Formal monitoring of Scotland’s most precious and threatened wildlife by the Scottish Government’s nature agency has been slashed more than fivefold over the last decade.
Official figures reveal that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has reduced the number of “natural features” covered by its annual site condition monitoring programme from 1,261 in 2009 to just 231 in 2019.
The revelation has sparked anxiety amongst environmental groups and politicians, who fear that nature is suffering because of financial cutbacks. Environmental damage may be missed and current figures could underestimate the crisis facing wildlife, they warn.
SNH, however, points out that the way it monitors protected areas has “changed significantly”, with more regular informal checks to detect problems. There is “no reduction” in monitoring, it claims.
The Ferret has also revealed that annual site inspections by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) fell by a quarter between 2014-15 and 2018-19, while prosecutions of polluters have dropped. Sepa’s budget has been cut by 34 per cent between 2010-11 and 2019-20.
Scottish Natural Heritage is responsible for the health of 5,388 natural features on 1,895 wildlife conservation areas across Scotland. As well as endangered species, the features include habitats such as woodlands, lochs and reefs as well as geological formations such as fossil beds and caves.
The species include wildcats, pine martins, red squirrels, eagles, puffins, trees, plants, insects and many others. The sites, which cover 18 per cent of Scotland’s land and freshwater, include many of Scotland iconic places such as Ben Nevis, Glencoe, the Cairngorms, Arthur’s Seat, Loch Lomond, the River Tweed and St Kilda.
According to the latest evidence, populations of almost half of Scotland’s monitored species reduced in numbers between 1994 and 2016. Some 642 Scottish species – 11 per cent of those assessed – are threatened with extinction, and a fifth of monitored wildlife sites are in a poor condition.
The new figures on SNH monitoring were disclosed by the environment minister, Mairi Gougeon, in a parliamentary answer at Holyrood. They showed a fivefold decline in the number of natural features covered annually by SNH’s site condition monitoring programme since 2009.
The decline in wildlife monitoring
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Gougeon said that the proportion of natural features covered had fallen from 23 per cent in 2009 to four per cent in 2019. An earlier parliamentary answer in 2019 revealed that SNH spending on site condition monitoring had fallen by a third from nearly £1 million to £642,000 between 2013-14 and 2017-18.
In 2019 Gougeon also stated more than half of the 3,710 natural features in the majority of protected areas – those designated as sites of special scientific interest – had had no formal site condition monitoring assessments for six years.
The parliamentary answers were all obtained by Scottish Labour’s environment spokesperson, Claudia Beamish MSP. “The SNP government is failing to act in the face of the climate and nature emergencies,” she told The Ferret.
“The Scottish Government is only on track to meet seven out of 20 of its international biodiversity targets this year.”
Beamish blamed a steep drop in government spending on SNH. “The cuts have inevitably had a serious impact,” she said.
“One of these is the radical reductions in site inspections, meaning one of SNH responsibilities has been jeopardised. Without adequate monitoring of wildlife and habitats, how can SNH and all with a commitment to protection our natural world possibly know how to act appropriately?”
An analysis by environmental groups reported by The Ferret in December suggested that SNH’s budget allocation from the Scottish Government fell 42 per cent in real terms from £80.5 million in 2010-11 to £46.5 million in 2019-20.
Scottish Environment Link, which brings together 39 wildlife, countryside and campaign groups, pointed out that protected areas were the “jewels in Scotland’s nature crown”. It was “vital” that they were adequately and regularly monitored, it argued.
“The decline in the number of protected area features that have been monitored over the last decade is extremely concerning,” said Link’s chief officer, Dr Deborah Long.
“These sites are important because of how they link into the wider countryside. If they are not in good condition and we can’t identify how to manage them, Scotland is weakened in its ability to withstand climate change and biodiversity decline.”
Long added: “It is crucial that SNH are able to assess their condition at an appropriate scale and put in place management measures to improve that condition and maintain it.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland agreed. “It is very concerning that monitoring of Scotland’s protected areas has declined significantly when we’re in the middle of a climate and nature emergency,” said the society’s senior policy officer, Isobel Mercer.
“These are our most important places for wildlife, safeguarding species like the enigmatic golden eagle and habitats like our carbon-rich peatlands.”
Mercer warned that declines in monitoring meant that Scotland could be underestimating how many sites were in a poor condition. “Monitoring of protected areas is a critical early warning system, telling us whether wildlife is thriving or declining,” she added.
Scottish Natural Heritage accepted that site condition monitoring was important, but insisted that problems were detected by a system of less formal checks. “There is no reduction to the monitoring programme,” an SNH spokesperson said.
“The condition of over 98 per cent of the 5,388 natural features hosted on designated sites have been assessed by 31 March 2019. Over the past 10 years the way in which assessments are carried out has changed significantly and we need less staff resource to do it.”
There had been “a move towards more regular site checks of natural features to supplement the detailed quantitative data collected through the formal site condition monitoring (SCM) assessment process,” SNH said.
“The purpose of a site check is to verify the previous SCM assessment, keeping an overview of how natural features are faring and any pressures they face so that early action can be taken to address any problems.”
According to the Scottish Government, SNH experts were “best placed” to determine how to undertake monitoring. “SNH’s budget has been protected over the past two years,” said a government spokesperson.
“When in-year adjustments are taken into account, their budget has increased by £8 million in 2018-19 and more than £11 million in 2019-20. The Scottish Government is committed to protecting our natural environment.”
The government accepted that the international targets to protect wildlife diversity were “challenging”, but argued that Scotland had done better than other countries. “However, we are not complacent and we will continue our efforts to deliver improvements,” the spokesperson added.