from Sunday Herald, 27 August 2006
People across Scotland should take up a new hobby, the incoming chairman of the government's nature conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has said. They should go out and shoot deer.
Andrew Thin thinks that deer stalking needs to lose its tweedy, upper class image to encourage more ordinary punters to take pot shots at the monarch of the glen. This would help combat the damage being done to ancient forests and landscapes by excessive numbers of red deer, he argues.
Unsurprisingly, his suggestion has met with fierce criticism from the animal welfare lobby. Hackles have also been raised by some of his other comments - in a wide-ranging interview with the Sunday Herald - on conservation groups, the reintroduction of wild animals and SNH's priorities.
Aged 47, Thin is taking over the helm at SNH at a crucial time in its short 14-year history. With over £60 million a year of taxpayers' money and 750 staff, the organisation has just completed the controversial move of its headquarters from Edinburgh to Inverness at the insistence of the Scottish Executive.
There are widespread fears amongst environmentalists that SNH may now be preparing to soften its stance in protection of Scotland's wildlife and landscape. The worry being whispered behind the scenes is that Thin will turn the agency into a lapdog rather than a watchdog.
Part of the concern arises from the fact that Thin's background is in rural development as the former chief executive of Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise. Some also regard his performance in his last job as convenor of the Cairngorms National Park Authority as "disappointingly pro-development".
But Thin, who lives on the Black Isle, also has his supporters, and is not shy of tackling his critics head on. "Protecting the natural heritage is not an end in itself," he said. "We protect the natural heritage in order to deliver a wide range of benefits to the Scottish people. That's the guts of where I'm coming from."
"It is all about managing change, not about stopping change," he added. "I want to position SNH as Scotland's 'quality of life' agency and therefore I want to put the Scottish people right at the heart of what we do."
It is his passion for focussing on people that leads Thin to want to promote deer hunting. "I would like to see hunting widely available to all people," he said.
"People should be encouraged to see it an an entirely ordinary and legitimate recreational activity. A lot of the culture that goes with it puts people off. I think we need to break down those barriers."
He accepted that to some hunting is "distasteful", but stressed that it is important to have a "vibrant" sporting industry to ensure that deer are sustainably managed.
The idea has angered John Robins from Animal Concern. "If deer have to be culled then they should only be shot by expert guns who know what they are doing, not by tourists out for a day’s fun," he said.
As leader of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Thin came under sustained fire from local conservationists for allowing housing developments that threatened wildlife.
"I've been misunderstood and misrepresented by a very small number of conservationists who have failed to understand that I am a deeply committed conservationist," Thin said.
Organisations like the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group (BSCG) do a "massive disservice to conservation", he believes, by the confrontational way they act. They have damaged the interests of nature conservation "by ghettoising it into a minority box".
BSCG's convenor, Dr Gus Jones, hit back, saying Thin's remarks were simply inaccurate. "Informed debate and controversy can be essential to achieving solutions to problems", he argued.
"In a chairman of SNH we are looking not for misrepresentation and provocative talk, but a real dedication to careful and informed analysis, leading to delivering conservation benefits on the ground."
Jones contrasted Thin's view that conservation is not an end in itself with a statement in 2000 by the then Environment Minister, Sarah Boyack. "Scotland's natural and cultural heritage is worth protecting in its own right," she said.
Thin's evident lack on enthusiasm for reintroducing extinct wild animals - a traditional role of SNH - will also dismay many. "I think most people have much higher priorities than reintroducing species," says Thin. "It's not high on my list."
Lloyd Austin, head of policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland, pointed out that restoring lost species is a legal requirement. "The people of Scotland, and especially tourists who provide so much economic benefit to the country, strongly support schemes to reintroduce white-tailed eagles and beavers," he said.
SNH's mettle will be tested in the coming months by hotly disputed plans to pump millions of tonnes of oil between ships in the Firth of Forth and for a huge wind farm on the Isle of Lewis. "RSPB Scotland looks forward to SNH standing firm as an advocate of the natural heritage in such cases," Austin says.
Dave Morris, director of Ramblers' Association Scotland, suggests that Thin's new career with SNH may be short-lived as it could end up being merged with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) after the Holyrood elections in May. "Maybe he has already been told that the SNH supertanker is on the rocks and he is in there to launch the lifeboats," he said.
This is denied by Thin, who thinks that the idea of a merger with SEPA has "probably gone away" and that SNH has a good future. "I'm fundamentally a democrat and I'm interested in trying to figure out what is right for the Scottish people as a whole," he said.
"I'm not interested in minorities hijacking things for themselves. It's in my interest to make sure that Scotland remains the best small country in the world because of its fantastic natural heritage."