Thirteen leading nature, environment and countryside advocates have been rejected as board members by the Scottish Government’s nature agency, The Ferret can reveal.
Well-known wildlife experts, access campaigners and three former chief executives of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency have all applied to become members of the board of NatureScot — and been turned down.
The revelation has been described as “deeply worrying” by environmental campaigners, who accused the Scottish Government of blocking anyone who might “rock the boat”. As a result the NatureScot board lacks nature or access champions and is “stuffed” with vested business, landowning and farming interests, they said.
The most recent appointments to the 12-person board include Lord David Johnstone, the former chair of the landowning group, Scottish Land and Estates. Five board members are due to step down in 2022 and their successors appointed by the new minister responsible for NatureScot, Green MSP Lorna Slater.
NatureScot stressed that applications for board positions were “highly competitive”, with more than 100 people applying in 2021. The current board had “strong credentials” in environmental science, climate change and farming, it said.
High profile nature advocates
One of the most high-profile wildlife advocates who was turned down as a board member in 2021 was Stuart Housden, the former director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland. He wasn’t selected for an interview.
Others rejected in 2021 were Helen Todd, the campaigns manager for Ramblers Scotland; Tom Bowser, the owner of the Argaty Red Kites project; Dr Ellie Stirling from Scottish Badgers; and Steve Micklewright and Nigel Fraser from the rewilding charity, Trees for Life.
In 2016 an application to join the board from the then head of Plantlife Scotland, Dr Deborah Long, was turned down. She is now chief officer of Scottish Environment Link, which brings together 42 environmental groups.
Professor Campbell Gemmell, who was chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) from 2003 to 2012, was rejected twice, once in 2016 and again in 2017. A second former Sepa chief executive, Professor James Curran, was turned down in 2016 and a third, Tricia Henton, was rejected twice in the 2000s.
Also in the 2000s the outdoor writer and TV presenter, Cameron McNeish, was spurned. As was the renown former NatureScot area manager, Dick Balharry, who went on to become president of Ramblers Scotland and chair of the National Trust for Scotland before he died in 2015.
Other nature experts have also tried and failed to get on the NatureScot board, in addition to the 13 identified by The Ferret. We are aware of four, but have agreed not to name them.
The 13 people rejected as board members of NatureScot
|Board applicants||When rejected|
|Stuart Housden, former director, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds||2021|
|Helen Todd, campaigns manager, Ramblers Scotland||2021|
|Tom Bowser, author and owner, Argaty Red Kites||2021|
|Dr Ellie Stirling, secretary, Scottish Badgers||2021|
|Steve Micklewright, chief executive, Trees for Life||2021|
|Nigel Fraser, chair, Trees For Life||2021|
|Philip Price, wildlife photography guide, Loch Visions||2021|
|Dr Deborah Long, head, Plantlife Scotland||2016|
|Professor Campbell Gemmell, former chief executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agency||2017, 2016|
|Professor James Curran, former chief executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agency||2016|
|Tricia Henton, former chief executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agency||twice in 2000s|
|Dick Balharry, former area manager, NatureScot||2000s|
|Cameron McNeish, outdoor writer and TV presenter||2002|
NatureScot’s board is currently chaired by the businessman, Dr Mike Cantlay, who is due to step down in 2022. The Ferret reported in November 2021 that he intervened to overturn an objection to a tourist development in a native woodland in The Trossachs.
Others on the board include an oil and gas analyst, Dr Kate Broughton; an agricultural consultant and Mull hill farmer, Colin MacPhail; and the director of operations at the fishing industry body, Seafish, Aoife Martin. There’s also a former Forestry Commission chief executive, a public health consultant and the chief executive of Scotland’s Rural College.
Three additional board members are the outdoor sustainability professor at Edinburgh University, Peter Higgins; the former TV weather forecaster and science education consultant, Dr Heather Reid; and an Aberdeenshire farmer who works with the Nature Friendly Farming Network and the Soil Association, Nikki Yoxall.
As chair Cantlay is paid £40,200 a year for working 120 days. Other board members are paid £9,517 for 30 days work a year.
The 12 people now on NatureScot board
|Dr Mike Cantlay (chair), owner of property, textiles and whisky business, William Glen||May 2022|
|Cath Denholm (deputy chair), director, Equality and Human Rights Commission||March 2022|
|Dr Kate Broughton, UK oil and gas analyst||March 2022|
|Aoife Martin, director of the government and fishing industry body, Seafish||March 2022|
|Dr Jackie Hyland, consultant in public health medicine||March 2022|
|Colin MacPhail, agricultural consultant and hill farmer||March 2025|
|Peter Higgins, professor of environmental education, University of Edinburgh||March 2025|
|Lord David Johnstone, landowner and former chair of Scottish Land and Estates||March 2025|
|Dr Ian Gambles, former chief executive of the Forestry Commission||March 2025|
|Professor Wayne Powell, chief executive of Scotland’s Rural College||March 2025|
|Dr Heather Reid, science education consultant and former TV weather forecaster||March 2025|
|Nikki Yoxhall, organic farmer||March 2025|
Critics said that the board was weighted in favour of developers and against nature conservation, accusing NatureScot of becoming increasingly ineffectual. They claimed there’s no-one on the board fighting for wildlife in the way that the respected environmental campaigner, the late Simon Pepper, did between 2010 and 2016.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland called on the Scottish Government to “shake up” public sector boards. “Much to our frustration, conservationists on public sector boards are as rare as some of our endangered species,” said the society’s head of policy, Aedán Smith.
“The fact that previous governments have repeatedly overlooked conservation expertise in making public appointments, even for Scotland’s national nature conservation advisor NatureScot, is deeply worrying.”
Smith added: “Scotland is one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet and we are in a global and national nature and climate emergency. It is vital that conservation expertise is brought central to government decision making.”
Trees for Life, which took legal action against NatureScot in 2021 for killing beavers, criticised the composition of the existing board. “It is vital that NatureScot has a balanced board that includes members who can champion nature,” said the charity’s chief executive, Steve Micklewright.
“The current board has no one who can credibly represent nature, yet it is stuffed full of individuals who provide representation from sectors that are more well known for damaging nature than restoring it.”
Another rewilding campaign group, Scotland The Big Picture, accused NatureScot’s board of being “almost bereft” of nature knowledge.
“Ecological knowledge is seriously lacking and that’s a significant cause for concern, bringing into question whether the NatureScot board has the appropriate skills to arrest and reverse Scotland’s ecological decline,” said the group’s executive director, Peter Cairns.
Two of the former Sepa chief executives also raised concerns. “We will fail as a society if we don’t comprehensively involve environmental expertise and challenge in all our decision-making,” said James Curran. “I don’t see that happening.”
Campbell Gemmell, who was turned down as NatureScot chair as well as a board member in 2017, raised a series of questions about the board’s role. “In these challenging, politicised and sensitive times for the environment, this merits a closer look,” he told The Ferret.
Deborah Long, chief officer of Scottish Environment Link, argued that the boards of all organisations that work to protect the environment needed the best conservation experts.
“NatureScot needs access to such expertise as much as any of us in the sector, now more than ever,” she said.
The outdoor writer, Cameron McNeish, was concerned that NatureScot didn’t like to see outdoor recreation campaigners on its board. “It seems clear to me that civil servants, and perhaps government ministers, choose board members who won’t rock the boat,” he said.
NatureScot, which used to be known as Scottish Natural Heritage, pointed out its board members were appointed by Scottish ministers under a process managed by government officials.
“This proved to be a highly competitive process which attracted strong interest from a range of sectors, and in the last round more than 100 applications were received,” said a spokesperson.
“We believe it is important for our board to represent significant experience in a wide range of areas including the environment, science, business and education.
Our current board has strong credentials in fields such as environmental science, climate change and farming, as well as bringing the wealth of experience necessary for robust strategic oversight and scrutiny.”
NatureScot praised the “strong leadership” of its chair, Mike Cantlay, who had more than 20 years’ experience of public sector governance. “The board is guided by the best science available and its primary objective is to help Scotland’s nature thrive and fight climate change,” added the agency’s spokesperson.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We value the important role that NatureScot plays in improving our natural environment in Scotland and in maintaining our key habitats and landscapes.
Cover image thanks to iStock/sagarmanis.