Vanessa Neumann talks to eco-laird Paul Lister about transforming his Highland estate into one of Britains most extraordinary nature reserves and lodges.
Alladale Wilderness Reserve
What drives this man, I wonder. As I sit across from him at the breakfast table, struggling to choose the right milk for my organic muesli (no, not the soy, please!), he is prattling excitedly, wide-eyed like a small boy on Christmas morning, about his latest plans for his 26,000-acre Scottish Highland nature reserve, Alladale, and its beautiful lodge that can sleep sixteen in Laura Ashley floral-print comfort. The views through the gabled windows are of the distant undulating hills that delineate the estate that he wants to re-wild.
Paul Lister, Alladale’s visionary owner, is a maverick of the first order. Lister is the entrepreneurial heir to the MFI furniture fortune, and if he gets his way, he will change both the Scottish Highlands and land ownership forever. Many people think he’s crazy; others think he’s prophetic; everyone agrees he won’t have it easy. But he is undeterred.
Lister is forgoing the usual working-estate offerings of hunting, shooting, and fishing, and is instead developing an African-style wilderness reserve, re-wilding the flora and fauna to their pre-Industrial Revolution state, restoring the deer, elk, wolves, lynx and wild boar that once roamed Scotland. Although Lister still has a long way to go with his repopulation project, Alladale’s animals have already attracted a lot of attention: the imported wild boars are already the subject of an Oxford study into how their relentlessly digging snouts accelerate soil regeneration.
Getting the wild animals into Alladale, though, has not been easy – particularly the elk. Lister, hearing of a lovely elk pair for sale in Sweden, hopped on a plane with his estate manager and flew out to get them. Once he got there, however, he found he could not export them and quickly tracked down another pair. Lest his luck should change, he hired a private jet to fly them out and the sedated elk were locked in the loo for the safety of all on board. One of the elk came out of sedation, groggy and confused, kicked the wall down and poked his head into the cockpit and checked out the flight controls. The strong-willed elk have since become major characters in a BBC series, Lister, The Real Monarch of the Glen.
But not everyone is a fan: the locals fear the animals and want them securely fenced, while the right-to-roamers resent the fence. Planners argue that the fence required by the locals makes the estate a zoo, and predator and prey cannot be in the same area in a zoo, defeating the whole idea of the nature reserve. But Paul Lister is not a man who quits. He has a plan: he is going to double his land holdings so that Alladale can accommodate the two packs of wolves he dreams about.
So how’s it going? I ask when I phone him some time after my stay. How are the elk? The elk, I’m informed, have been moved to a spot with more vegetation that is closer to the lodge, which has the added advantage of making them more visible to visitors — for they are indeed popular.
So just how did a big-game hunter become a yoga-practising conservationist who wants to change the economic template for landowners?
‘You know, I shot deer all through my twenties,’ he says. ‘All the while that I was doing it, I got to understand about the natural history of the Highlands of Scotland and why we’re culling deer. Then I got involved with going to other parts of the world where [they have] these animals that we’ve shot down [and killed off] in this country. But at least they existed [here once].
‘That’s when I put two and two together and thought, ‘Well, listen, this Victorian sport here [of shooting and fishing] has been running for over a hundred years now; sheep farming is not exactly a great revenue generator when you consider that it is actually subsidised totally by government. So what else do we do with the land? Let’s bring back nature and create a wilderness reserve. It is important that it’s a wildlife reserve rather than a safari. I don’t equate ourselves to a safari. A safari is where you’re seeing an abundance of animals. The density of animals they’ll see in Scotland will be a tenth of what they see in Africa because of the conditions.’ He considers the Alladale experience to be ‘very much like India, actually; India is very much a place where you have to seek out the animals, whereas in Africa in the plains and places, you’ve got great visibility.’
His motivation, albeit mostly philanthropic, is also profit-driven. For, he says, the only way the model can work is if it is economically viable. His model is Adrian Gardiner’s award-winning Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Shamwari is sort of a sister reserve to Alladale — both are promoted through the Mantis Collection of luxury boutique hotels and game reserves. Gardiner bought land that had been over-grazed by cattle, took the cattle off, restored the grasses, and replenished the ground with native species. Now, his 49,000-acre safari preserve with 100 beds is valued at more than £27 million. ‘The multiple that you can achieve by taking land that’s completely eroded and investing in it and putting nature back is enormous,’ Lister insists. ‘That’s another interesting factor for landowners in Scotland.’
So in order for this to work, it should really be profitable for landowners?
‘Oh, yeah, I think certainly. Yeah, I mean, why would I suggest a change of activity if it’s going to do the same or worse than is currently happening? Traditional deer
stalking is not a revenue-generating business. I would say that not more than 10 per cent of Highland stalking estates make any money whatsoever. The ones that more or less break even are the ones that have no staff at all and simply hire temporary staff.
‘You know, the local people, they see the rich lairds from the south come up and use the area as a playground for themselves, but they don’t benefit by having employment or any opportunities. It’s not exactly the best sort of connection between the landowner and the locals. I’m very keen on employing people. I’m also very keen on bringing up odd school trips. It’s throughout Scotland and we’re getting quite a good response.’
Lister insists, however, that it need not be elitist. The high-season price might be £3,500 a night for the entire lodge at Alladale, which sleeps 16, but ‘it’s going to be no more or no less expensive than going to Africa and it costs you a lot less in time, in fuel, in the cost of flights, but you’ll get a very similar kind of experience.’
The animals will live there year-round, so a broader clientele can go in the off-season for a fraction of the high-season price. ‘The masses who want to go up there but who haven’t got the funds will go in off-peak periods and will still enjoy the chance of spotting wildlife.’
It occurs to me that there is another sighting Alladale’s visitors might enjoy: Lister dashing about, attending to the proper running of the estate. After all, he’s a bit of a rare species himself: the maverick eco-entrepreneur.