Alladale Wilderness Reserve – A Rewilding Story - Scotland on Sunday Travel

Paul Lister’s vision to return native species to the Scottish Highlands is bearing fruit

Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Estate has spent 20-year pursuing his vision of rewilding the 23,000-acre property in the Scottish Highlands.
Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Estate has spent 20-year pursuing his vision of rewilding the 23,000-acre property in the Scottish Highlands.

The dramatic appearance of a huge sea eagle swooping low over Alladale Lodge was immediately followed by the swift appearance of philanthropist Paul Lister, our host, who had raced outside, giddy with excitement, for a glimpse of the magnificentraptor.With glee, Lister, heir to the MFI fortune, explained how rare the sighting was, while the huge bird continued to soar over Alladale Wilderness Reserve, west of Ardgay village in Sutherland.

The sighting was evidence that Lister’s tenacious 20-year pursuit of his vision to rewild the 23,000-acre property was bearing fruit, as more and more native species return to the Scottish Highlands.

I’d departed Edinburgh for Alladale in my Mazda CX-5 early that morning. It is an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive north, towards Inverness, followed by another hour (50-miles) northwest to the gates of the reserve.

Guests arrive by way of a winding, private track leading to the main lodge. Signs warn drivers to take it slow, to protect the red squirrels that were reintroduced to the area in 2013. Thirty-six were reintroduced and, within months, they were breedingsuccessfully.

The demise of the native red squirrel was mainly due to the introduction of its American cousin, the grey squirrel, which eats its food source and carries a disease fatal to the red squirrel, but to which it is immune.

Following the course of the River Carron, with huge adult salmon leaping up-river to spawn, I arrived at the lodge. It is surrounded by spectacular landscape of rugged green hills, and the country’s most northerly ancient Caledonian pine forest.

Magnificent red deer graze the lawns, while red squirrels race up and down age-old trees and delicate birds feed from boxes, filling the air with their soothing musical sounds. In 2021, BBC’s Springwatch was broadcast live from Alladale, celebrating its successful rewilding and environmental projects and, the abundance of native wildlife.Lister himself is intense, passionate and driven… yet unstuffy, always approachable and fun. With a talented team of experts to guide him, he is single-mindedly pursuing his dreams.To encourage indigenous plants and animals back to where they belong, Lister has planted over a million trees. Next, he will reintroduce native animals including wild cats, beavers, lynx and, if he has his way, wolves.There is a peatland restoration project and a huge aquaponic garden where fish waste is used to feed plants, which in turn return clean water to the fish, without any artificial inputs.“Some people will be surprised to learn that the Scottish Highlands were once covered by large predators and lush pine forests,” Lister told me. “Yet today they are barren, because much of the flora and fauna that once thrived here have disappeared, and the landscape has altered dramatically.”

Red Squirrels are thriving at Alladale.

Climbing into his rugged Defender, we headed into the reserve, crunching along gravel tracks and into seven-mile-long Glen Alladale. Detouring off-road, we bumped across rugged country and through River Alladale, which was shallow enough to ford. The estate’s herd of free-roaming Highland cattle knew we had food onboard for them and followed us until we stopped. Clambering from the back of the Defender, I was greeted by a chorus of mooing cattle, with their long-fringed heads and sharp-pointed horns. These beautiful beasts are all part of Alladale’s rewilding process, and of the Scottish Rural Development Programme. Their grazing and trampling breaks up the ground, and their dung is a hotbed for insects, which are, in turn, a food source for birds.

On the way back, Lister took me to see his Scottish wildcats (aka the Scottish tiger), one of the rarest cats in the world. Alladale is helping to recover the species, which hovers on the brink of extinction. For their protection, the timid felines, tested for genetic purity, are homed within enclosures set up by The European Nature Trust.

Crossbreeding with domestic cats is threatening the survival of Scottish wildcats but programmes like this are restoring the balance. The fenced area provides a safe home for the adults and their feisty kittens. I crouched by the fence to observe a robust, tabby-patterned female, twice the size of a domestic cat, with a large broad head and a distinctive black-tipped tail, as she laydown to feed her demanding litter.

A tiny, ferocious, spitting, wide-eyed furball ran towards me with its tail pointing straight up. Don’t be fooled by their cute-sounding meow… these are not domestic pussycats. Shy and elusive, they are ready to protect themselves from potential danger in the wild.“These new kittens will be going into the breeding centre, not the wild; they will be breeders and their kittens or their kittens’ kittens will go into the wild, slowly getting the numbers out there,” Lister explains.“If we are reintroducing wild cats, then we should also talk about reintroducing lynx, and when. If we bring lynx back too soon, they will compromise the wildcat numbers, and then the lynx numbers will grow because there are no longer wolves here to regulate them.” The controversial reintroduction of wolves to Scotland is part of Lister’s dream.Dinner that night was shepherd’s pie, or ‘stalker’s pie’ as Lister calls it, made with his own venison. Another night, brown trout caught on the reserve was on the menu.The following morning, I hiked over the hill behind the lodge, through boggy ground covered in heather, ferns, saplings, and pretty wildflowers, before dropping into a small valley to visit tiny Croick Church built in 1827. It figured prominently in the Clearance of Glencalvie in 1845, when 18 families were evicted to make way for sheep farming, an event recorded in messages scratched into the glass windows by some of the homeless women seeking sheltering in the church.I was staying at the main Alladale Lodge. It is beautiful, though traditional rather than luxurious, with creaky wood floors and a huge wooden staircase leading to the seven en-suite double bedrooms.The very private, contemporary and extremely comfortable Eagle’s Crag cottage offers seclusion. Set in Glen Alladale, it sleeps up to eight, and has wood beams throughout.Ghillie’s Rest is more intimate and sits alongside the River Alladale; it has two bedrooms and everything needed for self-catering. It has impressive views of the glen, and easy access to the entire reserve.Lastly, there’s Deanich Lodge, an off-grid, rustic bunkhouse considered to be one of the most remote buildings in Scotland, surrounded by nature; red deer gather here and golden eagles nest in the nearby hillside.Rewilding Alladale is all rather like a big jigsaw puzzle, slowly being put together by its effervescent owner. The process is inspiring and it’s wonderful to see how successful it is. It’s about balance, and managing our countryside, and allowing nature and wildlife to thrive, as well as offering an inspiring retreat for human visitors.

Endangered wildcats are being protected and reintroduced at Alladale.

As for the future, perhaps one day Lister will be able to put the final piece into his puzzle. The last Scottish wolf was shot in 1743. Is it possible that these much-misunderstood historic denizens will return to the Scottish Highlands?

If Paul Lister has his way… they will!

For bookings contact: Alladale Wilderness Reserve www.alladale.com.www.mazda.co.ukwww.theeuropeannaturetrust .comThe European Nature Trust creates unique experiences to connect people with nature, while raising funds for wildlife and conservation initiatives across Europe.

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Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Sutherland, Scotland. The 23,000-acre property has remnants of the ancient Caledonian pine forest.

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The entrance to Alladale Lodge, Sutherland.