There are moose loose about the hills, and they’re causing a stir.
The Alladale elk
A pair of European elk, also known as moose, is now at large on the Alladale estate of latter-day laird Paul Lister – and more wildlife could follow if the controversial furniture heir has his way. He wants to fence-off 50,000 acres (20, 200 ha) of wild Highland estate to allow lynx, brown bears and wolves to roam, and feast on prey such as the elk.
His plans have sparked alarm and outrage from farmers, walkers and mountaineers. Farmers fear his wild animals will escape to wreak havoc on their stock; walkers and mountaineers point out that Alladale is covered by the Scottish right-to-roam law and attempting to exclude the public from prime wilderness would be the biggest challenge yet to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which many viewed as one of the proudest acts of the newly formed Scottish administration.
An insight into the maverick conservationist can be gained tomorrow when BBC 2 screens a Natural World programme on his plans. He told the BBC: “When you have radical ideas like this, people think you're a crackpot.
“What I’m aiming is to create a wilderness and wildlife reserve similar to those that exist in southern Africa; something that is controlled, managed and fenced.”
What he might add is: one which will bring in the tourist cash. Opponents of Mr Lister’s scheme say visitors to the estate would be charged thousands of pounds for the privilege of entering land which can now be crossed freely, camped upon and climbed on.
The male and female elk on the Scottish estate
Mr Lister faces many obstacles in his quest, including a determined access lobby backed by the Ramblers’ Association in Scotland, which is angry at the trend among rich landowners who move on to estates and quickly find a desire to banish the public from their land.
The RA said: “Our main worry is that, if this development went ahead, it would set a precedent for other landowners to stock their estates with a few wild animals and then put a fence around the whole area.
“We continue to take an interest in this project.”
Last year, RA director Dave Morris and journalist and campaigner Cameron McNeish met Mr Lister to discuss his plans. Because his own estate, at 23,000 acres (9,300 ha), is too small to sustain even a single pack of wolves, it would need enlarging to 50,000 (20,200 ha) acres and would be encircled by a 3m (10 ft) fence. Even then, the area may not be viable as a habitat for wolves.
Timothy Coulson, professor of population biology at Imperial College London, applauds Mr Lister’s enthusiasm and commitment to the project but has his doubts about the suitability of the estate as a habitat for wolves.
He said: “The proposed area for the reserve is too small to viably support, in the long run, an ecosystem containing large predators.”
Any fenced nature reserve at Alladale would be legally classed as a zoo. A further difficulty is that the law does not permit predators and their prey to be housed together in a zoo.
The two elk, which were flown in from Sweden, are currently kept in a 450-acre (180 ha) enclosure on the estate. He has also introduced wild boar to Alladale and planted native species such as Scots pine, juniper, hazel and birch.
Mr Lister is confident that his plans will come to fruition. He hopes to have his Highland wildlife park set up within five years, despite the various individuals and bodies lined up against him.
Mr Lister’s father set up the MFI furniture chain. He closed the Alladale bothy, on the estate near Croich north-west of Tain, in November last year. It had been run by the Mountain Bothies Association since 1972, offering shelter for walkers and mountaineers. Mr Lister converted it into accommodation for paying guests.
A night at the Alladale Lodge costs £3,500 per night, for sole occupancy in the high season.
BBC camera crews followed the millionaire to produce Moose in the Glen, which will be shown tomorrow, 16 April at 8pm on BBC 2.