Before Paul Lister purchased 23,000 acres in the Scottish Highlands and transformed it into one of the most stunning travel destinations in Europe today, the property was intended for a very different kind of guest.
“The owner of Alladale bought this estate in 2003 really with the purpose of bringing back wolves to the Highlands,” shares Alladale Wilderness Reserve’s general manager, Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen. “The idea is if we bring back apex predators like wolves, we will have a trophic cascade effect, which will in turn lead to more biodiversity and natural regeneration of the plants.”
Yellowstone National Park famously saw its entire landscape revitalized after reintroducing wolves to the area for the first time in over 70 years. Overpopulated species like deer finally saw reduced numbers. With fewer deer, native plants once decimated by the habitual grazers began to regenerate. The physical landscape changed soon after. Trees quintupled in height, streams and rivers grew in size, and beavers appeared in larger numbers, creating habitats for other creatures. In short, a broken ecosystem was able to thrive once again. That’s the power of a keystone species.
Rewilding Scotland, Step 1: Bringing Back Apex Predators
Alladale hopes to achieve similar success through rewilding the Scotland Highlands. In ecology, rewilding is the process of reintroducing lost or threatened species back into their native environments with the ultimate goal of restoring the ecosystem to its former glory. “But to bring back wolves, that doesn’t happen overnight,” Groenhuijsen reveals. He’s not wrong. Rewilding is one of the most complex facets of restoration ecology, often requiring a tremendous sum of time, resources, and state approval. On top of these challenges, ecologists and conservationists must also contend with government opposition and public misinformation, particularly when it comes to reintroducing apex predators like the wolf. “A common misconception that I encounter is that rewilding means without humans. It’s really the opposite,” Groenhuijsen clarifies. “Rewilding is about humans. It starts with us. It’s a change of mindset. It’s about coexistence and reassessing our place among nature, as guardians, as safekeepers, and our imbalance with nature.”
With every successful animal reintroduction and habitat restoration, Alladale demonstrates that environmental stewardship and hospitality are not mutually exclusive. As Groenhuijsen shares, “The hospitality side of Alladale really funds the whole operational costs of our rewilding efforts.” But to restore the Highlands is not a simple task, especially at such a tremendous scale.
“You have to understand that the Highlands are among the most damaged landscapes in the world,” says Groenhuijsen. “If you clear-fell the Amazon or Borneo, this is what you would have left: a beautiful landscape, but completely barren mountains and hill ranges that are ecological dead zones really.” What was once a lush forest the Romans dubbed “The Great Wood of Caledon” was destroyed by clear-cutting and hunting over millennia. In turn, sweeping valleys and glens became grazing pastures for herds of livestock and an overrun deer population. Only one percent of the original forest remains today – making Alladale’s goal of rewilding Scotland such a timely intervention.
Centuries later, Alladale and its dedicated staff are undoing the damage done by previous generations. So far, the team has implemented a number of impressive projects over the last 15 years. These include the reintroduction of the red squirrel, the restoration of damaged peatlands, and the planting of nearly one million native trees.
Bringing The Scottish Wildcat Home
Alladale’s goal of rewilding Scotland does not stop with repopulating wolves. Of late, the reserve has been busy aiding the recovery of the elusive Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia). Among the species’ biggest threats are habitat destruction, human persecution, and most notably, interbreeding with domestic cats. The hybridization of the species has made it notoriously difficult for scientists to know exactly how many purebreds remain, though they estimate only between 100 and 300 individuals are left, making it one of the rarest feline species in the world. As few as 30 wildcats remain in Scotland.
With the help of Saving Wildcats and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), of which Alladale is both a member and a partner, the reserve launched a captive breeding program to bring back the species. The project’s ultimate goal is release once appropriate preparations have been made. “We’ve got two breeding pairs here on site; two males, two females in various enclosures that are not accessible to our guests, or the general public,” Groenhuijsen discloses. “The idea is with a good stock of captive cats that still have a high percentage of wildcat DNA, we can slowly bring back hopefully the purest form of wildcat one day.”
The feline is currently classified as “threatened” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. However, it is believed the species may actually be considered critically endangered given a lack of available data on its precise population size. This makes Alladale’s efforts of rewilding Scotland that much more crucial to the species’ long-term survival. The reserve’s current breeding program has been a significant step in growing the animal’s numbers in the wild. July of 2018 saw the birth of two kittens, the female’s first litter. Three more were born in 2019 and 2020.
After the kittens are born, they are then relocated to other breeding facilities. RZSS has even constructed its very own breed-for-release center, which now homes one of the female kittens. The very first litter is expected to be released into the wild of Cairngorms National Park next year. Groenhuijsen is hopeful Alladale may too accommodate the wildcats one day. “We’re getting surveys done if Alladale is suitable for the release of cats as well. It really looks like it is as Alladale is a big place, 23,000 acres. We’re quite high up North here in the Highlands. Even our neighbors don’t see a lot of traffic or people, so there’s opportunity for this project.”
In addition to the wildcat breeding program, Alladale is currently involved in a number of other environmental initiatives. These include a zero-waste aquaponics garden, a camera trap project, a project involving geotagging Atlantic salmon, and an education program for local school children called HOWL, short for Highland Outdoor Wilderness Learning. Despite this long list of impressive ecological endeavors, Alladale is always looking to do more, especially now. Just this year the Idaho senate approved a bill to kill 90 percent of the state’s wolf population. This devastating development serves as yet another reminder of the significance of Alladale’s work and the threats they face in rewilding Scotland.
So what is the greatest threat to the Highlands’ ecosystem? “Leaving things as they are,” Groenhuijsen bares. Restoration projects often take years—some decades or even lifetimes to complete. Having patience when it comes to something as urgent as the climate crisis can be difficult at times, but knowing that their actions have made an impact is enough of a reward for the likes of Groenhuijsen. “We’d like to see results, but this is a legacy project. It’s for future generations. We don’t see a mature forest here now. We planted almost a million trees so far. We want to see them when they’re mature, but it’s not for us.”