June 3, 2008

Re-Introducing Biodiversity In The Scottish Highlands

The efforts of one British businessman to re-introduce wolves and bears into his estate in the Scottish Highlands is raising concerns from some farmers and neighboring landowners.

Paul Lister, 49, the son of the founder of UK furniture retailer MFI, spent $31,630 buying a pair of moose in Sweden and flying them to Scotland. The moose, named Hulda and Hercules, currently roam Lister's 450-acre enclosure in the Alladale wilderness reserve alongside wild boar.

Lister hopes to restore the deforested area of the highlands to its former glory by bringing native species to his reserve so that he can charge people to visit.

"Alladale is about a restoration project, said Lister. "It's not about conservation -- we haven't got a lot to conserve."

Lister said that if predatory animals such as bears and wolves were introduced, business at his luxury eco-resort would increase tenfold. This would also add the need for 100 more jobs on the property, generating millions of dollars to the local economy.

Only around 1 percent of Scotland's native pinewoods remain, while many other habitats have been degraded or lost due to changes in climate and farming and forestry over the last 5,000 years or so, according to conservation charity Trees for Life.

"I am not just some crazed wolf man," he told Reuters.

Farmers, ramblers and neighboring landowners remain skeptical -- and the reintroduction of wolves would have many complex consequences. But conservationists and naturalists are fascinated by the experiment, which is costing Lister around 800,000 pounds a year in capital expenditure and making a further 100,000 pounds trading loss.

Researchers from Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit are conducting a three-year project on the reserve to determine the impact of boars and moose on bracken and new seedbeds for trees.

Even if Lister's plan doesn't fully take shape, the debate about restoration of the Scottish Highlands has begun to grow as a result.

"What he's doing is almost like a scientific experiment -- privately funded so it is no cost to the taxpayer -- to see what would happen if we re-wilded and restored parts of the old Caledonian forest in Scotland," said Richard Morley of the Wolves and Humans Foundation.

There are some in the science community who have reported evidence that Lister's plan would be effective.

Scientists from Norway and from Imperial College London found that wolves would help control the deer population, reducing the need for expensive culling and preventing overgrazing and the trampling of saplings.

"There is a feeling that we should demonstrate that we have changed and we can now live with an animal that was exterminated in the British Isles," Morley said.

Wolves once roamed freely among other wildlife in the Scottish Highlands, but were exterminated from south to north in the mid-18th century due to the threat they posed to nearby livestock.

"There is a historical character called the Wolf of Badenoch who was a highland clan chieftain who was a raider, a rampager. And although it is gone from living memory, there are lots of songs and poetry which talk about the wolf," said Iain Ross, a spokesman for the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government body in charge of conservation and restoration.

"Because it is a large carnivore and predator ... the reality of it is slightly different to something like the beaver which is a mild, woodland creature that would probably run away if you came upon it," he said.

One thing everyone will agree on is that the cost of such a project would be very high, and it would increase the demand for the government to provide compensation to farmers for livestock killed by the predatory animals.

Even Lister says that if he does overcome all the red tape and succeeds in releasing wolves onto his estate, he will have to have them neutered in order to control the population from getting out of hand.

Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and author of the book Animal Theology, says humans should "let nature be."

"Biodiversity has led people astray into thinking that we have a moral obligation to reintroduce every species that might once upon a time have lived in a particular place," he said.

"But ecology adapts -- it moves on, indeed it is constantly changing. There never was a place of perfect biodiversity, unless you believe in a literal Garden of Eden."


On the Net:

Alladale Wilderness Lodge and Reserve

Wolves and Humans Foundation

Tree Of Life