Whose country is it anyway? Part 3: Rewilders, ramblers and very rich people

In the final part of my series looking at the British countryside, we see how Scotland is taking a different path to the rest fo the kingdom

Eying an opportunity: Scottish wildcats at Alladale

The Alladale Estate lies in a Highlands valley north of Inverness, halfway between Ullapool on the west coast and Dornoch on the east. It’s a fairly remote place, set in low hills with a fine 19th century granite-walled mansion rising from thick woods at its heart. You can stay in the house or rent one of the luxury lodges nearby.

It’s not the grandest house, not the most dramatic scenery, nor the most magical setting in the region. But it’s probably the most interesting place I've been to in the Highlands.

What’s interesting about Alladale is less about what it is now – more what it will be in in 10, 20 or 50 years.

Owner Paul Lister is almost two decades into a rewilding project on the estate he invested part of his family fortune in. There are much more ambitious rewilding projects in the Highlands on lands owned by much richer people, but Alladale has got the most headlines and controversy. It started when Lister announced his dream to reintroduce apex predators back to Scotland. You can see a couple of them as you drive up to the house – wolves. These ones are cast-iron sculptures. But he is serious about bringing flesh-and-blood wolves, as well as lynx, bears and other species back to a land, centuries after humans chased them to extinction. 

You can imagine how well this has gone down with the neighbours, especially the ones with sheep farms. Wolves in the Highlands? ‘It’d be like introducing a killer whale to a swimming pool,’ said one gamekeeper.

Alladale is a quintessential Highlands landscape. Bare mountainsides dotted with pine forests, winding valleys fringed with heather and gorse, empty, single track roads through limitless moors where deer roam free. Yet this seeming wilderness, as we discussed in Part 1, is very much a human-made environment. And now, in one of those ironies you get in the British countryside, it’s taking humans to restore it to something like its natural state. Lister and his team are planting 940,000 trees, the majority Scotch pine, but also rowan, birch and juniper in their romantic attempt to recreate the ancient Caledonian Forest.

The trees are dwarves at present. When fully grown, they’ll provide ample cover for the Eurasian lynx, grey wolf, elk, wild boar and brown bear Lister hopes will roam the land again one day. For now, the species that have already make a successful return to Alladale are less of a worry to the gamekeepers and farmers: red squirrels and (safely kept in a large enclosure) Scottish wildcats.

But for the trees to recover, they need to keep the deer out. Should the predators return (that’s a big ‘should’) they’ll keep the deer numbers down and, more importantly, keep them on the move and prevent overgrazing.

For now, there are fences. Should they also keep out another species of nuisance – people?

D’ye ken John Smith?

John Smith (centre) with his wife and daughters. Sarah (far left) is now the BBC’s Scotland editor

In the second part of this series, I wrote about the role Tony Blair’s government played in reshaping the nature of the countryside with the foxhunting bill. But the legacy of his predecessor as Labour Party leader is just as significant.

The Right Honourable John Smith did not live to become Prime Minister. He died of a heart attack in 1995. In the years before, he had discovered a big appetite for walking the Scottish mountains – or ‘Munro Bagging’ as it’s known. What started as a bid to get healthy became a passion. But like many ramblers, he was frustrated by the fences and signs that kept walkers from walking through their native land.

In 2003, a year after the Countryside Alliance took to the streets of London (also covered in the last blog) the devolved Scottish government – a Labour administration dominated by John Smith’s political peers and soulmates – passed The Land Reform (Scotland) Act. It thus became the first and still, to this day, the only part of the United Kingdom to enshrine what’s become known as the Right to Roam in law.

It became known as ‘the John Smith memorial bill’.

What was a significant day for walkers and everyone else who lives in and visits the countryside also presaged a profound cultural shift for Scotland.

Right to Roam is very much a Northern European phenomenon. In Scandinavia, allemansrätten (‘everyone’s right’ in Swedish) is a historic social contract. Versions of it are now law in the other Scandinavian countries, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Austria. England, as we’ve seen, is subjected to constant border skirmishes between walkers, farmers and landowners. Ireland, North and South, according to one pressure group, has ‘the most regressive and restrictive access legislation in Europe’.

Scotland, governed (as far as devolution allows it to be governed ) by a seemingly unassailable independence party, sees its future as part of a band of progressive small Northern nations. You can see that in its politics, and even in the rise of the architecture and design style known as Scandi-Scot.

The Alladale people paused their plans to reintroduce species, because right to roam meant they couldn’t keep people out and safely away from those species equipped with big teeth.

I asked Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen, Alladale’s general manager what happened:

When Paul [Lister] bought Alladale in 2003, his intention was to see a controlled release of wolves within a fenced area of roughly 50,000 acres. The Freedom to Roam Act put a stop to Paul's plan at the time, as the Rambler's association objected to the construction of a fence that would obstruct free access to Alladale. 

I cannot speak on behalf of other estates, of course, but I can speak on behalf of our team and say that the Freedom to Roam Act is a wonderful thing and quite unique in the world. But we collectively have to discuss to what extent this act should apply when it comes to matters as coexistence and rewilding/ecosystem restoration. Apex predators are part of our world, and much needed in keeping ecosystems in balance. And the balance of nature is well off. 

Dare we challenge access for all everywhere, to the benefit of nature, which in turn is to the benefit of us all? 

I'm biased, as I'm Dutch, but I am extremely proud to come from a country where wolves now permanently live. In a delta filled with 17 million people, 41,513KM2 in size. Compare that to Scotland: 77,910KM2, and a population of 5.1M. 

It is time to put the Big Bad Wolf syndrome to bed, and acknowledge that our knowledge and public opinions have changed. This map on page of 47 of last year's State of Nature report from the EU speaks volumes about the UK as a whole. Not wanting to reassess the state of nature in the UK and openly and widely consider bringing back apex predators has become a moral issue. It's called a climate and biodiversity emergency for a reason. By default, it demands from us all to act. Not just call for change, but actively act on changing everything we thought we still had time to reevaluate. 

Not all progressive causes travel in the same direction.

Saturday, March 20 is the first Global Rewilding Day. See more here.

Heading to a better place

In this short series, I’ve touched on the historic, cultural and political forces that shape Britain’s urban environment. The current government has an historic opportunity to make a better countryside for all. It will be a huge achievement if so, because more than almost any other political party, the Conservatives remain the party of landowners, big business and, well, conservatism. It will take a formidable act of imagination as well as persuasion for them to embrace movements like Right to Roam and rewilding.

They can start with farming: by turning their fine – if vague – words about reversing the environmental damage caused by decades of European policy, the growth of mega agri-businesses and the voracious demands of supermarkets.

And they can invest in making our country a greener and more pleasant land for visitors by investing in rural tourism and the ancient and modern pathways that criss-cross the land.

This is a travel blog. The British countryside is the place I love most in the world. I want people from everywhere to share it.

Samuel Palmer (1805-81): Dandelions

Envy Corner: Robert Macfarlane

A travel editor friend asked me whose travel books I’m most enjoying at the moment. That’s an easy one: Robert Macfarlane’s.

Macfarlane isn’t just a writer to be spoken of in the same breath as great contemporary British travel writers like Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban: he’s also a worthy successor of William Cobbett, Edward Thomas and Nan Shepherd as an explorer within his own land. Macfarlane combines wide and deep reading with an indefatigable appetite for getting stuck in: climbing the trees, crossing the bogs, plunging into the mountain streams.

In my arrogance, I often read travel books and think, ‘fine, great, but I could do that’. Not with this writer: on almost every page Macfarlane describes something in a way you think, now that hasn’t been tried before.

He is also an eloquent campaigner to rewild not just the landscape but the language. His Twitter feed is a great place to forage around in.

Macfarlane’s books: If I were you, I’d start here

Songs that take you places

Me and the Farmer

The Housemartins

The Housemartins were a tuneful post-punk band from Hull who did all right in the late Eighties and early Nineties, before bits of them broke off and became properly successful as The Beautiful South and Fatboy Slim. I love their songs: bitter-sweet social commentary and politics wrapped up in a sound and an image that owed as much to Freddie and the Dreamers as The Clash.

Their stock narrative is a young lad taking on the world, unsuccessfully in the main, in the form of businessmen, builders, bosses and, here – farmers.

Having just had a call from our charming local farmer, I know how they feel. Hand and blister.

The full Marklands playlist is here.

Let’s give the last word to a farmer

Without being rude about it, they [farmers] don’t have a very good understanding of wildlife and nature at all. The first response is generally to have a good whine and make up reasons for not doing something which are based on fantasy rather than fact. I think there’s a lot of growing up to do there. And the realisation that it’s not all just about farming. We’ve had 70 years of farm subsidies. Those are ending now. We’ve got to forge a new future and a new landscape. And that’s going to mean compromise and the restoration of species we exterminated.

Derek Gow speaking about his decision to reintroduce lynx to his Devon farm on Farming Today (BBC Radio Four)

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