The Scottish Highlands have been described as achingly beautiful, and I’d have to agree. In this vast wilderness, glens sit in ancient glacial valleys, striped by ribbons of rivers and enclosed by jagged mountain peaks.
But this lovely landscape could not be defined as “untouched.” The Highlands have a long human history, dating back more than 12,000 years when forests and a great diversity of wild animals and plants characterized the land. However, those small, long-ago settlements of people disappeared during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Highland Clearances forced the crofters (small-scale farmers) to flee in a mass eviction, making way for large landowners and the profitable introduction of sheep. Later, the sheep would be joined by thousands of red deer, to the delight of aristocratic hunters and shooting parties. The deer denuded the once-great forests, and something still wild but more barren emerged.
The Scottish government estimates that there are now approximately 400,000 red deer and 350,000 roe deer living in Scotland. Every year, a cull has to be held to reduce their numbers. But some, such as Englishman and Scottish resident Paul Lister, believe that reintroducing wolves to the Highlands could be the answer to the problem—and that it is possible to ensure that people who don’t want to cross paths with wolves won’t.
So why is the idea of wolf reintroduction causing such a stir?
Felling and farming: the human hand on the landscape
A few thousand years ago, the Highlands would have looked very different from how they appear to us today. Dense woodlands would have met your eye, interspersed with bogs, heaths and sparse, savanna-like terrain, all prowled by bears, lynx and wolves.
Fourteen thousand years ago, when Britain was still attached to the rest of Europe, the Highlands were being shaped by glaciers. Once the ice retreated, hardy trees, such as dwarf birches and willows, took hold. Scotland’s wild habitats began to flourish. Several thousand years ago, the tree cover was at its peak.
It’s thought that the first farmers arrived in the Highlands around 4,000 years ago. To make space for livestock, the heaths and pinewoods were burned. Trees were felled for fuel, and animal diversity decreased.
By the 18th century, native woodlands had reached an all-time low, with farmed sheep and rampant red deer dominating the landscape. To help bolster Britain’s timber supplies, a preference for planting fast-growing trees took hold.
Today, only 1 percent of the Highlands’ native pinewoods remain, and many of the region’s endemic species are long gone. Bears died out more than a thousand years ago. Official records indicate that the last Scottish wolf was killed in 1680 in Killiecrankie, a village in Perth and Kinross on the River Garry, but there are reports that wolves survived in Scotland up until the 18th century and may even have been seen as late as 1888.
Reintroducing wolves to the Scottish Highlands was first proposed in the late 1960s, but the idea only started to gain wider publicity and support following the reintroductions of red wolves to the southeastern United States in 1987 and gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
Looking for inspiration: Yellowstone
A single pack of wolves was reintroduced into Yellowstone in the mid-1990s in response to the way that huge numbers of deer and elk had overgrazed large parts of the natural landscape. The wolves had dramatic, positive impacts on the environment, leading to one of the most remarkable ecological turnabouts in the modern world. Known as a trophic cascade, it’s the process by which the activity of an apex predator at the top of the food chain eventually stimulates the growth of several other animal species and enriches biodiversity.
Now, decades later, a collective of conservationists—including Paul Lister—wants to try a limited version of that experiment in the Scottish Highlands.
Sixteen years ago, Lister bought a 23,000-acre estate in the central Highlands northwest of Inverness. He named it the Alladale Wilderness Reserve and began reviving it. He planted more than 900,000 trees, which boosted the native red squirrel population. He restored the peatlands, created a Scottish wildcat habitat, took measures to protect salmon in the streams and prohibited hunting. But he still faced a big problem: a booming red deer population, with virtually no predator to control its numbers, was grazing the replanting effort to death, eating the young tree shoots before they could reach maturity.
That’s where the wolves come in—if Lister gets permission to bring them over from Sweden. What he proposes is to build a fence around his reserve, release two packs of six European gray wolves into it and let them regenerate the landscape. The wolves wouldn’t wipe out the deer; they might only take a few dozen each year. But more importantly, they would keep the deer moving, and that would give the young trees a chance to survive, mature and start casting their seeds.
But as happened with the Yellowstone project, he’s running into some strong opposition.
Resisting: the right to roam and fence fears
While people tend to readily see the benefits of more trees, forests and natural landscapes, fencing off the area has been met with some resistance by hikers who cite Scotland’s right-to-roam laws, enacted in 2003, that state that anyone can access any land, regardless if it is privately owned or not.
Livestock farmers have their own objections. They worry that escaped wolves will attack and kill their lambs and sheep. Others argue that the job of reintroducing large predators should only be done by the Scottish Natural Heritage, the government organization responsible for wildlife and habitats—not a private landowner with possible commercial interests.
In response to critics, Lister admits that he does intend to charge tourists to see his wolf-populated wilderness reserve. But the increased traffic, he insists, would provide a strong boost to local village economies. Currently, the region only gets about 1,000 hikers and ramblers per year. If his plan comes to fruition, he believes that more than 10 times that number of people would visit. Wolf-related tourism, such as what Yellowstone National Park experiences, could bring millions of dollars to the remote and rural upland regions of the Scottish Highlands.
To placate farmers, Lister says all the wolves would be tagged and satellite-tracked, so if one escaped it would quickly be captured and returned to the reserve.
As for the fences, they are a common but unpopular tool in biodiversity conservation and would ideally be avoided. Because of them, Alladale would have to instate the human management necessary to help mitigate risks such as inbreeding, which famously and catastrophically depleted the health of the wolf packs in Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Also, the fence would need to be constructed with regard for minimizing potential negative impacts on birds in flight and the movements of other animal species.
But where there are conflicting interests, compromise is needed. Fences do constrain animal dispersal, but since Britain is an island, this is less of a problem. And restricting the freedom of the wolves would allow denser populations of the animals to build up, which would make them more efficient at hunting deer. Fences would also limit wolf encounters with local residents and farm animals.
Some researchers are excited for this next step of taking such a rewilding proposal out of the computer simulation stage and putting into actual practice in the wild. By creating a reserve, reintroducing wolves, and closely monitoring them and the system, we might find out—perhaps counterintuitively—that barriers in some form (such as fences) might have a more important role to play in establishing modern wild areas than previously thought.
Creating: making one more wild patch
Any proposal for wolf reintroduction to Scotland would have to be approved by the Scottish Natural Heritage. The signs are good: agriculture in Scotland, particularly sheep farming, has changed. In 2005, subsidies based on production—where farmers and crofters received payment per head of cattle or sheep—were replaced by Single Farm Payments. That means that farms and crofts are now given a subsidy regardless of whether livestock are grazed or crops are grown. This revision, coupled with incentives such as the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme, which provides grants for restoring native woodlands, could result in sheep being replaced by forests in the future, thus increasing suitable habitat for both predators and their prey.
Lister recognizes that in 21st-century Scotland, reintroducing wolves on a broad scale would not be feasible. But since wolves are in every country in Europe except for Great Britain, he feels it’s a duty to bring them back. A fenced reserve could be the only opportunity to return large predators here—and ecologically restore a large part of the Scottish Highlands while promoting tourism.
While Lister’s aspirational wolf patch would only be a tiny fraction of the size of the sprawling Yellowstone, it, too, could be the scene for a story of healing and restoration that is admired worldwide.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,