Saturday  5 October 2019, Paul Sizeland:

“What is Special about Scotland’s Biodiversity and Why It Matters”


Scottish Natural Heritage is a Non Departmental Public Body of the Scottish Government, formed in 1992 by a merger of the Countryside Commission for Scotland with the Nature Conservancy Council, now headquartered in Inverness and with 41 offices countrywide. Our remit is summed up through our strap-line ‘All of nature for all of Scotland’…reflecting the breadth of our role in terms of topic scope, geographical coverage and the fact that our work is relevant to everyone who lives in Scotland.  Four-fifths of its £46M budget is targeted at rural areas. This investment in Scotland’s natural capital helps connect its people with nature and improves the health and resilience of our natural environment.


Through SNH’s support and encouragement of volunteering, people of all ages are able to engage with nature through, for example; doing counts of birds or insects, developing our walking and cycling network, participating in outdoor learning activities and transforming spaces through funding from landscape partnerships and a green infrastructure fund. SNH leads delivery of Scotland's Biodiversity Strategy that includes a very broad suite of actions to enhancing the stewardship of our natural heritage.  Examples of that include managing and safeguarding the national matrix of protected areas like National Nature Reserves an Sites of Special Scientific Interest and areas of European and global designations.  SNH also influences and promotes the value of the natural environment’s contribution to economic development, sustainable strategies for food and drink production that work towards a low-carbon economy and responsible tourism while also combating wildlife crime. And SNH has transformed how it works, through developing partnerships and inspiring appreciation of the environment through use of the social media and providing funds that support innovation and flexibility to local priorities.


Scotland occupies a key position in the north-west corner of Europe at the meeting of Atlantic and Continental weather-systems.  Our oceans occupy six times our land mass, 22% of which comprises protected area status, which is more than the 17% of our land area that is under some form of statutory protection. Of our 90k animal and plant species, over 24k are invertebrates and 6 are unique to Scotland found nowhere else on earth.  With 20 kinds of marine mammals  including 30% of the world’s grey seal population, Scotland also has at the Bass Rock the world’s largest gannetry. Of our grassland environments, the coastal machair with its corncrakes and yellow bumblebees is unique to Scotland and Ireland, and dependent on low levels of managed herbivore grazing and hay cropping. We have heath and moorland which provide a homeland for ptarmigan, blue harebell, yellow rattle and thyme while supporting grouse-shooting and deer stalking. With 125k km of rivers and burns, 25k lochs and 220 km of canal, we boast the world’s largest freshwater pearl musselbeds and rare fish species including the Char, Vendace and Powan. Our carbon-rich soils represent 15% of the world’s blanket bog which has been steadily deepening ever since the last Ice Age. Iconic species such as Atlantic salmon, otters and beavers are also associated with our clean rivers, lochs, bogs and ponds.

We have 30k ha of Atlantic rainforest which shelters liverwort and lichen, our pinewoods include at Beinn Eighe the first genetic reserve for the Scots pine.  Dwarf willows take our woodland cover to the tops of mountains. Iconic animal species include salmon, otters and beavers, and we are home to an incredible 750k deer that with no natural predation put much pressure on woodland regeneration. 


For its size, Scotland has the greatest diversity of geology and landforms in the world, and is widely viewed as the birthplace of modern geology. The understanding gleaned from this ‘earth heritage’ is absolutely fundamental to sustaining our economy and society, ranging from industry to agriculture, from recreation and tourism to how we can best adapt to climate change.  Indeed, all the predictions of how our climate will change in future depend on the evidence ‘beneath our feet’.


There are hundreds of nationally and internationally important ‘geo’ sites across Scotland, ranging from rivers and coasts to mountain slopes, road cuttings and active quarries. Often perceived as being ‘robust’ many of their key features are vulnerable to a wide range of impacts including land-use changes, invasive vegetation, irresponsible specimen collecting and climate change.


SNH works with government and partners to conserve, enhance and raise awareness of our geological heritage. The recent Nature Conservation Order for Skye’s Middle Jurassic rocks is a key piece of legislation to help protect internationally important dinosaur remains.


Soils are also a vital part of our natural environment, underpinning the distribution of plant and animal species and influencing the character of our landscapes. Soils also control the flow and quality of our water and impact on climate change through the storage and emission of carbon dioxide.


Many species have evolved alongside us through our use of the land over centuries. With increased mechanisation, use of feritilzers and pesticides we now have more isolated areas for these species to thrive. Through this evolution we too have become reliant on nature for pollination, nutrient turnover in our soils, water filtration to name but a few benefits to growing food.


Species such as corn buntings, butterflies, bees and many species of small mammal co-exist in this landscape – often providing some of the first places for people to encounter nature. Connectivity is key in this worked landscape and supporting farmers to include wildlife in their farm business. Connectivity is needed in urban areas too so that animals may get about and humans may enjoy access to natural surroundings.


A global report in May 2019 drew attention to the main pressures on global biodiversity as; changes in the use of our land and sea, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasion of alien species such as the Himalayan balsam and rhododendron impoverishing our native diversity. Moreover it recognises that people have become disconnected from nature and do not afford it the value it deserves as our life support mechanism.  SNH clearly has a role to address this through efforts to reconnect people with nature.


The Scottish Government has declared a Climate Emergency and aspires that the country should be carbon-neutral by 2045, which will demand painful changes in the way that we live, work and travel. SNH believe that a nature-rich future is our best insurance against climate change.


The recent State of Nature report documenting a fall by one-quarter in Scottish wildlife over the last twenty-five years shows the scale of the challenge with 40% of mammal species at risk of extinction, but there are also successes. Svalbard geese numbers wintering at Caerlaverock have increased tenfold since the war. The pine crossbill and the Scots primrose remain uniquely Scottish species, while the wildcat is at the edge of its range. Beavers and sea-eagles have returned, and the Flow Country is the world’s best blanket bog that may soon become a world heritage site.


SNH activities here in Edinburgh include developing B-lines for pollinators, protection of the shoreline along the Forth and the Little France Park Project. There is a local biodiversity action partnership chaired by the Council that has seen encouragement of the dozen’s of “Friends of” parks and local nature reserves groups, community orchards and naturalised grass-cutting to promote Living Landscapes. The Water of Leith Conservation Trust manages the environs of Edinburgh’s river, there are Friends of the Pentlands guarding our hills and the Scottish Wildlife Trust looks after notable nature reserves at Red Moss and Bawsinch.


The vision of Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy is that by 2030 “Scotland is recognised as a world leader in looking after and improving nature. Everyone is involved ; everyone benefits. Scotland is greener, healthier and more prosperous.”