More than 1,700 of Scotland’s most precious wild animals, plants and places are in a poor state – and 600 of them are getting worse.
The latest official assessments reveal that harbour seals, otters, puffins, ospreys, capercaillie and pearl mussels are all suffering, as are woodlands at Rannoch and Aberfeldy, and plants on Ben Lomond, Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. The overall condition of the nation’s natural treasures is slightly worse than it was ten years ago.
Farmers, foresters and landowners are blamed for the decline, along with invasive species, recreational disturbance and water pollution and use. Development, dumping, climate change and wildlife crime are also fingered.
Government suggestions that nature conservation is improving are angrily rejected by environmental groups as “a bureaucratic conjuring trick” and “spin”. They are calling on ministers to devote more resources to protecting wildlife.
The government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), has published its 2016 assessments of 5,271 natural features on Scotland’s 1,866 protected areas. The proportion categorised as simply “favourable” is 66.6 per cent, down from 67.5 per cent in 2007.
According to SNH’s figures, 601 natural features are “unfavourable declining”, while 430 are “unfavourable no change”. It defines a further 399 features as “unfavourable recovering due to management change” and 327 as just “unfavourable recovering” (see tables below).
But when SNH summarises the totals, it re-classifies the latter two “unfavourable” categories as “favourable”. This enables ministers to claim that they have now met their target to get at least 80 per cent of natural features in a favourable condition by 2016.
The state of Scotland’s natural treasures
|Unfavourable no change||430|
|Unfavourable recovering due to management change||399|
Source: Scottish Natural Heritage
This is dismissed, however, by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland. “We really are concerned that the benefits claimed for management change have not actually resulted in any overall improvement of these sites on the ground,” said the society’s head of conservation policy, Lloyd Austin.
He pointed out that the condition of sites had remained “almost static” since monitoring began more than 10 years ago. “In effect this is just like saying that a sick patient is cured because their name is on a waiting list, while the reality is that their condition continues to deteriorate,” he told The Ferret.
“In truth this is nothing more than a bureaucratic conjuring trick when what is needed is adequate resource provision and targeted management at these sites. Scotland’s protected nature sites deserve a whole lot better than this.”
A comprehensive analysis by RSPB Scotland shows that 61 per cent of upland ash, 55 per cent of raised bog and 54 per cent of oak features are being damaged by invasive species, such as rhododendron and sitka spruce. Upland habitats are under severe pressure from overgrazing by deer and livestock.
Poor water management is impacting 74 per cent of golden plover and 68 per cent greenshank features, while significant proportions of salmon, hen harrier and loch features are suffering from agricultural and forestry operations.
SNH’s own figures show a marked decline in some major natural features over the last year, including terrestrial and marine mammals, fish, insects and mosses. One site, Culbin sands and forest on Findhorn Bay, is listed as “partially destroyed” because of illegal waste dumping.
According to SNH’s report, seabirds in many areas are declining because the fish they feed on are being taken by the fishing industry or shifting due to climate change. “There is no immediate action that can be taken to relieve these wider pressures”, it says – and so considers these features favourable when it reports on the state of Scotland wildlife.
Dr Deborah Long, head of Plantlife Scotland, argued that it was “unhelpful” to describe unfavourable features as favourable. “With the exceptionally low level of resources available to support Scotland’s nature it is difficult to see how, or when, “unfavourable recovering” might actually become favourable,” she said.
She pointed out that valuable grasslands were in decline. These included the flower-rich machair on the west coast and the unique groups of arctic and alpine plants on mountain tops.
The grassland features on some protected areas were in such a poor condition that they were being officially de-designated, Long said. This was happening at Kenmure Holms just south of New Galloway and at Swallow Craig in Fife.
She added: “If we are serious about retaining our magnificent biodiversity and the natural habitats that draw people and business from across the world, we need more action and commitment to protect the nature that makes Scotland so special.”
Craig Macadam, from Buglife in Scotland, highlighted that a quarter of species and one in 10 insect features were in unfavourable condition. “Behind the spin the reality is more worrying,” he said.
“More needs to be done to address the pressures that are hampering the recovery of these and other species, not only on protected sites but across the length and breadth of Scotland.”
Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, promised to ask the Scottish Parliament’s new environment committee how much actual progress had been made. “It’s critical that our new Scottish Parliament tests to destruction this dubious way of measuring environmental progress,” he said.
SNH stressed that the figures should be interpreted with care. The proportion of natural features in favourable or unfavourable but recovering condition had now topped 80 per cent, it stated.
“It is the first time this milestone has been achieved,” said SNH’s designated sites manager Brian Eardley. “It has been accomplished through work with the private, public and voluntary sector.”
It meant that the Scottish Government’s target for 2016 had been met, he argued. A previous target – to achieve 95 per cent of protected areas in favourable condition by 2010 – was missed.
Eardley also defended the way that SNH categorised natural features. “We have been consistent and explicit in explaining the breakdown between actual favourable and the other unfavourable recovering categories,” he said.
“The inclusion of ‘recovering due to management’ gives a better indication of changes made to benefit the feature which may not yet be picked up by site condition monitoring.”
Scotland depended on a rich diversity of wildlife, Eardley added. “It is a huge asset to the economy and to the health and wellbeing of the population. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure our special biodiversity is looked after and protected for future generations.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The continued improvements seen in 2015 and over the past decade reflect the concerted efforts of SNH, land managers and environmental organisations to improve the condition of these special areas. Much of the work to improve these nature sites has received support under the Scottish rural development programme.”
30 nature sites that are getting worse
|Abernethy Forest, Highland||Osprey|
|Ailsa Craig, South Ayrshire||Kittiwake|
|Ardnamurchan Burns, Highland||Freshwater pearl mussel|
|Ben Lomond, Stirling||Snowbed|
|Ben Nevis, Highland||Grassland|
|Birks of Aberfeldy, Perth and Kinross||Upland ash woodland|
|Black Wood of Rannoch, Perth and Kinross||Upland birch woodland|
|Cairngorms, Highland||Otter, Dotterel|
|Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands, Highland||Blanket bog|
|Cape Wrath, Highland||Puffin|
|Crannach Wood, Argyll and Bute||Native pinewood|
|Dornoch Firth, Highland||Sand dunes|
|Drumochter Hills, Perth and Kinross||Mountain willow scrub|
|Duddingston Loch, Edinburgh||Eutrophic loch|
|Fair Isle, Shetland Islands||Arctic tern, kittiwake, puffin, shag|
|Firth of Forth, East Lothian||Goldeneye, great crested grebe, knot|
|Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary, Fife||Harbour seal|
|Glen Coe, Highland||Dry heaths|
|Glen Lochay Woods, Stirling||Upland birch, ash, oak|
|Loch Doon, East Ayrshire||Arctic charr|
|Loch Lomond, West Dunbartonshire||Capercaillie|
|Loch Morar, Highland||Native pinewood|
|Minto Craigs, Scottish Borders||Beetles|
|Mull of Galloway, Dumfries and Galloway||Plants|
|Roslin Glen, Midlothian||Upland ash woodland|
|River Tweed, Scottish Borders||Plants|
|St Andrews Craig Hartle, Fife||Lowland grassland|
Source: Scottish Natural Heritage
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 15 May 2016.
Photo credit: Capaercaillie | CC | David Palmer | https://flic.kr/p/bVzyc8