An alternative to Alladale
Might independence be a necessary precursor to the reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish hills? This week's post discusses deer management, re-wilding, access and land reform.
Monday brought the dismaying news that the local licensing committee have renewed Paul Lister's license to keep 17 wild boar and 2 elk in a fenced enclosure on his Alladale Estate. It would be better if they had nipped this misguided enterprise in the bud, for if Lister gets his way far worse is to come. He is widely expected to submit an application for a zoo license in February. If this application is successful he would erect a fence around part of his estate, imprisoning an unspecified number of wolves and frustrating the access rights of a far larger number of hillgoers. Thankfully the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) have announced their intention to protest this proposed infringement of our access rights.
An elk near Jasper, Canada. This isn't the type of elk that Lister keeps in his enclosure at Alladale - they are European Elk, the same as Canadian Moose. Is that clear?
Like the MCofS, I object strongly to Lister's proposals. I am, however, in favour of reintroductions and re-wilding in general and would not be surprised if history records Lister as a visionary, albeit a misguided one. The recent reintroduction of beavers to Knapdale demonstrates that such exercises can be successful. Watching a documentary about wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone some years ago opened my eyes to the potential benefits that a similar exercise may confer to the Scottish hills. Within a few years of reintroduction there was a marked change in Yellowstone's vegetation. In the absence of predators, grazing animals eat everything in their path; throw a few wolves into the mix and they have to stay on the move. The result is that trees start to grow beside rivers and other water sources, creating habitat for other wildlife as they do so. While I'm in favour of beavers and wolves, I would draw the line at bears. See this previous post for an account of an unsettling bear encounter!
There can be no doubt that significant environmental degradation is being caused at present through overstocking of red deer. In principle deer numbers are kept in check by deer management groups. In practice the brutes are actually fed during the winter on some highland estates. On a winter walk in the upper reaches of Strathconon a couple of years ago I saw red deer filling their bellies with baled silage while surrounded by dying birch and alder, the bark of which had been stripped by the same hungry deer. An electrified wire lay impotent on the ground, a half-hearted attempt to prevent the deer from killing the few remaining trees,
[I have noticed that silage and slurry are often confused in popular imagination so I will clarify. Silage is fermented grass which is used as winter feed - a nice silage is sweet and rather tasty, even to humans. Slurry is liquid dung, used as a fertiliser. I don't know what it tastes like but it smells awful.]
In Glenfinnan one April I got close enough to a stag to throw a playful stone or two in its direction. The animal stood calmly as my first few shots landed in the mud at its feet. It scampered off only after I managed to land one squarely on its rump. It makes me to laugh to think of fat Germans and Americans paying a fortune to stalk and shoot these animals, many of which have been rendered practically tame by winter feeding. I imagine the deerstalker, eager for a tip, praising the hunters on their stealth as they crawl towards the beasts, whispering that they have never before managed to get so close to a stag. When one considers the detrimental effect of overstocking and the fact that these buffoons have in many instances been Range Rovered to the hunt on tracks paid for by the public purse, crying might be a more appropriate reaction.
I'm in favour of species reintroductions in general but I would draw the line at bears - too much nuisance value. I photographed this one in Yosemite.
The reason that Lister will need to lock his wolves away behind a fence is because one estate is not sufficiently large to provide adequate habitat for a pack of wolves. On a BBC documentary broadcast in 2008 Lister advanced the view that co-operation between the owners of neighbouring sporting estates would be necessary to create wolf habitats of sufficient size.
I'd maintain that we'll never see wolves being introduced without land reform; action on an almost country wide level would be required to create the required habitat. Specifically, we would need to nationalise the sporting estates and convert them into National Parks along the lines of the North American model. It fundamentally wrong that anyone with sufficient funds can buy up large tracts of what should by rights be protected land. It is easy to turn a blind eye to this injustice so long as we have free access, but Lister's current small enclosure, and his proposal to extend it, demonstrates how easily such access rights can be derailed.
The current arrangement, that of deer management funded by income provided by wealthy sportsmen, is one that primarily benefits the landowners. I contend that the contribution of sporting interests to the rural economy is consistently overstated and that the establishment of National Parks would bring far more economic benefit and local employment.
Having given the matter some thought I have taken the position that Scottish independence is a necessary precursor to such land reform; I simply cannot believe that a Westminster government would ever endorse the wholesale nationalisation of the sporting estates. By inference, independence is then also a necessary precursor to the re-introduction of wolves to the Scottish hills with all the attendant benefits to the ecosystem as a whole.
It is ironic that voting for the SNP may be the only currently available option that would allow us to move towards the necessary land ownership reforms. Given the current SNP government's shameful conduct over Donald Trump's golf / housing development on the Menie Estate, I fear they may be more likely to side with Lister and his absurd zoo proposal than with the MCofS and the interests of hillgoers.
I was guilty of repeating some dodgy figures in the original version of this post - this BBC link gives the areas as:
520 acres - size of existing enclosure
23,000 acres - size of Alladale estate
50,000 acres - proposed future wolf area comprised of Alladale estate and neighbouring land.