‘It isn’t about the number of sporting stags but how beautiful the landscape is’

The following article was originally published on The Times https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/it-isnt-about-the-number-of-sporting-stags-but-how-beautiful-the-landscape-is-6pvl0g6mt

Thomas MacDonell sold the idea of reforesting the Cairngorms to a Danish billionaire

Thomas MacDonell sold the idea of reforesting the Cairngorms to a Danish billionaire    JAMES GLOSSOP/THE TIMES

The guide brings his 4×4 to within 500 metres of an eyrie on a Highland estate. Obligingly, a golden eagle soars up from the crag.

This is Glenfeshie, the estate in the Cairngorm mountains purchased in 2006 by Anders Holch Povlsen, the Danish clothing billionaire, and behind the wheel is Thomas MacDonell, who is driving his boss’s vision for the land.

Since his first investment in Scotland Mr Povlsen has acquired 12 more Highland properties as well as the 17th-century Aldourie Castle on the banks of Loch Ness. The total area amounts to 220,000 acres, just 2,000 acres fewer than the Duke of Buccleuch, the largest private landowner in Scotland.

The Glenfeshie estate is one of many earmarked for rehabilitation

The Glenfeshie estate is one of many earmarked for rehabilitation JAMES GLOSSOP/THE TIMES

If the numbers are eye-catching, the philosophy behind these purchases is extraordinary. Under the banner of Wildland Ltd, his company, Mr Povlsen, 45, is engaged on a 200-year mission to bring a “natural balance” to a vast swathe of the Highland landscape. To help fund his vision he intends to attract many more tourists wanting to stay in luxury lodges and cottages on his land — and willing to pay handsomely for the privilege.

This is “cathedral thinking”, according to Mr MacDonell, the goal being a rehabilitated Caledonian forest that none of its architects will live to see brought to fruition.

The policy has been fostered from the start by Mr MacDonell. He is the force behind the ruthless control of red deer, whose numbers have grown unnaturally large to serve shooting estates. In a single year, 1,407 deer were shot at Glenfeshie, although typically 600 to 700 are killed annually. Because the animals no longer graze at the forest margins, indigenous plants flourish along with the birds and mammals they support.

The first signs of success are all around us: the delicate purple branches of the birch trees in the hillside gorges, the birch and pine saplings along the floodplain and, even in winter, the sight and sound of abundant birdlife.

“For us, and I mean Anders and me, it isn’t to do with the number of sporting stags, it is simply how beautiful it is,” Mr MacDonell said.

Glenfeshie is part of Cairngorms Connect, which at 148,000 acres is the biggest habitat restoration project in the UK, backed by the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission. In Mr MacDonell’s words, “ecological rehabilitation is what we are about”.

The same attitude applies throughout the Wildland estate. The company has gone on to buy six holdings in northwest Sutherland: Ben Loyal, Kinloch, Ben Hope, Strathmore, Eriboll and Polla.

The plan, Mr MacDonell said, is to invest up to £100 million in the region, developing a small suite of luxury properties for rich international tourists drawn by the majesty of the landscape and the quality of the visitor experience. Killiehuntly, the farmhouse on a small neighbouring estate, has been given a Scandinavian-style makeover by Anne Storm Pedersen, Mr Povlsen’s partner. The Financial Times lists rooms from £280 a night.

“Rather than being elitist, we are simply delivering at the high end,” Mr MacDonell said. “The reason people will come here — rather than, say, Patagonia — is because there are fabulous properties within a fantastic landscape. We want people to feel they’ve had a great experience and tell their friends.” If all goes to plan, these visitors will help to fund the landscape’s rehabilitation.

“I don’t think Mr Povlsen or any of the 400 significant landowners in Scotland really own the land,” Mr MacDonell said. “They have the land certificate but are custodians. The land remains with the Scottish people. That is my own Highland feeling. Anybody can enjoy visiting the land we are restoring.”

Mr MacDonell, 52, moved from Inverness to Glenfeshie when he was a boy. After school he spent 20 years in a fencing business with his brother, often contracted to the Nature Conservancy Council, the precursor of Scottish National Heritage, planting fences to prevent red deer from destroying woodland.

He had an epiphany when early one morning he found a herd of about 100 stags lying, starving, against a fence he had put up. The natural order and the commercial world of shooting estates were, he realised, out of alignment.

He went on to work at Glenfeshie for two former owners (both Scandinavians) before he gave Mr Povlsen a tour of the 43,000-acre estate. As they travelled the forest tracks and river crossings, Mr MacDonell described a vision for rehabilitation that struck a chord with the Dane. Mr Povlsen is also said to have been inspired by the late Doug Tompkins, founder of the North Face outdoors company, who preserved more than two million acres in Argentina and Chile by buying them and donating them as national parks.

Mr MacDonell’s philosophy is not beloved by all in the Highlands. Traditional shooting estates have protested angrily about Wildland’s culls of red deer. Some critics accuse the company of abandoning hill farming.

It is all nonsense, according to Mr MacDonell. Employment has increased on all Wildland estates, apart from Braeroy, in Lochaber, and in total the company employs 55 people.

Other local hotels and B&Bs will benefit from wildlife and hiking tourism, encouraged by initiatives such as Cairngorms Connect, he said, adding that hill farming did not make economic sense and that the “traditional” Victorian hunting estate is at odds with the restoration of the landscape.

Wildland still offers shooting, however, though it is stalking “as it should be”, according to Mr MacDonell: a one or two-day hike with knowledgeable guides to claim an elusive prize.

“We are trying to put the land into a business model so that somebody after Anders Holch Povlsen, or his children, can buy a well-known property, and it should break even,” Mr MacDonell said. “One day, someone might even make a profit.”