Anne McCall: fighting the good fight
RSPB Scotland director Anne McCall has been through thick and thin in conserving her country’s natural heritage. She tells Huw Morris about her battles with US multimillionaires, important partnerships and holding ministers to account.
Anne McCall could be forgiven for having a problem with US businessmen who want to build golf courses on highly protected sites. With her extensive background as a planner, RSPB Scotland’s first female director was a key objector to Donald Trump’s plans to build a golf course partly on Aberdeenshire’s Foveran Links, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). She was heavily involved in the public inquiry, which ultimately backed Trump’s scheme.
“The public inquiry was not planning’s finest hour,” she recalls. “It was hard to get away from his influence and reputation, and as a system we didn’t deal with it well. What’s depressing is that what they proposed to mitigate its effects wasn’t going to work.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been shown to be right. The dunes have been damaged, the SSSI has been ruined, the mitigation has not worked, the economic benefits and the huge scale of investment have not materialised.”
The Trump Organisation’s latest proposal, to build 550 luxury homes near the golf course, has prompted 3,000 people to formally object to the plans; another 19,000 have signed an online petition.
“People have realised that there were a lot of promises and a great deal of under-delivery, and they’re not willing to take the chance again. It’s contrary to the development plan and I hope Aberdeenshire Council takes a more sceptical approach.”
She says it is depressing to have had “an almost identical application” for a championship golf course at Coul Links, near Embo in East Sutherland – one of Scotland’s last undeveloped species-rich dune habitats. Highland Council granted consent to plans by Todd Warnock and Mike Keiser for this SSSI, Special Protection Area and Ramsar site, although both businessmen reject comparisons with Trump. The Scottish government called in the consent in August, with a public inquiry due next year.
“Once again, we are being promised a great deal in economic returns,” says McCall. “I just hope we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”
A rocky road
McCall has experienced bitter disappointment elsewhere with her conservation work: RSPB Scotland unsuccessfully challenged the Scottish government on consents for four offshore wind farms in the Forth and Tay last year. Renewable energy projects are crucial to tackling climate change, she says – but not if they cause direct damage to wildlife.
“If we look at onshore wind in Scotland, we’ve avoided significant issues for nature, and from a conservation view we have no horrible news stories. But the primary focus is moving offshore, and that is presenting a grave risk to our seabird population.
“The British Isles is one of the richest areas in the world for seabirds. It’s a globally important population and the majority of them are in Scotland, amounting to some five million seabirds and including a third of Europe’s breeding seabirds. However, they are declining fast globally.
“We challenged the Forth and Tay wind farms because the scale of the impact was unprecedented. The government, in consenting to them, was willing to accept these massive impacts with no compensatory conservation measures.
“The UK government has an ambition to install 50 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2050 – a sixfold increase on the current operational capacity. The Netherlands
is looking at 60 gigawatts of offshore wind, and there are plans for cross-border floating energy hubs. There are 7.8 gigawatts of offshore wind in the North Sea at the moment, but you could be looking at 180 gigawatts capacity by 2050. The nature of the North Sea will change dramatically.”
The big challenge, she explains, is to find a strategic solution that accommodates both seabirds and offshore wind farms – “joining the dots on climate change without destroying our natural heritage”.
“We need to talk about conservation measures that would be good for seabirds, such as restoring seabird islands, eradicating non-native species, providing security and safe places to nest, reducing pressure on sand dunes and improving cross-border cooperation.
“Undertaking legal challenges is costly, time-consuming hard work, and we never do it lightly. The stakes were high”
“Those conversations are not happening,” she continues. “We challenge governments when we think they are making the wrong decisions. I believe we did the right thing. Undertaking legal challenges is costly, time-consuming hard work, and we never do it lightly. The stakes were high, and we had no choice.”
Partnerships are “utterly critical”, she argues, and core to her organisation’s business. RSPB Scotland has form here, from the peatland restoration project in the Flow Country and its corporate relationship with Famous Grouse through to the Orkney Native Wildlife Project. Its latest partnership is Cairngorms Connect, the UK’s biggest habitat restoration project. Under this partnership of neighbouring land managers, RSPB Scotland is committed to a 200-year vision to enhance habitats and species across 600 square kilometres within the Cairngorms National Park.
“No single body is going to halt the loss of biodiversity on its own,” McCall admits. “Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes – public, private, charities or individuals – but the bottom line is that we have to work with other people.”
One recent partnership with NHS Shetland involves GPs offering ‘nature prescriptions’; patients access nature as part of a non-drug approach to improving health. There is growing awareness of such links. Research by environment charity the Nature Conservancy found that nearly half of humans across the world live in population densities that damage their mental wellbeing. This mirrors the RSPB’s 2013 research with Essex University, which found that four in five children were not connected with nature. This is leading to the phenomenon of ‘shifting baselines’, in which expectations of the natural world shift with each generation.
“What you grow up with becomes the new normal, and that’s how a spiral of decline becomes embedded,” McCall explains. “Through working with different bodies, we are increasingly aware of connections between mental health and the natural environment.
“With the Shetland project, there is a moral imperative for us to halt the loss of biodiversity. But the more we learn about the effect that alienating ourselves from the natural world has on us, the clearer it becomes that to start restoring and stop destroying nature is in our own interest.
“It’s a curiosity that, as a species, we choose to live apart from the environment and see it as an issue or a government department, rather than the context in which we all live.”
RSPB Scotland has a considerable role in that context. Its landholding amounts to 77 nature reserves, totalling more than 72,000 hectares. It is Scotland’s biggest nature conservation estate and supports thousands of rare and threatened species. This leaves McCall well placed to comment on the state of the country’s natural environment.
According to RSPB Scotland’s State of Nature 2016 report, “the general trend of decline that we see elsewhere in the UK is the same in Scotland”. Other alarm bells come courtesy of World Wide Fund for Nature research that found humanity has wiped out 60% of global wildlife populations in 45 years. McCall also cites Scottish Natural Heritage’s (SNH) report on the country’s progress in meeting 20 Aichi biodiversity targets, published in May. This found that Scotland is meeting seven targets, but needs further action on 12 in order to reduce key pressures from pollution, land-use change, invasive species and climate change. Funding is one Aichi target that is heading in the wrong direction: SNH’s budget has been slashed by 26% during the past five years.
“We have a rich natural heritage, and we take it for granted at our peril,” says McCall. “By any measure, we’re not halting the loss of biodiversity. We know we can turn it around in certain circumstances, but we’ve still got quite a hill to climb.
“If we can diagnose the problem and tackle it, with the financial framework altered so the solution can be delivered, we can change things. That is encouraging, but it requires strong political leadership.”
Future challenges will include Scotland’s emerging forestry policy and finding a replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy. The Welsh government and Whitehall have “opened up the discussion over what is possible,” McCall says, but Scotland is “a bit light on what the long-term vision is”.
Brexit is furrowing McCall’s brow in other ways, especially as 80% of UK environmental legislation comes from Europe. The Scottish government has made some signals about retaining existing laws, but details are uncertain.
The Habitats Directive has been especially influential for conservation, she argues. “Species fare much better in countries implementing the Habitats Directive than countries that do not. It’s been pivotal for 30 years, and it’s the real cornerstone of protecting the environment.
“We have had SSSIs since 1949 and we used to see 10%-15% of those sites damaged every year. Since the Habitats Directive, that has fallen to 2%-3%. It’s had a huge impact, and that’s largely because you can take complaints somewhere and have results. What will happen with a future watchdog and how that works out across the four countries in the UK is uncertain.”
A career in conservation
1992 Graduates with a master’s degree in politics and history from Edinburgh University
1992 Internship at State of Maine Planning Office
1995 Graduates with a master’s degree in town and country planning from Heriot-Watt University
1995 Planning adviser at New Lives New Landscapes
1996 Peatland officer, then greenspace planning researcher, at Scottish Wildlife Trust
1996 Planning assistant at North Lanarkshire Council
1998 Conservation planning officer at the RSPB
2000 Head of planning and development, RSPB Scotland
2008 Regional director, RSPB
2017 Director, RSPB Scotland
Huw morris is a freelance journalist