ALLADALE (Reuters) - The howl of a wolf echoes through the glen, lumbering bears fish in the lochs and moose amble through the pine forest -- this is multi-millionaire Paul Lister's vision for his estate in the Scottish Highlands, and his grand scheme is already underway.
Last year, the British businessman spent 16,000 pounds buying a pair of moose in Sweden and flying them to Scotland in a chartered plane.
Hulda and Hercules now roam a bracken and heather-carpeted 180-hectare enclosure in the Alladale wilderness reserve, alongside newly released wild boar.
His aim is both to restore a section of the deforested and depopulated highlands to its former glory by releasing once native species into his vast Alladale wilderness reserve, and to turn a profit by charging people to visit.
"Alladale is about a restoration project, said Lister, 49, the son of the founder of UK furniture retailer MFI. "It's not about conservation -- we haven't got a lot to conserve."
Only around 1 percent of Scotland's native pinewoods remain, while many other habitats have been degraded or lost due to changes in climate and farming and forestry over the last 5,000 years or so, according to conservation charity Trees for Life.
Lister believes if bears and wolves were introduced, business at his luxury eco-resort would increase tenfold, thereby creating 100 jobs on the estate, generating 7 million pounds a year and revitalising the local economy.
"I am not just some crazed wolf man," he told Reuters.
Farmers, ramblers and neighbouring landowners remain sceptical -- and the reintroduction of wolves would have many complex consequences. But conservationists and naturalists are fascinated by the experiment, which is costing Lister around 800,000 pounds a year in capital expenditure and making a further 100,000 pounds trading loss.
Scientists from Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit are carrying out a three-year project on the reserve, trying to monitor the impact of the boars and moose on bracken and new seedbeds for trees.
WOLF DEBATE AND LEGEND
"What he's doing is almost like a scientific experiment -- privately funded so it is no cost to the taxpayer -- to see what would happen if we re-wilded and restored parts of the old Caledonian forest in Scotland," said Richard Morley of the Wolves and Humans Foundation.
Even if Lister is not able to see all his plans through, he has ignited a public debate about the restoration of the Scottish Highlands and the reintroduction of wolves.
An academic report published last year lent credibility to Lister's plan: scientists from Norway and from Imperial College London found that wolves would help control the deer population, reducing the need for expensive culling and preventing overgrazing and the trampling of saplings.
Morley said interest in wolf reintroduction had surged since the 1960s, as people became more concerned about the environment and saw conservation efforts abroad.
"There is a feeling that we should demonstrate that we have changed and we can now live with an animal that was exterminated in the British Isles," he said.
Wolves were once common in Britain, but as a large predator and threat to livestock, were steadily exterminated from south to north, with the last wolves said to have perished in the Scottish Highlands in the mid-18th century.
The wolf is still tied up with Highlands folklore, said Iain Ross, a spokesman for the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government body in charge of conservation and restoration.
"There is a historical character called the Wolf of Badenoch who was a highland clan chieftain who was a raider, a rampager. And although it is gone from living memory, there are lots of songs and poetry which talk about the wolf," he said.
Ross said there were many people making a vocal case for the reintroduction of wolves but it was not a priority for the SNH, whose many other projects underway include a proposed reintroduction of the beaver.
"Because it is a large carnivore and predator ... the reality of it is slightly different to something like the beaver which is a mild, woodland creature that would probably run away if you came upon it," he said.
Everyone agrees that managing the reintroduction of wolves would be complicated and costly. The government would need to provide compensation to farmers for killed livestock, and it would have to carefully monitor the wolf population which can multiply and spread rapidly.
Even Lister says that if he does overcome all the red tape and succeeds in releasing wolves onto his estate, he will have to have them neutered.
Others suggest the whole idea of recreating primitive natural habitats is misguided. Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and author of the book Animal Theology, says humans should just "let nature be".
"Biodiversity has led people astray into thinking that we have a moral obligation to reintroduce every species that might once upon a time have lived in a particular place," he said.
"But ecology adapts -- it moves on, indeed it is constantly changing. There never was a place of perfect biodiversity, unless you believe in a literal Garden of Eden."
(Editing by Jon Boyle and Sara Ledwith)
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