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New chief Ross is ready to listen to SNH critics

Not many had picked Ian Ross, 56, as a leading candidate to be chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Perhaps it was his rather laid back demeanour. More likely it was that as a leading Liberal Democrat in the Highlands, it was assumed his politics would count against him with the SNP Scottish Government.

But Edinburgh saw beyond that and now a lot of people are saying "Of course, Ian Ross, it makes sense", or words to that effect. He takes over the SNH hotseat tomorrow from Andrew Thin who served seven years.

Mr Ross may have been a member of the SNH board for less than a year but he was a Highland Councillor for 13 years.

He chaired the Highland Council's planning and environment and sustainable development committees. He led on significant developments, including the council's Highland-wide local development plan and the onshore wind farm strategy.

His time as a councillor, during which he was in the midst of bitter public debates over issues including plans for a new town, means he is ready for all the spears that can be thrown at the agency. These often come from those who are convinced SNH is about to ruin them to protect a rare bog, bird or fungus.

Those who know Mr Ross well say he is always prepared to listen. He said: "Part of the role of chairman is you have to be the face of the organisation and be ready to accept that people can have uncompromising things to say to you. You have to be prepared to be objective and reasonable."

This will be useful as SNH is involved in several debates, not least on wild land. Last year, at the behest of ministers, it published its core wild land map, setting out 43 areas of rugged, remote and challenging terrain. Most are in the Highlands and islands, many in crofting areas.

While it is welcomed by conservationists, the Crofting Commission says people who have worked Scotland's remote rural landscapes for generations are "rendered invisible" by it.

Meanwhile Stòras Uibhist, the community body which owns most of the islands of South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay, fears its attempts to reverse population decline would be sabotaged.

Its concern is that the map is preparing the ground for a new environmental designation that would prevent much-needed development.

Mr Ross says he understands the concern "but the clear indication I have got is that it is not intended to introduce a designation, but rather it would provide information that would guide planning authorities".

The fight between conservationists and the sporting estates over the impact of deer on attempts to regenerate native woodlands, is another area where diplomacy may be needed, with SNH ultimately responsible for Scotland's deer population.

He said: "There is a balance to be struck. I certainly recognise the importance of sporting interests. They create jobs and put money into the rural economy. But we have got to be aware deer can have a particularly damaging impact on important protected areas. The welfare of deer is also an important consideration"

His own background was in trees. His father had been a chief forester with the Forestry Commission on the Black Isle, and that's where he grew up, his mother being from Culbokie on the other side of the Black Isle.

After graduating from Aberdeen University in 1975, with a BSc in forestry, he went to work for the Forestry Commission near Huntly and then on Mull.

In the early 1980s, a lecturing post came up at the Scottish School of Forestry, then part of Inverness College. Despite having given up this full-time post to do consultancy work almost 20 years ago, he still lectures there. He now lives with his GP wife and family in Golspie, Sutherland.

"I live in the Highlands, but this is a Scotland-wide role. SNH is playing a significant role in the south, through the Central Scot-land Green Network," he says.

He is planning to maintain his predecessor's practice of hosting regular informal public meetings across Scotland, to reinforce the larger public service role of SNH, which he believes is consistent with protecting the environment.

The SNH post pays £325.22 per day for a time commitment of 144 days per annum, although SNH chairmen normally do a lot more.

Mr Ross is already a member of the Scottish Police Authority Board, which is £300 per day, 10 days per month reducing to five from April 1. This has led some to bandy about words such as 'quangoteer'. He justifies this latter role on the basis of his considerable involvement in police boards as a councillor. "I have been involved in police reform issues for some time, so perhaps my appointment made some sense."

Certainly he is hardly the caricature of the money-grabbing professional quangoteer, given his long and impressive history of voluntary commitment and service.

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