7 things Scotland can do now to help nature – and ourselves

13 May 2024

Scottish Environment LINK’s Chief Officer Deborah Long outlines seven actions Scotland can take now as a country to protect and restore nature, build our resilience to climate change and create a better place to live for current and future generations. 

In 2023 average global temperatures rose above 1.5oc. Scotland’s biodiversity intactness is amongst the lowest in Europe. Without action, temperatures will continue to rise, nature will continue to decline. Now is not the time to be distracted. 

These changes are impacting on Scotland’s people now. Storms last year rose in frequency, with more than twice as many named storms between September 2023 – January 2024 than the previous 6 months.  Scotland loses an estimated 920,000 tonnes of soil per year, and soil erosion costs businesses £50 million annually. Flood damage to property is expected to increase by 20% by 2050 across the UK. Insurance premiums for homes that have flooded once are now almost twice as expensive as homes that haven’t flooded, up nearly 30% in cost from January 2023. 

When climate change combines with biodiversity loss, the consequences are even wider reaching. Ocean warming is moving fish populations further north, while Scotland’s seabirds are affected by avian flu and having to travel further for food, resulting in lower chick survival rates. Scottish farmers are experiencing higher aphid populations, which are impacting on yield. Tick numbers are increasing, matched by a higher incidence of human infections and putting pressure on the NHS. 

Against this background, while the political rhetoric has been strong, delivery on the ground has been weak. Just last month, NFU Scotland were calling for environmental regulations to be suspended because of the adverse impacts of a changing climate. Farming is the second highest emitting sector in Scotland but the sector with the highest potential to contribute to sustainable solutions.  

The quickest and most logical and cost effective way out of this crisis is to work with nature, to repair nature so she can help us. Without functioning ecosystems, where river flood plains contain excessive rainwater, where forests and farmland can withstand storms, where predator populations can keep aphids in check, we have no long term solution. Our best chance is to build biodiversity and nature’s resilience to change and with that our own. 

What should we be doing now? 

1 Manage deer to sustainable levels

Deer numbers in Scotland are too high, having increased to about 1 million wild deer in 2024 from about half a million in 1990. This is beyond the capacity of Scotland’s ecosystems. By bringing down deer numbers, we will rebuild diverse and well adapted mountain plant communities that hold together upland soils and reduce erosion. We will also drive down tick infestations.  

2 Create woodland along rivers

Creating woodland along rivers provides natural flood management by keeping river waters upstream for as long as possible. Trees along riverbanks create habitat and shade for salmon and insect populations and hold back mountain soils. 

3 Reduce pesticide use and increase on-farm biodiversity 

Reducing pesticides helps hoverflies, ladybirds and other insects survive in enough numbers to manage aphid infestations, for example. Increased plant biodiversity reduces soil wash out into rivers, reduces fertiliser demand and reduces river and loch eutrophication (when bodies of water become overwhelmed with algae, depleting oxygen levels). 

4 Build nature networks  

Creating nature networks helps strengthen the survival of rare species, builds genetic diversity by connecting individuals together, and increases habitat space so that local populations falls do not wipe out entire rare populations. They enable species to move when habitat becomes inhospitable. 

5 Diversify forestry and woodland  

Forests and woodlands with more species diversity are more resilient to disease and storms, limit species invasion onto adjacent habitats, support more biodiversity, create more interesting forests and support more livelihoods. 

6 Involve local communities 

 When local communities are involved in decision making, they are more supportive of change, they have agency and choice via increased local economic opportunities and they bequeath a better legacy to future generations. 

7 Set statutory nature targets  

Having realistic but stretching targets to aim for drives ambition and enables us to measure progress. They help us prioritise and drive action on nature restoration, and all the points above.   

These actions are all easy to implement. They need no new technology. They just need resource and application. As a crucial driver of some of these measures, the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament could, and must, support farmers in maintaining healthy soils, building resilient crops through healthy insect populations and biodiverse flora, and retaining flood waters in upland areas.  

By maintaining a clear-eyed focus on doing all we can to protect and restore our natural environment, we’ll allow nature to help us build a much better future: a low carbon, high nature world.  

Image: Calum McLennan

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