A senior figure at NatureScot expressed concern there was no “coherent strategy” at the Scottish Government’s wildlife agency on how to tackle the decline of some of Scotland’s most precious natural sites.
Internal emails obtained by The Ferret, using freedom of information law, reveal discussions between NatureScot staff ahead of the publication of official statistics in May 2021 on the condition of the nation’s natural features. These include habitats, species and geological features such as fossil beds and caves.
Critics said it was “astounding” and a “real worry” that NatureScot apparently had “no coherent strategy” to manage sites it is responsible for. The wildlife agency said in reply that almost 80 per cent of features on Scotland’s protected areas are in favourable or recovering condition and that the “long-term trend is one of improvement”.
NatureScot monitors 1,800 protected sites which are home to 5,460 natural features. Of those features 5,301 were assessed by 31 March 2021 and NatureScot reported last May that 78.3 per cent of those were in a favourable or recovering condition. This represented a decrease of 0.5 per cent over the previous year, and 2.1 per cent since 2016 when it peaked at 80.4 per cent.
A subsequent investigation by The Ferret and The Herald – as part of the How Green is Scotland series published last October – revealed that 531 habitats and 603 species were in poor condition. It also found that climate change had impacted 43 protected sites and 76 natural features, prompting calls for urgent action to combat the twin climate change and wildlife crises and help preserve Scotland’s natural heritage.
Concerns have now been voiced over the internal NatureScot emails and an apparent lack of strategy to tackle declines. The email exchange was in May 2021, a week before the monitoring report was published.
In emails released to The Ferret, Ben Ross, NatureScot’s head of protected areas and nature reserves, was discussing the forthcoming publication of the official 2021 statistics for protected sites with Brian Eardley, NatureScot’s Protected Areas Manager.
On 6 May, Ross wrote: “I’ve had a look at the briefing and lines to take and added few comments. Biggest of all is that I think that we need to be more up‐front about what we are going to do. The inevitable question is not just about why the figures are slowly declining but what are we doing about it? Here we can talk about the PA review, resilience, 30×30, partnership working, deer management, INNS.”
Eardley replied later that day: “Thanks for your comments on the Lines to Take/Briefing papers. I totally agree with what you say – we didn’t include these issues in the past because various directors were nervous about opening this particular can of worms as beyond DFC (delivering favourable condition) there hasn’t been a coherent strategy of what we were going to do about any declines – apart of course carrying on working locally to get agreement on management change and ensuring we used what influence we had to ensure the incentive mechanisms were there (in theory at least!).”
Politicians and campaigners have now raised concerns. Liam Kerr, the Scottish Conservative shadow net zero and energy secretary, said “serious questions must be answered” as to why NatureScot “apparently have no coherent strategy” to manage the sites they are responsible for.
Kerr said: “For an organisation that gets millions of pounds of public money to not have a strategy on its main responsibility is unacceptable and they must rectify this as a matter of urgency.”
Scottish Labour’s environment spokesperson Colin Smyth described the comments as “astounding” but claimed they were “undoubtedly true”. He also accused the SNP of missing biodiversity targets for years and said urgent action must be taken to restore protected sites.
“There has never been a shred of a coherent strategy in the SNP’s response to the nature emergency we are facing,” Smyth claimed. “The SNP-Green government must waste no more time and show the leadership needed to deliver a genuinely coherent and effective strategy.”
Aedán Smith, RSPB Scotland’s head of conservation policy, said it was a “real worry to read that NatureScot previously had no coherent strategy” to tackle declines. He added: “The degraded and declining condition of many of Scotland’s protected wildlife sites is a major concern and NatureScot have been under pressure to resolve this for a number of years.”
However, Smith argued it was welcome to see that NatureScot had since identified a number of areas for improvements. “This, along with positive actions such as the recently announced Nature Restoration Fund by the Scottish Government, give us hope that Scotland’s wildlife might start to be given some of the investment it desperately needs,” Smith added.
A spokesperson for Plantlife Scotland said: “A strategy to address these declines is urgently required – only when Scotland’s protected sites are in favourable ecological condition will they be able to function as the backbone of the much wider ecological network which we so urgently require to address the biodiversity crisis.”
NatureScot’s director of nature and climate change, Nick Halfhide, said that almost 80 per cent of features on Scotland’s protected areas are in “favourable or recovering condition” and that the long-term trend is one of improvement.
He added: “This is testament to the hard work on the ground with land managers and partners to tackle pressures affecting these sites and to promote their recovery.”
Halfhide conceded more needs to be done but pointed out there is no “simple solution, with complex interactions and pressures beyond site boundaries at a landscape and even global scale. “For example, the prey distribution and availability affect both declining seabird and marine mammal populations and are brought about by a combination of factors, including climate change,” he continued.
“Protected areas are hugely important, and to further improve their condition and, crucially, to tackle the nature and climate emergencies more widely, we need to look beyond their boundaries.
“The emerging Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, our 2021 protected areas review and the commitment to conserve at least 30 percent of Scotland by 2030 provide a basis for a more integrated and strategic approach to do this working collaboratively with all sectors.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to addressing the twin challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change, and expanding and improving protected areas is an important part of how we do this. We have already created the Nature Restoration Fund, which will invest £13.5m a year in projects that restore our natural environment, and are developing a new biodiversity strategy that will be published later this year. The strategy will include a commitment to protect at least 30% of land and sea for nature and highly protect 10% – a world-leading target.”
Photo Credit: iStock/Alan Morris