There’s a Greek proverb that tells us, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” If this phrase holds true, Scotland’s Sutherland region will be steeped in shady greatness around 100 years from now but – incredible biological breakthrough aside – the man responsible for the transformation sadly won’t be around to see it.
Paul Lister, the not-so-old owner of Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, has overseen the planting of one million native trees across Alladale’s 23,000 acres since he bought the former hunting estate in 2003. Long before ‘rewilding’ was widely adopted as a key strategy for combatting climate change, Paul had a vision to revitalise this overgrazed, tree-depleted region of the UK and return it to its former glory: a completely intact ecosystem, providing a sanctuary for wildlife and an escape for nature lovers.
Arriving in Inverness on a sunny July afternoon, we drive 90 minutes north and enter Alladale’s almost mystical realm: a quintessential Victorian Scottish lodge, surrounded by landscapes that make spirits soar. Once covered by the ancient Caledonian Forest, which formed at the end of the last Ice Age, Scotland is known as a land of extreme wilderness, although those rugged landscapes we know and love today are mainly the making of man. Once roamed by large predators including wolves, lynx and bears, just patchwork remnants of the ancient forest now remains, as vast areas have been felled for agriculture or construction, and continue to be overgrazed by sheep and deer.
Establishing The European Nature Trust (TENT) in 2000 to support conservation, restore biodiversity and rewild areas across Europe, Paul has been at the forefront of the environmental movement for many years. Guests at Alladale have a unique opportunity, not just to enjoy a stay at a stylish Scottish retreat, but to learn about TENT’s projects first-hand, and walk through landscapes that are actively contributing to a brighter, greener future.
A committed member of the NOW Force for Good Alliance, many of Alladale’s goals and actions align with United Nations Development Goals, not just through the extensive rewilding and peat restoration projects which will help to absorb carbon, but through wildlife conservation and breeding programmes that will help to increase native biodiversity, engage local communities, and bring economic benefits to the region in the form of ecotourism.
After lunch on the terrace accompanied by a traditional Scottish piper, we join a 4WD safari around Alladale with passionate Reserve Manager, Innes MacNeill. The Reserve offers opportunities to spot golden eagles, otters, pine martens, red squirrels, hares and water voles, along with the shaggy, horned cattle, which stamp their iconic signature on my photographs of the Highland hills. A tree-lined path leads to a vast enclosure, home to some elusive and precious predators which are luckily basking in the sun. Incredibly rare and beautiful Scottish wildcats are being bred at Alladale as part of the Saving Wildcats programme – a European partnership project supervised by the Royal Zoological Society Scotland (RZSS), which aims to release 20 wildcats a year into the Highlands. But Paul’s vision for rebalancing Alladale’s ecosystem gets even wilder. He earned the nickname of “The Wolfman” after revealing a long-term plan to reintroduce wolves to the Reserve: an idea welcomed by many, but contested by some.
As we’ve learned from the experience in the USA’s Yellowstone National Park, the introduction of apex predators like wolves can radically transform landscapes, bringing populations of prey animals like deer naturally under control, allowing native flora and fauna to flourish. Across Scotland – and in Alladale – large numbers of red deer are now annually culled, as fences and human development have impeded their natural migration routes to find food, leading to starvation in winter, and overgrazing in warmer months.
Eurasian Lynx may be reintroduced before wolves are welcomed back, but in the meantime, Alladale’s wilderness is still regularly brought to life with a HOWL: a Highland Outdoor and Wilderness Learning programme, which offers workshops and escapes for local children, helping to establish an early connection to nature, and inspire the conservationists and visionaries of tomorrow.
With two breathtaking valleys to explore, along with woodlands, rivers and heather-clad moors, Alladale is a haven for hikers and cyclists, and the Reserve’s team can also arrange clay pigeon shooting, horse riding, whisky tasting and golf. Innes leads us on a hike to the river, where wild salmon jump, flashing their scales in the sunlight, and we drive out to see the remote Deanich Lodge, a rustic self-catering retreat for 18, and two cosy catered lodges, the three-bedroom Eagle’s Crag and two-bedroom Ghillies rest, which accommodate 10 and four with mesmerising views of Glen Alladale.
Back at Alladale Lodge, the Reserve’s chef, Natasha, serves local venison for the carnivores, and an amazing curry of seasonal vegetables grown in Alladale’s new extensive aquaponic gardens for vegetarians, including me. Around the large communal table, wine and conversation flows, as guests engage in lively debates about wildlife spotted during the day, bracing swims in the river, and the conservation projects at play.
That night, I wake at 3 AM in my upstairs bedroom at the Lodge, and look out of my window onto the wild. A red deer is softly grazing below, its lofty antlers lit under the dusky all-night light of a Scottish summer, and outlined by the thicket of trees beyond. Earlier on our drive, Innes had called Paul, “a man on a mission with a vision.” As the deer turns its head towards me before vanishing, dreamlike, from view, Alladale’s vision becomes clear: through the window lies a future where a wild and balanced world is a reality, not a dream.