Although the Scottish Highlands appear to be a surviving tract of untouched nature, in fact, the landscape here hardly resembles its original pristine state. This is why the Alladale Wilderness Reserve and its entire team led by owner Paul Lister have dedicated themselves to rewilding and restoring the ecological balance of the Scottish Highlands. It requires patience and perseverance, as well as a few very wild animals.
The Highlands – it hardly matters if one has ever been there or not when it comes to the associations conjured up just by the notion of the Scottish Highlands. The mind’s eye immediately envisages lush green hills and mystical deep valleys with meandering rivers and dark moors. Here and there, a few imposing castles and stone ruins jut out from the surroundings. Below them are grazing sheep, mirrored by puffy, white clouds floating above in the sky. However memorable this image may be, it only offers a sketch of the Highlands as they have appeared for the past few centuries, a relatively short period. Previously, half of Scotland lay under thick forest.
The coming of industrialization, the accompanying rural exodus, and the Highland Clearances, the expulsion of the resident population, resulted in the disappearance of what the Romans called the Caledonian Forest, together with the region’s original flora and fauna. Instead of pine forests and predators, the view one encounters today in many places is one of grazing herds of livestock on treeless pastures. Still imposing, but in many ways so much poorer.
Paul Lister would like to change all this. Lister and his team from the Alladale Wilderness Reserve are making a concerted effort to reforest and rewild the area. In 2003, the Scotsman, heir to a furniture dynasty, purchased an impressive Victorian manor house together with accompanying buildings, nestled in a breathtaking upland landscape and located only an hour away by car from Inverness. The wilderness reserve spans a total of almost 100 square kilometers. Guests can choose to reside in Alladale Lodge, which today functions as a hotel featuring seven double rooms, a sauna, a fitness room, a cozy drawing room, a common dining room, and other amenities. If guests prefer something more wild and romantic, there are a number of smaller houses on the grounds. Or there is the option of staying completely secluded in a historical hunting lodge some 11 kilometers from the main building, where guests can provide for themselves and enjoy the unadulterated surrounding wildlife.
Alladale offers its guests numerous sporting activities, such as hiking, bicycle tours, and yoga, wellness treatment, as well as cultural and culinary highlights. Without a doubt, however, the main attraction is the impressive scenery. “Our mission is to reconnect people with nature in the firm belief that they will then recognize that it is worthy of being protected. In general, all of our guests share a passion for nature. In addition, they particularly enjoy Alladale’s virtually endless expanse and private seclusion, the clean air, tranquility, and breathtaking night skies. And then there are the hikes through the reserve, the fantastic conversations, the hospitality of our team, and the wonderful food prepared by our kitchen. Of course, part of the experience is ending the day with a glass of good whiskey from the region or a mug of organic beer!” says Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen, general manager of Alladale, enthusiastically.
Excursions with rangers, fishing expeditions, and nature exploration tours allow guests to discover the Scottish Highlands. Those who want to test their limits can sign up for a survival camp or a Wim Hof Method retreat. This is a method developed by the extreme athlete Wim Hof (also known as the ‘Iceman’) and draws on Tibetan meditation practices. “The Wim Hof Method is based on a breathing technique that supports increased confidence in the abilities of one’s own body and immune system. By subjecting oneself to the effects of gradually intensifying cold, you can eventually release your so-called ‘inner fire’ and withstand the cold – and this offers a whole range of positive effects for physical and mental health. As this retreat is focused above all on the exposure to the cold, it is only offered during the winter,” explains Groenhuijsen, who has already taken part and is an enthusiastic Wim Hof fan.
Alladale, however, is not only for individualists but also welcomes families and groups. Above all, the reserve attracts people who are drawn to the call of the wilderness, as Paul Lister once was himself. When presented with the opportunity of acquiring the estate with its vast property, he at once recognized the potential of the surroundings and the role he could play here. He would henceforth be able to give something back and, as he puts it, finally “be a part of the solution and no longer part of the problem.” Since then, he and his team have engaged in numerous nature conservation projects, such as planting over a million native trees, restoring damaged moors, and reintroducing wild animals to the region – probably Paul Lister’s most ambitious project.
“Ecosystem restoration is at the heart of all our activities here at Alladale,” stresses Groenhuijsen. As previously mentioned, some 2000 years ago, the landscape here was entirely different. At the time, lush virgin forests harbored a diverse fauna, including predators, such as lynx, wolves, bears, and perhaps even elk. Over the centuries, most of the forest was lost to encroachment by agriculture, and with it came the disappearance of the animals. The Alladale team has invested much hard work in reintroducing original plant and wildlife species to help the Scottish Highlands get back on its feet. Their greatest concern in this respect is the reintroduction of species that have disappeared irretrievably. After all, Great Britain is an island, and it is therefore highly improbable that a wolf could find its way back to the Highlands on its own. It is not like other places in Europe, where, for instance, an animal could cross the ice all the way to Sweden and Norway.
As a result, bringing wild animal species back to Scotland requires a great deal of initiative and effort. Lister and his team have not shied away from such an undertaking. They have already been successful in translocating red squirrels to the region. Besides, Alladale is participating in a breeding project to save the rare and threatened Scottish Wildcat. Three have already been born at Alladale and will be released into the wild at some point in the future. They have built massive nests to make the native Golden Eagle and the White-Tailed Sea Eagle feel at home again. A longer-term goal, however, is to bring wolves back to Scotland on a controlled scale. But this is where opinions differ sharply.
The reintroduction of a predator could prove an enormous benefit for the (Scottish) ecosystem, as shown elsewhere. In North America, the wolf was brought back to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, having considerable effects upon the entire ecosystem. The wolves naturally reduced the wild game population, which in response moved further into the woods, allowing the valleys to regenerate. Trees such as aspen and poplars returned, and with them many species of birds that had previously abandoned Yellowstone. With the reappearance of beavers, along came otters, fish, insects, and water birds. Soon, badgers, foxes, mice, and martens returned, which in turn attracted hawks and other birds of prey. The river banks stabilized, and so did the entire ecosystem.
Projects such as these demonstrate how the integration of wild animals can significantly impact the whole ecosystem. In fact, the complete ecosystem should be conceived as a pyramid – through the controlled reintroduction of original native animal and plant species, more species are encouraged to return. Yet, Yellowstone, with its vast 3,468 square miles, is incomparably larger than Alladale.
Concerned farmers and critics of such species reintroduction projects in Scotland fear that wolves could quickly spread out beyond their intended habitat and pose a danger to both humans and livestock. The fear of wolves is primeval and has been especially fomented by brutal fairy tales and dramatic films. The shy predators hardly present any real danger to people, although it is a different story concerning animals. From Norway to Germany’s Prignitz region, farmers have encountered huge problems with wolves and other predators attacking their herds. Scottish shepherds have similar fears.
Lister’s plan, therefore, is to release two packs of wolves with tracking chips to a fenced-off area of the reserve. Although a three-meter high electrified fence would protect farmers, this zone would be more like a zoo and no longer freely accessible, the Scottish authorities have criticized. In addition, predators and prey would find themselves in a common enclosure, which also conflicts with zoological principles. As such, the Scottish government finds it challenging to support the plan. “Nonetheless, wolves remain an essential part of our efforts and vision here at Alladale,” says Groenhuijsen. Ultimately, Scotland is the only European country in which there are no longer any wolves. And the ecological advantages are clear.
On the other hand, lynxes seem to be a compromise that even the government will agree on. “They could also play an important role in the control of wildlife whose population is currently out of control in Scotland. Like the wolf, the lynx’s behavior can alter the grazing patterns of deer by keeping them alert and on the move. This would finally halt excessive grazing and allow the forests to regenerate,” explains Groenhuijsen. Furthermore, lynx attack by ambushing their prey and do not form packs. Instead, they prefer to hide in the woods, thereby posing less of a danger to livestock.
Lister has not given up hope of someday reintroducing predators, which could improve the region’s natural balance. But as long as the government refuses to give the green light, the team at Alladale focuses on other areas to improve the local ecological footprint. “We’ve been quite busy during the lockdown,” reveals Groenhuijsen. “We have built the largest aquaponic garden in the country so that we can now completely grow our own vegetables and herbs without any waste. Our two gardeners work closely together with our chef, and we can now literally offer our guests a field-to-fork experience on their table. It goes without saying that our team has already tested most of the produce from our garden and the taste and nutritional quality are impressive from start to finish.” More than once, Alladale Wilderness Reserve has received awards for its sustainable and ecological approach, its collaboration with various wildlife and conservation programs, and its educational programs for youth. This year, National Geographic nominated Alladale to its list of “Best of the World Destinations to Rediscover Nature.” It is an attractive title, and hopefully, it won’t fizzle out due to the lockdown. Yet, Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen is not worried. “It now looks as if travel will soon be possible once more. We’ll hopefully be able to welcome our guests again and involve them in our ecological efforts.”
No one, however, has lost sight of the wolf at Alladale. General Manager Groenhuijsen hopes that in the future, “Alladale will one day become part of a national network uniting nature reserves in the south of England all the way to the northern Highlands. This would create natural corridors through which wildlife could roam the island unimpeded, without any human intervention.” Now that is a beautiful, wild outlook!
Many thanks to Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen, General Manager of Alladale Wilderness Reserve, for this conversation.
The Alladale Wilderness Reserve is part of Jack Wolfskin’s 6-day Wolftrail hike in Scotland.