LOOK over there, says Paul Lister. Look at the grass and the heather and the hills. He asks me what I make of it all. It’s beautiful, I tell him. I’ve been coming to this part of the Highlands since I was a child and I love it. It’s stunning. Cold and rainy today, naturally, but stunning.

Wrong, says Lister. This landscape isn’t as it should be, he says. He gets out of the car and stands at the end of the track that leads deeper into his estate. A few hundred yards away are some red deer, posing perfectly in case a painter should come by. Lister sweeps his arm from one side of the view to the other and tells me what’s gone wrong with this world. There’s something of the preacher about him: committed, zealous, all eyes and hands.

The problem, says Lister, is Scotland isn’t as beautiful as we think it is. This part of the country – Alladale, about an hour’s drive north of Inverness – was once a great forest, he says, but now it’s reduced to one or two wind-blown remnants. “I don’t like seeing an eco-system that’s so messed up,” he says, and he tells me what’s made it this way: the industrial revolution, the British Empire, two world wars, shipbuilding – all of it needed trees and so they were cut down and nobody has ever shown any great interest in replanting them.

But there’s another problem, says Lister: deer and sheep. They eat and eat and eat so trees have no chance to grow, and that leaves the countryside looking like this: in Lister’s words, a mess. Which leads to his solution. The root problem, says Lister, is the lack of big carnivores in Scotland – animals that could keep the number of deer down and so give the trees a chance. And by big carnivores Paul Lister means wolves. “When you take out a big piece of the jigsaw, like the wolf, you end up with a landscape like this,” he says. “This should all be big forest.” He says he wants the wolves back in this part of Scotland as soon as possible; in fact, this year, he says, is the year when the first stage of his plan for their reintroduction at Alladale will finally get going.

The good news for Lister is that there is considerable evidence wolves can be great for biodiversity. Take Yellowstone National Park in the US for example. Wolves were released there in 1995 and the changes in the environment since have been remarkable. First, the numbers of deer were reduced so more trees grew. Which meant more birds, and more fish where the trees provided shade on the water. The regrowth also encouraged beavers, which in turned encouraged fish, frogs and reptiles. It was a profound transformation of the ecosystem in Yellowstone, a cascade effect all the way down from the wolf.

Or should that be the big, bad wolf – because that’s the problem, isn’t it? Our attitudes to wolves; the effect of Little Red Riding Hood and all those lycanthropic horror movies? They make us hostile; they make us feel vulnerable. And then there are the people with other interests in the countryside: gamekeepers, farmers, the owners of shooting estates, people with children. Most of them cry out against the wolf and so the plan gets nowhere.

When I ask him about this, it’s obvious Lister doesn’t have much patience with the opposition and as we get back in the car and drive a little further, he explains precisely what his plan would entail. Lister, who became a multi-millionaire after inheriting the MFI furniture business fortune from his father, bought the 23,000-acre Alladale estate for £3.5 million in 2003 and would now like to create a reserve for what would initially be 10 to 12 wolves. The idea at first would be to have a fence around the habitat and over time observe the effects they have on the landscape.

Lister is convinced the plan is a goer and says it would attract thousands more visitors to the Highlands, with the economic benefits that come with them. “Instead of having 1,000 people a year visiting Alladale, we’ll have 20,000. At the moment, the serious walkers come up to Alladale whereas I’m trying to get the armchair people in cities to get up and about and they need something more than just fresh air. They need stuff. The majority of people want to go and see animals and wolves will attract them. Jaguars do it in South America, lions do it in Africa and tigers do it in India. We could create a new rural economy.”

Lister is also relaxed about some of the possible negative effects, such as the wolves roaming further than they should. “I don’t have any issues of wolves escaping,” he says. “Ten to 12 wolves will have no pressure in wanting to escape as the area is vast and there will be an abundance of red deer to prey upon.” He also believes there would be a very small chance of vandalism. “We are not a zoo or safari park,” he says, “but a wilderness reserve which is a far more natural environment for the wolves.”

But away from Alladale, out there in wider Scotland, there’s considerable scepticism about wolves being reintroduced – indeed, not just wolves. There is a healthy rewilding movement encouraging a wilder landscape in which wolves, lynx and perhaps even bears could live; there is also a charity, Rewilding Britain, and several high-profile advocates including Lister and the zoologist and writer George Monbiot. But how far away are we really from any of it happening?

The man who could have some answers is David Balharry, Scotland director of Rewilding Britain. He takes the same view as Lister on the potential tourism benefits of reintroducing big predators and feels the same way about the state of the country’s landscape.

“If you look at Scotland,” he says, “we have fragmented the land into smaller and smaller parcels divided up by different types of ownership and each owner has to try to extract out of the land what is best for them, but ecosystems don’t work like that. A key argument is that we are not talking about nature-based economies everywhere – we recognise there need to be areas that are the breadbaskets of Scotland. The question is: is there an opportunity to have areas where you have a nature-based economy?”

In his role with Rewilding Britain, Balharry is already doing some practical work on promoting rewilding and identifying areas where it could progress. This weekend, for example, he will be in Dumfries to talk about the possibility of rewilding between 200 and 600 square kilometres of the Ettrick Forest in the Borders. The charity is also looking at the potential of Glen Affric, west of Loch Ness. The idea is that the charity would put project officers into those areas to explain the idea and win support.

But first, they have to overcome the sceptics and the opponents and that still looks like an extremely long-term job – so long term in fact that most of the people I speak to suggest it is going to take at least two generations before there is a realistic chance of the big predators returning to Scotland (the most likely to happen soonest is the lynx).

I speak to Andrew Bauer at NFU Scotland, who leads the farming organisation’s policy on rewilding and is heavily involved in the issues around the reintroduction – deliberate and accidental – of beavers. In principle, he is supportive of rewilding, but on the idea of reintroducing predators such as lynx and wolves, NFU Scotland and other organisations such as The Scottish Gamekeepers Association are extremely wary.

“We would argue that we are in a different place compared to many other European countries,” says Bauer. “We are smaller, and farming, or some kind of land management, happens in most corners of the country – we do not have vast tracts of land that are wildernesses in the traditional sense.” He also says that farm animals are much more likely to be out on the hills than they are in European countries and therefore would be much more vulnerable to predators. And remember, says Bauer, wolves are pack animals and they could kill an entire flock of sheep in one go.

As for Lister’s plan for wolves at Alladale, Bauer says he would welcome discussions with the landowner, but says, whatever happens, the idea would be extremely controversial. Yes, there could be new tourism jobs associated with wolves, as Lister suggests, but Bauer says local people could be negatively affected. "Are the people who have those new jobs the same people who have suffered the impact?” he asks.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association takes a similar view. Talk of compensation is all very well, says a spokesman, but could it work in practice? “In Norway, 7,000 to 10,000 sheep a year are killed by lynx and the government pays out €3m a year in compensation,” says the spokesman. “The Scottish Government would have to decide whether this was worth the potential gain and whether it was something they wanted coming from the public purse, set against other priorities.

“These projects can also have consequences that aren’t accounted for. When lynx were introduced into the Harz mountains in Germany between 2000 and 2006, one of the reasons was to stop damage to forestry by grazing animals. It changed prey behaviour but not entirely in the way they expected. Where fearful animals herded together for safety, the forest damage was greater than before the reintroduction so it’s not easy to get this right. To try to get it right, you would have to manage it, but that is maybe against the whole concept of rewilding.”

Lister doesn’t believe any of these concerns, especially farming, would cause a problem at Alladale. He points out that there is very little farming going on in and around Arradale and therefore the wolves would be little threat to farmers. "It will only get more people buying their land and if you get 20,000 people coming in every year, trust me they’d be eating a lot of lamb. We’ve got to try something different.”

Lister is also bullish about any potential opposition to his plans from the Scottish Government, which might be concerned about the effect on the right-to-roam legislation. “It’s about whether the Government wants to have it all their way or do they want to have another 100 jobs in the community?” says Lister. “Do you want the jobs and £10m of downstream income in a really depressed area?”

Where everyone does seem to agree is that there is room for developing rewilding based on targeting it in certain areas. But how close are we to seeing bears, wolves and lynx back in Scotland? Paul Lister says he wants to get going this year, but as for the idea of wolves roaming freely, David Balharry is cautious and says he believes wolves will not be discussed as a realistic option in his lifetime. Bears also do not feature in his thinking at the moment. As for lynx, Balharry believes there is a chance they will be reintroduced soon. “A lynx is just a slightly larger cat,” he says, “and it would be absurd to be worried about something that is just an over-grown moggy.”

I ask Balharry to imagine the future as he would like to see it. What could Scotland be like in 100 or 200 years? He says he could imagine visiting his great-great-grandchildren and seeing a quite different landscape and, even more interestingly, a different kind of people living here, a more confident people, more outdoorsy. There would be more natural woodland too and less barren moorland. This is just the vision of one rewilder, but it’s a compelling idea: a wilder land and the possibility of glimpsing, up there on the crest of the hill, or through those trees, an animal of a different kind.