The 13 nature champions rejected by government nature agency

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 applicantsWhen rejected
Stuart Housden, former director, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds2021
Helen Todd, campaigns manager, Ramblers Scotland2021
Tom Bowser, author and owner, Argaty Red Kites2021
Dr Ellie Stirling, secretary, Scottish Badgers2021
Steve Micklewright, chief executive, Trees for Life2021
Nigel Fraser, chair, Trees For Life2021
Philip Price, wildlife photography guide, Loch Visions2021
Dr Deborah Long, head, Plantlife Scotland2016
Professor Campbell Gemmell, former chief executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agency2017, 2016
Professor James Curran, former chief executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agency2016
Tricia Henton, former chief executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agencytwice in 2000s
Dick Balharry, former area manager, NatureScot2000s
Cameron McNeish, outdoor writer and TV presenter2002
Source: investigation by The Ferret

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

Board memberUntil
Dr Mike Cantlay (chair), owner of property, textiles and whisky business, William GlenMay 2022
Cath Denholm (deputy chair), director, Equality and Human Rights CommissionMarch 2022
Dr Kate Broughton, UK oil and gas analystMarch 2022
Aoife Martin, director of the government and fishing industry body, SeafishMarch 2022
Dr Jackie Hyland, consultant in public health medicineMarch 2022
Colin MacPhail, agricultural consultant and hill farmerMarch 2025
Peter Higgins, professor of environmental education, University of EdinburghMarch 2025
Lord David Johnstone, landowner and former chair of Scottish Land and EstatesMarch 2025
Dr Ian Gambles, former chief executive of the Forestry CommissionMarch 2025
Professor Wayne Powell, chief executive of Scotland’s Rural CollegeMarch 2025
Dr Heather Reid, science education consultant and former TV weather forecasterMarch 2025
Nikki Yoxhall, organic farmerMarch 2025
Source: NatureScot

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.”

Much to our frustration, conservationists on public sector boards are as rare as some of our endangered species.

Aedán Smith, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

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.”

It is important for our board to represent significant experience in a wide range of areas including the environment, science, business and education.

Spokesperson, NatureScot

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.

Ministerial appointments to the board of NatureScot are regulated and carried out in line with the Ethical Standards Commissioner’s Code of Practice.”

Cover image thanks to iStock/sagarmanis.

  1. This is very worrying indeed. The main purpose of NatureScot as a public body is to represent our Natural Heritage – to be a voice for nature , to protect and restore the remnants of nature left in this depleted landscape of ours. It is failing to do this. It seems NatureScot and the Scottish Government are not fulfilling their promises or their duty to protect nature and to restore biodiversity . They have the responsibility to appoint individuals who have expertise in, commitment to and passion for nature and who make this their priority. ”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.”

  2. None of this should be a surprise to anyone who knows how the quango control module in the Scottish Government operates. Experts not wanted. diversity of experience that’s got nothing to do with environment is the order of the day. It’s a very sad and quite unacceptable state of affairs. But it dues not happen with agricultural or economic bodies of government. So the promises on nature from the government are largely false. Says the founder CEI of SNH.

  3. An excellent expose of the appalling leadership in NatureScot. At its heart is Mike Cantlay. I, and the industry I am part of, had to suffer his incompetence when he was Chair of Visit Scotland. It has come as no surprise that he has made a total mess of being Chair of NatureScot. If the Scottish Government has any sense it will ensure that Mike Cantlay is not given any further public appointments.

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