On page 3 of today’s Sunday Herald, there was a full page article headed “Call of the wild: millionaire has plans to bring wolves back to the Highlands” which is also available at the reporter Rob Edwards’ blog. The story is about the potential re-wilding of the Alladale estate, as proposed by the landowner Paul Lister. The main focus of the reintroduction is the wolf (which was hunted to extinction in Scotland centuries ago), but bears are also mentioned.
This is not an entirely new story. In 2008, I referred to Lister’s rewilding plans in an Edinburgh Law Review article about access rights under Part 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Some five years on, we are hearing more about his plans and an apparent feasibility study, due next year, to be followed by appropriate consultations with stakeholders.
Leaving the ecological considerations of re-wilding completely to one side (as interesting as the ecology is), there are many legal considerations for this scheme. I have touched on one, as did Rob Edwards, namely the right of responsible access to Scotland’s land that everyone enjoys. Access takers and landowners have mutual obligations under the Land Reform Act, with the key point for landowners being that they should not mendaciously curtail access taking. Sticking wolves or bears on 20,000 acres of the Gàidhealtachd then fencing that area off might just be classified by some as such a curtailment.
Two other legal considerations were not mentioned in Edwards’ piece. One relates to the regulation of zoos. If the scheme at Alladale were to involve fencing off an area then putting a re-introduced predator and prey in the same enclosure (as seems to be the plan), the relevant licensing authority may have some reservations about the wildlife reservation on animal welfare grounds.
What of the act of re-introduction itself? This is an area where Europe has been active, particularly where the re-introduced species is protected by European legislation (such as Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (aka the Habitats Directive)). Management then becomes an issue, especially when human involvement is needed to control populations, as can be seen with the Eurasian beaver. An SNH commissioned report (which involved colleagues from the Rural Law Research Group at the University of Aberdeen) considered this rather tricky point, noting that deviation from the special protection enshrined in EU law requires a formal derogation in compliance with Article 16 of the Habitats Directive. Why is this relevant to Alladale? Because Canis lupus (Grey Wolf) is so protected under Annex IV of the directive. My expertise in matters wolf is limited, but fortunately the second paragraph of Edwards’ piece clarifies that it is indeed Canis lupus that would be brought back to the Highlands “within the next three years.”
So, there is much the landowner in question and various other stakeholders to consider, and the three points I raise here by no means form an exhaustive list. My own tuppence worth? I first mentioned the Alladale scheme in an article five years ago, and nothing much has changed. I would be surprised if the “spine-tingling, moon-lit howl of wolves” that Edwards refers to will echo in Scotland within those three years. Then again, I am just being an obtuse lawyer about this, bringing problems rather than solutions. Perhaps the feasibility study mentioned and the future consultations will address all the points I have raised.
(One last aside. Edwards’ blog notes that “Research for this article included a two-day trip to Alladale in Sutherland funded by Paul Lister.” It seems the Sunday Herald makes no mention of this.)
UPDATE (28 October): The story has now been picked up by the BBC, with a little bit of input from yours truly.