Richard Baynes

“This is the only job where I have had a public profile,” Francesca Osowska says. As if thinking even that’s a bit boastful, she mutters quickly: “I don’t even think I have one, really,” Then goes on to complete her point: “I find that quite difficult.”

We’re talking about why she wanted to lead Scottish Natural Heritage, the government wildlife and nature agency whose work is rapidly rising up the news agenda. As one of Scotland’s top civil servants for the past 20 years, and what most people would regard as an extremely sharp cookie, she must have known that in taking on the job of SNH chief executive in October 2017, she would be pushed increasingly into the public spotlight.

What she’s saying is that being in that spotlight, grabbing a bit of fame, is nothing to do with her reasons for wanting the job. Instead, while admitting it could sound trite, she says her motives are about “making a difference”.

“When I came into SNH there was a definite mandate from the Government and the SNH board to make SNH the best that it could be, so that’s one way of making a difference,” she says. So far, so much as to be expected from someone in her position, but what she says next shows the impact the job has had on her.

“I came into it without a very deep knowledge of the environment and ecology, sustainability. But now I think what we’re doing is crucial for generations in the future, and if I can in some small way support how Scotland’s nature can be enhanced, and then Scotland’s nature can enhance all of our lives, then I think that’s a fantastic thing.”

Osowska, now 48, grew up in Whitehaven on the Cumbria coast, a region that despite the scenic grandeur isn’t the wealthiest, in what she describes as an ordinary family, with her “mam” a teacher and her dad, son of a Polish refugee, a civil servant. They were well-off enough to send her to the local private school, but after O-levels she left to join the local state sixth-form college. When he heard of her decision, the private school’s head remarked: “Well, she’ll never get into Oxbridge.” That, she says, made her resolve to do exactly that, and she went on to read economics at Cambridge.

Her academic background no doubt helped get her onto the civil service’s fast stream for promotion, and she worked in Sheffield, London and Brussels – for the European Commission – before arriving in Edinburgh in 1997. Among the posts she has held have been head of sport for the Scottish Government; principal private secretary to First Minister Alex Salmond; director for culture, external affairs and tourism; director for housing, regeneration and the Commonwealth Games; and director for the Commonwealth Games and sport.

She became director for the UK Government’s Scotland Office in January 2015. Being head of the UK Government in Scotland was, she admits, a “big deal”, but she says: “The politics were difficult, the constitutional questions were complicated. It was a brilliant job, I saw a lot, you are up-close-and-personal with some of the really difficult political interface between the UK Government and the Scottish Government.”

But, she says, “Here [at SNH] I feel I have more of a chance of making a difference ... There’s still a political overlay but the mission is clear and it’s a really positive mission, a really inspiring mission. I talk to my friends about what we do and there’s a resonance, particularly at the moment, people are, like, ‘That’s great what you’re doing.’” She smiles: “The intricacy of UK/Scottish politics is not quite as good a conversation piece.”

She has, then, made a personal connection to this job, but in Scotland she has spent an average of less than three years in each role – so will she stay? “I’ve been here 20 months with SNH and it feels like I’ve just started. I’m not planning to move: I don’t think this is going to be a three-year stint.”

She is a “lapsed” competitive triathlete – she represented Great Britain in her age category, having only started when she was 30 – who still runs, swims and cycles, though not necessarily at the same time these days, and loves being in the outdoors.

That aspect of her life led to the only other job in Scotland where she felt she had a personal connection, in charge of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Of course that had to end, so for an outdoor lover SNH seems a natural home.

“When I first started in SNH and people asked what’s your connection with nature, the phrase I used was that I was ‘a consumer of nature’.

“I’m not sure if that’s a good phrase or not but I am out in it a lot. I live in Portobello and swim on the beach. I cycle in East Lothian and Midlothian, the Borders, and where do I want to run? You don’t want to run on concrete streets, you want to be in beautiful and inspiring places.”

Under her leadership, she says SNH has stepped up its communications work, and is telling more people about what it does and why it’s important. When she took on the job, the chair of SNH, Mike Cantlay, was new in post too, and together they were given a brief to take the organisation from “a position of perhaps slight shyness, reticence maybe, lacking in confidence ... to demonstrate what the organisation could do and the contribution that nature and nature-based policy could make to so many different agendas”.

That would explain why in May she overcame her distaste for personal publicity, stuck her head above the parapet and made a powerful statement about the importance of environmental protection and management. Osowska was giving this year’s Peter Wilson Memorial Lecture to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In it she outlined among other things an apocalyptic vision of Scotland in 2030, with deserted villages, dying forests and no birdsong, if we don’t attend to our environment.

This gripped the imagination of the media and emphasis was put on that vision, rather than the vast majority of the speech which was positive: she said it is not too late to act, Scotland can be a world leader in mitigating man-made environmental problems, and keeping Scotland nature-rich is the best line of defence.

She also called for action against the “main drivers of the demise of nature”, including tackling poverty and inequality.

Typically, her reaction to the media coverage is: “It’s nice to show your mam the press cuttings but there’s a bit that says, ‘that’s not me, I’m just a little girl from Whitehaven.’”

But that she’s prepared to stick up for the environment in that way demonstrates the sincerity of her conversion to a muscular, practical support for the environment. It’s a position that some of SNH’s detractors might find hard to understand.

The agency is inevitably the whipping boy for many different factions. The stories crop up week in, week out: SNH suggests landowners could be allowed to kill ravens without a licence, and is condemned by conservationists; the agency is blamed by bird-lovers for the disappearance of nesting terns in Leith Harbour; farmers are unhappy about plans for management of reintroduced beavers; the list goes on.

Then of course SNH has to deal with the varied and sometimes inconsistent positions of its political masters in the Scottish Government, which wants to be seen as clean and green while often allowing developments that make conservationists’ hair stand on end.

But Osowska’s focus, like that of many of her staff, is and has to be on finding a way to bridge the gap between the factions at war over our environment.

“Nature’s not simple – there are a number of different interests and we have to recognise that, particularly in Scotland, the productive sector is really important, whether that’s agriculture, commercial forestry, fishing ... they are as much our customers as dyed-in-the wool conservationists and I find a lot of what we’re doing increasingly is looking for the common ground.”

For all her optimism, public service finances are not improving. SNH has taken the hit of austerity like the rest, with a 25% cut in its budget in the years 2011-2016, and staff cut from 900 to 700.

She’s pleased that there has been no cash cut in the agency’s budget since then, but it is being asked to do more with what it’s got. As a result, she says, it is constantly looking at its finances, changing priorities, finding ways of working with third-sector partners and other agencies.

Lottery money – levered in by third-sector partners – is a source of funding she mentions. Last year it was reported that ridding Scotland of invasive rhododendron would cost £40 million a year for 10 years. Just £2m a year is being spent.

Does she despair that something as vitally important as the environment doesn’t get better resourced, and needs lottery handouts?

In response she explains how the agency is using the resources it has to drive a wider environmental agenda: “What we have tried to do since Mike and I started is demonstrate SNH’s relevance to a number of different Government agendas, and helping to address some of society’s inequalities.

“At first sight that might seem a million miles from what SNH should be doing ... but if you think about it in terms of a cohesive society and resilient communities, ensuring that we’ve got green spaces in our urban areas that provide that community cohesion, ensuring that some of our most disadvantaged areas can benefit from learning in the outdoors, that’s really important.

“Instilling that sense of nature helps society in so many different ways.”

At the suggestion that everyone paying a bit more tax might help, she laughs and says that’s “above my pay grade,” but adds: “What we can do in SNH is use our policies, whether it’s green infrastructure or outdoor learning in nature to reach more segments of society, more communities across Scotland, which hopefully will stay with them for all time and put pressure on the powers that be.”

She adds: “The more we can do to engage with a wider audience on why nature is important, the more likelihood there is we are going to build up a coalition, a movement, if you like, that can help support nature in the future through whatever channel.”

What is your best character trait? Decisiveness.

And your worst? Decisiveness! Sometimes the imperative to act quickly can get the better of me.

What is the best advice you ever received? Listen first, speak later.

Where is your favourite holiday destination? I cycled the Hebridean Way earlier in the year, and it was spectacular, so I’ll say the Outer Hebrides.

What is your favourite cuisine? Italian. And cheese…

What is the last book you read, and the last film you watched? The House between the Tides by Sarah Maine (set in the Outer Hebrides…); The Favourite

Who is your favourite musician? The Arcade Fire

Who, dead or alive, would be your ideal dinner-party guests? Paula Radcliffe, John Muir, Vincent Van Gogh, Al Gore