Nicola Sturgeon has defended her rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, after he backed a hotel developer accused of illegally destroying an ancient pinewood in the Cairngorms.

The First Minister has rejected claims that Ewing breached the ministerial code by blurring the distinction between his roles as a minister and as a constituency MSP.

She also pointed out that an enforcement action by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) requiring the felled pinewood to be replanted will be handled by another minister instead of Ewing.

The Ferret reported on 7 March that Ewing intervened in support of plans by a local hotel owner to build a car park on the pinewood in Carrbridge despite being warned off by the FCS. Leaked emails showed that FCS cautioned the minister about “engaging” with the hotel owner because of the live enforcement action.

Fergus Ewing under fire for ‘conflict of interest’ over felled pinewood

The revelations prompted two opposition MSPs to write to Sturgeon raising concerns about Ewing’s behaviour. They asked her to investigate whether he had breached the government’s code of conduct for ministers.

Now Sturgeon has responded saying that she has “carefully considered” the matter. “The Scottish ministerial code provides that ministers may represent the views of their constituents, so long as they make it clear that the views they put forward are ones expressed in their capacity as the MSP representing a particular electorate,” she said.

“I am satisfied that Fergus Ewing was clear that the comments he made about this matter were being made as the constituency MSP and not as a minister.”

According to Sturgeon “no aspects” of the matter had so far been referred to ministers. The FCS enforcement action is currently under consideration by the Scottish Government’s Planning and Environmental Appeals Division, but will end up with ministers for a decision.

“As is normal practice, arrangements will be in place to ensure that decisions on this particular matter will fall to be taken by another minister and that Fergus Ewing will have no locus in the matter given his constituency interests,” wrote Sturgeon in a letter.

“On that basis I am clear that Fergus Ewing has at all times acted in accordance with the requirements of the ministerial code.”

Opposition MPs, however, are not happy with her response, and are still demanding a parliamentary statement from Ewing.

Scottish Labour’s rural economy spokesperson, Rhoda Grant MSP, was “disappointed” by Sturgeon’s “speedy” response to her letter. She questioned whether there had been an adequate investigation.

“I will continue to push for a statement to parliament because all cabinet secretaries and ministers need to not only abide by the code of conduct but be visibly seen to be abiding by it,” she told The Ferret.

“At the moment we lack that transparency on what Mr Ewing did or did not do and that must be in the public domain. There are questions to be answered and the First Minister’s response has not done that.”

The Conservative MSP for the Highlands, Edward Mountain, who also wrote to Sturgeon, described her response as “wholly unsatisfactory”.

He pointed out that the leaked emails showed that Ewing’s ministerial office had contacted FCS about the Carrbridge hotelier’s concerns, and involved Ewing’s ministerial political adviser. This “hardly underlines his role as a constituency MSP,” Mountain said.

He highlighted that a local newspaper report of Ewing’s backing for the hotelier described him as a minister in the headline and the opening paragraph. Ewing had shown “a lack of judgement and a clear conflict of interest,” Mountain claimed.

The Highlands and Islands Green MSP, John Finnie, has also expressed concerns. “Scottish Greens have already asked for a ministerial statement following the Ferret report and I understand that will be discussed at the next meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau,” he said.

The letter from Nicola Sturgeon

Photo of felled pinewood at Carrbridge thanks to Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group.

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