As a Scot descended in part from Appin Stuarts, I get emotional crossing the Highland Line, feeling the huge flanks of the mountains close around me like a herd of giant cattle and suffusing me with subtle feelings between awe and connection. It doesn’t have to be Appin, beautiful and sea-girt though it is: Mull or the Mamores; Trossachs or Torridon—all bring the same lump to my throat, echoing history, space and wildness that feels like coming home. It is not cosy; it is more a brisk cold shower to awake the soul.
And yet its barrenness jars. Not only do the rickles of stones marking old clachans remind you of a time when people far outnumbered sheep but barren slopes on most mountains and equally unbroken vistas down as many glens stand mute reminders of what has been lost: diversity; a vibrant ecology; several key species.
Here is not the place to rehearse the destruction of Celtic culture and the clan system; read your Prebble for a much more lucid and pithy account than I could manage, But while the current domination of vast Highland estates entirely focussed on shooting grouse/deer and fishing beats does bring investment and employment to remote areas, the quasi-monoculture they require exaggerates bleakness to a level that is not natural.
It was certainly man who decimated the original Caledonian forest that once dominated glens and slopes, even if it never covered the tops. But deer overgrazing keeps decimating any hope of regrowth. In itself, that is a loss. But the resulting knock-on absence of species thirls the land in a semi-desert of heather, rock and bracken.
In the US, Yellowstone National Park was starting to go that way half a century ago, with growing numbers of deer and elk overgrazing woods and habitats for other species shrinking so predators were declining from lack of prey and the ecology in general was deteriorating. Then the wolves showed up.
A couple of packs drifted in from nearby Montana. They ate a few elk but, more importantly, they changed deer & elk behaviour, making them leery of valleys and draws where they could be trapped. Trees, bushes and shrubs regenerated there, so species who could hide in them returned, bringing foxes and eagles to prey on them and so on. The denser vegetation held slopes and riverbanks together, cutting erosion and even altering the rivers themselves. George Monbiot narrates a revealing 5-minute video about all this.
The idea of re-introducing wolves to Scotland (the last was shot in Moray in 1762) is not new. The whole argument about rewilding has gone on for years. In 2002 Paul van Vlissingen funded a 3-year study on his Letterewe holdings. Scientists found that the population of 4,000 deer on the 80,000-acre estate was controlled by winter weather and competition for food, rather than the annual cull by stalkers and so was not well managed. He proposed the return of the wolf and lynx to control actual deer numbers and also help to Scotland’s tourist industry. As he said at the time:
“I think wolves and lynx would fit very well into areas of land managed for deer, In this century there are no known cases of anybody being eaten by wolves in Europe, and there are thousands of people living among wolves in Canada and US.”
Two years ago Paul Lister the MFI magnate took up the idea for his 23,000 acre Allandale estate west of Ardgay. After a study, he hopes to bring 10-12 wolves and a few bears back into a 50,000-acre enclosed wilderness reserve in 2016, Alladale being half the area he thinks the wolves require, which means he would need co-operation of neighbouring landowners. Nonetheless, he claims:
“A reserve could attract 20,000 visitors and include overnight accommodation for 80. Wolves and bears will introduce a huge attraction for Scotland’s tourism, especially in a region where livestock farming and deer stalking offer little in the way of employment,”
Not everyone is happy with the idea. Gamekeepers and hill walkers oppose it. Rob Gibson, SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, said: “He treats his land as a private kingdom and that goes against Scottish access laws“. Dave Morris, director of Ramblers Scotland, accused Lister of trying to create a massive zoo. “The restrictions on people’s right to roam and the damage to the landscape caused by fences and tracks would be too great“. Well known, self-confessed ‘mountain bum’ Cameron McNeish has tweeted his concerns that the area wolves require is so huge the reserve proposed is just a zoo.
Lister’s position is that he does not want to release the animals into the wild as humans have long forgotten how to live with them. Rather, he is trying to emulate South African game reserves to create “a thriving industry based on nature and wildlife”. Research has found 36% of Scots support the wolf being released in the wild, with 20% undecided. However, that means 44% oppose, with the percentage higher in the Highlands.
It is true that Yellowstone’s 2 million acres gives the wolves there unbridled freedom and dwarfs the 2.5% of that Lister is proposing. But wolves exist all across continental Europe; Sweden’s 175,000 sq miles hosts a population of around 300. In the US, Minnesota’s 87,000 sq miles house 3,000 wolves. Scotland’s smaller 30,000 sq miles is 2/3rds rough ground suitable for wolves, implying at least 30-35 wolves could be accommodated.
Not to ignore the concerns for hiker safety and animal welfare, it does seem radical action against the artificial bleakness that has long marred the Highlands is overdue. With diverse fauna—not just deer—to predate on, reintroduced wolves would pose the occasional threat to sheep farmers but none to humans. Their scary reputation from folk memory belies that they are shy and would naturally avoid both man and settlements.
But, as with Yellowstone, the ecological positives could be huge; deer are currently running riot and would be best managed naturally. The return of natural forest regrowth (not regiments of forestry commission conifers) would bring back a variety of mammals and rodents which, in turn, would boost predators like kites, eagles and foxes. And, rather than dun-coloured hills everywhere, such diversity could only add to the magical spells that the Highlands already weave over those who know and love them.