Anabel Dean meets the millionaire 're-wilding' his estate with animals that roamed the Scottish Highlands 1000 years ago.
All is quiet in the glen until the air fills with a call to the wild: a ranger shouting in thick Scots brogue across the spinney. "Here, my girl," he bellows. Nothing stirs. "She'll come," he promises. And she does, finally. Her lumpy frame crashes through the damp braes of bracken, the shadow of an infant trailing behind. Eyes frame a fleshy proboscis, nostrils snort at willow saplings - and then she is gone.
Suspicion is probably justified given that the prized progeny by her side is believed to be the first European elk calf born north of the Great Glen in Scotland in more than 1000 years. There's a lot riding on this little beast - it represents an ideal for Paul Lister, the eccentric owner of Alladale Wilderness Lodge and Reserve in Sutherland, north of Inverness.
Lister's single-minded vision is to turn the clock back to a time when the Big Five of the British Isles - elk (moose), wolf, brown bear, lynx and boar - roamed the forests that veiled this land. If his experiment succeeds, the wild creatures lost to Scotland will bring life back to the Highlands, attracting visitors who come not only to shoot and fish but to witness the restoration of wilderness.
Lister's challenge to the century-old monopoly of land management began in 2003 with the purchase of 9300 hectares for £3.7 million ($5.8 million). He has spent much more money bringing a "Noah's ark" of animals to the estate. The wild boar came first (managed in conjunction with Oxford University), then the elk - two of them transported from Sweden in the lavatory of a chartered plane. Scottish wildcats from Cornwall are expected within days; bison from Denmark within weeks; and eventually, perhaps, the wolves that Lister considers vital to keeping the red deer in check.
Lister's obsession to re-wild Scotland was spawned on the day he killed his first Highland deer. He was about 20, heir to the MFI furniture fortune and the son of a man once ranked 20th on the British rich list. "I didn't go trophy shooting in my tweeds," Lister says. "I just shot the crud, the hinds in the winter, but it gave me a purpose. It was sport and I was doing a job."
The job was to keep deer numbers down in the forestry plantation that his father, Noel, had bought as a tax break. Camaraderie grew between the English squire and the Scottish stalkers who spent their nights in bone-chilling crofts and days culling deer. It was a profound experience and it provoked an idea: why not create a large fenced reserve and bring the wolves back to establish the long-gone ecological balance.
The catalyst came years later when Paul's father suffered a stroke. "By then I was in my 40s and had woken up to the fact that my life would be better if I spent it doing good projects rather than trying to create wealth I didn't really need," he says. "I was like a lot of the sons of successful business people: you can be compassionate or you can become a playboy, a floater, a loser. I drove myself round the twist trying to create wealth and I wasn't very good at it. I had entrepreneurial ideas [some of them in Australia with the Fantastic Furniture company] but I couldn't put them all into action. Alladale gave me an opportunity to pull my whole life around, put something back, do something really meaningful. It has become my calling card."
Alladale almost answered Lister's Ten Commandments: thou shall have at least 20,000 hectares (not yet attained); be within 90 minutes by car of Inverness Airport; lie on the eastern side of the watershed (less rain); contain lochs and rivers. There shall be at least 20 per cent forestry cover and a proper Victorian lodge for conversion to a hotel. No crofters, no tenant farmers, and no Munros (mountains higher than 914 metres).
Lister's fiefdom is not, however, what God intended for this land. Like much of Scotland, the trees were stripped away centuries ago and, with the timber gone, the deer and sheep grazed away the fragile native grasses, leaving boggy wastelands where heather and gorse prospered. So at Alladale, instead of selling trees as tables and chairs, Lister is planting them. More than 700,000 rowan, birch, alder, willow, holly and Caledonia pines have been planted to join up fragmented woodland that the Romans called "the great forests of Caledon".
Lister invites the world to share his vision from the lavish lodgings that lie at the dead-end of a twisting road. The journey takes my family through the vast undulations of his estate with five glens, two rivers, 10 hill lochs. Discoveries are to be made by four-wheel-drive, on Highland pony or by foot with affable ghillies (rangers) carrying fishing rods, binoculars, guns or sandwiches, depending upon the guest and the season.
Ranger John Calder suggests we indulge in the primordial discomfort of staggering and straining upwards so that we may behold the impossibly beautiful hilltop views of the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. It is, indeed, breathtaking. The majestic stags remain as elusive as the pine marten but, back down in Glen Alladale, there is nothing to match the sight of salmon jumping upstream in a joyous acrobatic display that ultimately leads to copulation and death.
No such flirtation is on offer at the badger hide, beside a small byrne of hastening water, where John balances hospitality with retreat and a nice cup of tea. My husband catches a salmon smaller than a minnow and my son catches a mole. Its velvety warmth astonishes us all. "I've never known anyone to catch a mole," declares Calder, the seasoned Highlander.
The scale and seclusion of Alladale's altered landscape is even more exhilarating when viewed from our remote eco-cottage, Ghillie's Rest. We do not stay in the elevated Alladale Lodge (originally erected in 1877) at the eastern end of the estate, where seven Laura Ashley-style rooms are in readiness for a single party of up to 14 guests. Instead, the lodge comes to us each day, with chefs' hearty feasts delivered to our cottage's oak kitchen with a polite command: "Enjoy!" This is not difficult amid interiors designed by Jill Evans (the former director of Mulberry), under the deer-antler chandelier, beside a fire stoked for every summer squall.
In this domain, Lister's act of eco-philanthropy receives enthusiastic support, the guest book revealing sincere expressions of faith in the maverick who is a force for change. Substantial obstacles remain, however, in the creation of Britain's first wilderness reserve by a modern-day Monarch of the Glen.
Lister still needs at least 20,000 hectares to sustain two key wolf packs (not seen in Britain since the 1740s). The wolves will be contained behind a vast perimeter fence, like moose, and that has Scottish ramblers up in arms since they won the right to roam (ironically in the year Lister bought Alladale).
Lister remains committed to righting the wrongs of the past and plans to delegate the management of hospitality so he can concentrate on expanding resources. He hopes to convince one of his neighbours to become a partner and, at the same time, is contemplating even bigger conservation ventures in Romania.
"There is a lot more curiosity about Alladale now and people know that I'm not completely mad," he says. "They have started to see that we're thinking differently about the world around us." For Lister, there is a lifetime of work ahead and this is just the beginning.
Anabel Dean stayed courtesy of Alladale Wilderness Lodge and Reserve.
Etihad Airways/Flybe has a fare to Inverness from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2330. Fly to Abu Dhabi (about 14hr), then to Manchester (about 8hr), then to Inverness (1hr 30min). This is a low-season return fare, including tax. Or fly to Inverness from London. Alladale Wilderness Lodge and Reserve is 85 kilometres north-west of Inverness. The lodge can arrange airport transfers by car or helicopter, or will arrange car hire.
Ghillie's Rest, which sleeps up to four, costs from £450 ($709) a night mid-season; Alladale Lodge rooms cost from £2300 a night mid-season, based on 14 sharing. Prices include full board, fly-fishing, four-wheel-drive safaris, mountain biking and guided walks. There are additional fees for deer stalking, clay shooting and off-site golf. Phone +44 (0)1863 755 338, see alladale.com.