Right to roam
For Ian Ross, the new chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage, the first month in the job has been pretty hectic.
The organisation spans across the country, with offices dotted the length and breadth of Scotland, and by setting himself the task of getting around and visiting them all, Ross has thrown himself into a road trip many would envy.
“In my first weeks I was in Clydebank, Edinburgh and Aberdeen and since then I’ve managed to go to Kirkwall, I’ll be in Helensburgh after that and then Stornoway followed by Dumfries. Last month I was just near Falkirk meeting people. I was in Sutherland before that. People can come along to these receptions to raise issues – we do them around Scotland as a whole. We are a Scotland-wide organisation but we are locally based, we have offices across the country and one of the things I have been trying to do – though I have some way to go – is get out and meet our staff and talk to them.
“I’ve been travelling around to meet people and to do things, but those offices, are situated across Scotland and our area officers are out meeting people all the time. There was an issue in Sutherland recently with coastal erosion, we met with the community council – that’s an important part of the day job.”
It looks a pretty exhausting schedule for a man still getting to grips with chairing an organisation that, with around 20 per cent of Scotland’s land protected, has a big remit. He says: “Let’s just say I am getting to know ScotRail pretty well. But it’s important that I am out and about and meeting people.”
Faced with a diminished budget, Ross has taken over as chairman in difficult times – though he insists that he sees far more opportunities than challenges.
“If you look at the public sector generally – and I have been involved with quite a few public sector bodies in the past – they have all felt the impact of austerity, in fact I think the only part of the Scottish budget where there has not been a reduction is in health, so yes, SNH has taken its share. I think our budget has gone down seven or eight million pounds in the last few years, we have seen a significant reduction.”
He continues: “It is a tighter environment but we can deliver what we need to. We have had to be leaner, and act slightly smarter – be more creative and look for more opportunities to collaborate with people. We have to look at how we can use public money to lever in money from other sources, and perhaps sometimes work with voluntary groups. One of the great resources we have is people, our staff have great commitment.”
Part of the challenge is that Ross is not content with steadying the ship. The new chairman emphasises that he believes his predecessor, Andrew Thin, did an excellent job at the helm of SNH, but there are still areas for improvement.
Ross wants to expand participation in Scotland’s green spaces, particularly among young people, and those who do not have a history of engaging with the country’s natural heritage.
“We need to see our natural heritage as a means of delivering a wide range of public benefits. Now that is happening already but we can do even more in that direction. It is about the relevance of natural heritage to the people of Scotland, the whole of Scotland, and where we need more emphasis is in built-up areas, and particularly in our more deprived built-up areas. So that’s through things like the Central Scotland Green Network, working to promote green spaces to promote health and wellbeing.”
Think of SNH and the first image that comes to mind is probably closer to breathtaking landscapes and imposing castles, rather than town centres, and that is another aspect that Ross wants to address. SNH already works in built-up areas, so part of the job will be in increasing awareness and trying to attract more volunteers.
But what about the demographic of volunteers? Is SNH an organisation for the middle-aged and middle class?
“I think that is the perception, yes. There’s no doubt that there are people who live in areas that could benefit from more green space. Improving it can make people more active, particularly if you encourage it at an early stage, and a lot of good things can come from that in terms of health and wellbeing. There’s many thousands of people – tens of thousands - that are engaging, but there is a need for more people to engage, more young people especially. An estimated 90,000 people take part in environmental or wildlife volunteering in Scotland – a number are young people but I think it is fair to say that the majority will be middle aged or older. So that’s why we need more young people. 90,000 is very impressive but we could get an awful lot more than that, so we are promoting it to the younger cohort.”
In times of restricted budgets, nature-based tourism is worth around £1.4bn a year to Scotland’s economy and Ross is canny enough to know that beauty is not always enough – Scotland’s heritage can be best protected by reminding people of the economic benefits of keeping pristine environments pristine.
“We also need to use green space as a means of driving economic development – there’s a whole load of well established links there. We need to work with partners to create those opportunities and we need to encourage people to participate more, promoting the idea of green volunteering. There are real gains to be made by doing that, particularly if you get young people involved. If young people get involved in our natural heritage at a young age there are benefits for their health, maturity, confidence, skill sets as well as the fact they are contributing to our green spaces, increasing biodiversity and making the country a better place to live. That’s the strong message I want to put out, because SNH can play a strong role there – a crucial role.”
But is it not dangerous to put something as awe inspiring as Scotland’s wild spaces in monetary terms? Applying an economic figure to a woodland may be an effective way of getting the importance of SNH’s job over to politicians and decision makers, but by framing the need to preserve our natural heritage in monetary terms, there could be danger that Ross is walking onto a slippery slope. What if undertaking fracking in an ancient woodland would bring in more money than it generates from tourism? Is money the right way to view our natural heritage?
“I think it is about recognising the economic value – but that is not the sole story. We need to protect our heritage because it is important in its own right, and it’s important to protect it because we have a legal obligation to do it – though we should do it because it is important anyway – but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of benefits, it is a win-win in my book. People value it in its own right, but people come to Scotland because it is a beautiful place and because of its landscapes, you get an intrinsic value out of that.”
Wildlife tourism could form a staple for the Scottish economy for years to come, and SNH’s role in preserving these – the threads that have run through the consciousness of Scottish society for centuries – is obviously important. Losing the landscapes and habitats that inspired the country’s artists and thinkers would be a tragedy, but what about bringing back the things we have destroyed? Following the reintroduction of sea eagles and beavers, does Ross see a time in the near future when an animal like the wolf could roam the Scottish countryside?
“Well, in terms of taking forward reintroduction, we already have one with the European beaver, so let’s look at that and then see. I don’t think the next focus, for me, would be on wolves. But there are other things we could look at – ants, voles, some people would like to see something like the Lynx – though again, we would need to see what the issues are. With something like wolves or lynx, it is not just about the facts but also the messaging, because people have concerns – some are genuine and some are perception based – and it was the same with the beaver.
He continues: “I can recall what people were saying when the introduction started, there was a steering group, the Scottish Wildlife Trust worked with us on it too, and people have more understanding – the evidence has grown and people are more reassured. That’s the way to do it – but there would be particular challenges with wolves because of their potential impact and the scale at which they might operate. There are people that are advocates and I can understand why people might want to do it but you’ve got to make sure it fits with other land uses, other habitats. I know sometimes the perceptions people have of animals and their behaviours."