladale.
“But I don’t have ‘This is My Land, Keep Off’ signs,” he quips. “I actually want more people to come here. There’s no one living on Alladale, but there are communities nearby. As a landowner, it would be good to encourage people to the area so that they can make a living off the land.”
With the business plan he’s developing, he hopes to show that changes at Alladale are “not just a nature project, but about people as well”. He believes that having wolves and bears at Alladale would be “a 24/7 business”.
“Demand to see the animals would be high. People would come on walking tours. Half would stay on location, half could stay in the wider area. I’m thinking of it as an Eden Project of the north, which would benefit the environment, education and the local economy.”
But although the idea of trekking in wolf country might seem scary, Alladale Reserve Manager Innes MacNeil, who has experience of doing just that, doesn’t believe it will be a problem. “I was walking in the range of a pack of wolves in Spain not long ago,” he says. “And they kept their distance.”
Working up to wolves
To restore a better ecological balance, much of the first decade of work at Alladale has focused on trees. More than 800,000 have been planted along the steep-sided, broad-bottomed glens. While driving a few of us along a track, Innes points to where young alders and willows are growing near the river. Close by, birches and pines are to the fore.
As tree cover has expanded at Alladale, so too has the potential for a greater variety of wildlife. “When alders come back, for example, they shade the water and drop leaves in it, making it better for fish,” says conservationist Roy Dennis, who’s been advising the estate for years. “Voles are increasing in the woodlands and flowers are returning.”
Not everything has been so straightforward though. Between 2007 and 2010, wild boars were introduced into Alladale to study the affect they’d have on the ecosystem in a programme run by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.
The programme showed that the boars’ foraging could be important in aiding the regeneration of the forest. But it also showed that supplementary feeding might be required in winter if a boar population was to be reintroduced on a permanent basis.
Lower-key and potentially more successful recent work includes an effort to establish a local breeding population of Scottish wildcats and the release of three-dozen red squirrels last year.
Getting the relevant licence for this took six years of negotiation. So the team at Alladale is under no illusions that bringing bears and wolves to the area will be a quick or straightforward process.
Neither, despite frequent misrepresentation otherwise, do they think this will be a ‘re-introduction’ of these species to Scotland. It’s more akin to stocking a fenced game reserve.
Lister beams as he ponders the future and the changes it might bring to Alladale: “In 10 years’ time, I’d love to be in one of the small lodges here and watch a family of bears making their way down the river, looking for salmon. Why not? Why must we put up with a sanitised landscape?”
I think back to the ancient Scots pines up the glen. When it comes to Alladale’s future, it’s all about the long game. Wolf packs would have howled near some of those trees long ago. Some day, they may do so again. And Paul Lister won’t be the only one who’ll be thrilled to hear that sound.
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