Paul Lister, the heir to the MFI fortune, explains why he decided to re-wild the 23,000 acre Alladale estate in the Scottish Highlands
Two decades ago my father suffered a severe stroke and it sent me to a dark place. I decided I’d come out of it and reinvent myself. I was not the entrepreneur that my father was, so I decided that I should change course.
Instead of creating more wealth, I decided I would be better off managing wealth in a very risk-averse way and doing something that I was very passionate about, which was nature conservation. I set up The European Nature Trust (TENT) in 2000 to pursue European conservation causes.
We’re always keen to tell people in Africa and South America what to do and what not to do with their landscapes. But in Europe we’ve already destroyed much of our wild landscape and continue to do so.
My first project was in Romania, the pulsing heart and the lungs of European biodiversity, where you can find the largest tracts of forests and the biggest concentrations of bears, wolves and lynx. Although the landscape was in relatively pristine condition, it was threatened by industrialisation.
At the same time, I decided that I’d restore some life back on our home turf. I bought Alladale, a 23,000-acre place up in the Scottish Highlands, to re-wild. I call it a reserve, not an estate.
Only three per cent of philanthropic giving goes to air, water and soil – the very fabric of all life on Earth. You know, 27 per cent of all non-desert, non-ice on this Earth has been slashed, burned, cut and felled for livestock raising.
We’re sometimes very short-sighted and we’re thinking that healthcare, education, our galleries, religion, or even pets, are more important than being able to breathe, drink and eat food from the soil.
I’ve never been able to get involved with things that are directly related to humanity – I’d much rather get out in the forest and hug a tree. It’s important for any family with the good fortune of wealth to get involved more with the natural world – the needle has to shift. If not, we’re destined for a very long, deep rabbit warren.
Many foundations don’t allocate a budget for spreading the word, but it’s important to scream from the rooftops when there’s good work being done. In 2020 we did a campaign in Italy to promote the new Abruzzo National Park and the Marsican brown bear to the Italian people, that was very successful. We’re now doing the same in Spain with the Iberian lynx, with a firm based in Madrid.
You’d be surprised how many PR companies are prepared to do things for very small fees. When you tell them, this is for their country’s national pride and ecology, they look at the work as a contribution.
A normal marketing company would charge multiple thousands of pounds a month to get out of bed. The companies I’m talking about will work for a thousand euros a month, over a four-month contract.
They’ll take people out into the field and help me connect people to nature. The more they are connected, the more they will appreciate it and save it.
It’s nice to diversify and have a second life. My father created quite a substantial business over a 20-year period but he was so bored at the end of it, he couldn’t wait to get on to his next phase.
A lot of people don’t develop interests outside of business, they just keep doing the same thing. People measure legacy on what they’ve either achieved in a career or what they made in monetary terms.
It’s important to think beyond all that. For me, legacy really is about what you can do for the greater good of others or the environment.