Search begins for new wildlife guardian

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Wanted: knight in shining armour to defend England's wildlife. Must be passionate, tough as nails, clever, worldly-wise and charismatic. If already famous, even better.

Wanted: knight in shining armour to defend England's wildlife. Must be passionate, tough as nails, clever, worldly-wise and charismatic. If already famous, even better.

The advertisement which appeared 10 days ago for a new chairman of English Nature to succeed Baroness Young of Old Scone did not quite put it that way, but those are the real qualifications for the job.

For the person who next heads the Government's nature conservation advisory body will not only be defending wild animals, birds, insects, plants and landscapes from the ravages of development, pollution and human greed; they may sometimes be publicly defending them - as Lady Young has done in the row over genetically-modified crops - from the Government itself.

The chairmansip of English Nature has been completely transformed by the feisty Lady Young in her two-year tenure. The Labour peer has taken it from complete invisibility to the highest of profiles and one of the key roles in Britain's environmental sector.

Under the seven-year tenure of her predecessor, Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, the fifth Earl of Cranbrook and expert on the bats of Borneo, English Nature seemed to specialise in not rocking the boat.

By contrast Lady Young showed at once she would take a Labour government on by planting her organisation smack in the way of Tony Blair's personal enthusiasm for GM technology. Under her leadership English Nature demanded a four-year moratorium on the commercial growth of GM crops in Britain until their effects on wildlife could be assessed. Mr Blair said no moratorium. The moratorium is now in place.

On the other hand the pragmatic baroness has been the most prominent public supporter of the Government's Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, which contains vital legislation to strengthen protection for wildlife sites. Lady Young made a bold switch in mid-career from health service management to become the chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1991. Over the next seven years she transformed the RSPB from a birdwatchers' organisation into a powerful national green campaign group.She joined English Nature as chairman in 1998 and is leaving next month to become chief executive of the Environment Agency, whose 10,500 employees and £625m budget dwarf English Nature's 700 staff and £50m annual resources.

Some names now being canvassed as her replacements include the journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, the botanist David Bellamy, the urban ecologist Chris Baines and Lord Melchett, the head of Greenpeace.

"It's an immensely important appointment," said Michael Meacher, the Environment minister and the man who will chair the selection panel. "We're looking for somebody who is high-profile, charismatic and dedicated with a good track record as a good administrator. Asking a lot, isn't it?"

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