Environmental organisations in the UK recently wrote to the Prime Minister expressing concerns about how the Internal Market Act (IMA), passed in 2020 after Brexit, is negatively impacting environmental policymaking.
The letter was coordinated by APRS in the aftermath of the IMA being used to block Scotland’s deposit return system, with key support from the LINK organisations in Wales, Scotland and England.
This has been quite a challenge for me to get my head around, given the dry and rather arcane subject matter, but it is vital for anyone who cares about good environmental policy to understand the threat the IMA poses to our work in the environment movement.
I hope this blog helps, along with the videos we have produced, with Reloop, on the basics of the IMA.
Any policy that will affect goods and services at the point of sale needs an exemption to the IMA – this obviously affected deposit return but it would also affect such policy measures as single unit pricing, phase out of petrol/diesel cars, ban of disposable vapes, a ban on sale of snares and many other things.
Particularly importantly, especially for environmental campaigners, is that, before Brexit, the EU single market rules allowed for exemptions for environmental and public health policies. There is no such exemption under the IMA.
As Deborah Long, Chief Officer of Scottish Environment Link, said in the press release:
“We have already seen one direct effect of the Internal Market Act, when it was used by UK Ministers to impose serious restrictions on the Scottish deposit return system, legislation which was previously accepted as fully devolved to Scotland. Such a move would not have been possible prior to Brexit, given the exemptions available for environmental and public health policy within the EU single market rules.
“Unless these elements are amended or repealed, it seems likely that this scenario will repeat itself. Devolution has worked as a proving ground for positive policy measures, but without those changes, we will be left with a race to the bottom on environmental and public health standards.”
Prior to Brexit, devolution allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pioneer new policies which were then picked up across the UK. The most famous examples are the carrier bag charge (initiated in Wales and then adopted across the UK) and the ban on smoking in public places (initiated in Scotland and then similarly adopted across the UK). That pipeline of innovation has now been stifled, as the collapse of the Scottish deposit return system shows, and it is not an exaggeration to say that devolution itself is in jeopardy as far as environmental policy goes.
The first principle of devolution is that anything not reserved to Westminster in the relevant legislation is for the devolved institutions to legislate on. The Internal Market Act undermines that principle and has added uncertainty for institutions and businesses on what can actually be legislated.
Our aim, alongside the LINKs, is to raise awareness of the impacts of the IMA on environmental policy-making and ensure that the manifestos of the political parties for the next UK General election contain plans to amend it.
With this in mind we have, in addition to the letter to the PM, written to leaders from all the UK political parties, in UK and developed nations, sent a copy of the letter, and requested to meet.
APRS and Reloop produced a series of video explainers on what the IMA means for policymaking.
The open letter highlights that:
the Act has led to significant hurdles to progress on environmental issues, and added bureaucratic overheads to policy-making in every part of the UK;
it undermines the ability of the Scottish and Welsh institutions, and Northern Irish, as and when the current suspension ends, to operate in areas which were clearly devolved, as with deposit return;
the timescale for devolved institutions to begin the formal process that can lead to an exemption is unclear – in particular, does it begin before or after the Scottish Parliament or Senedd passes relevant legislation?
the way the Act is structured means that devolved institutions do not have certainty about policy-making even when Ministers at all levels believe an exemption is not required: third parties, like businesses, could still launch challenges under it; and
provisions made prior to the passage of the Act are protected (such as minimum unit pricing), but changes to those provisions are only protected if they are not “substantive”, a term which is not properly defined.
By Deborah Long, Chief Officer at Scottish Environment LINK
Scotland is renowned across the world for its landscapes, seas and wildlife. Despite that reputation, we are 28th from the bottom of countries in terms of the health of our biodiversity, as measured by the Biodiversity Intactness Index. Scotland’s wildlife is not doing well. If we want to continue seeing our wildlife spectacles, we need to act to halt the loss of nature and restore it. That way we can continue to enjoy it and pass it on to future generations.
This is why the new Natural Environment Bill, out for consultation from 7 September, is so important. It tackles a host of areas that with effective legislation in place, would make a serious and sustained positive contribution to Scotland’s ambitions to halt nature loss and restore it. It builds on the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy to 2045: tackling the nature emergency, which was published in draft in December 2022. In that, Scottish Environment LINK and our members welcomed the ambition for Scotland to be nature positive by 2030 and to have restored and regenerated biodiversity across the country by 2045.
Leading the Edinburgh Declaration at COP15 in December 2022, the Scottish Government helped formalise the role of all levels of government in meeting the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. As such, Scotland committed to set national targets to implement the framework, which itself sets out how we will reach the global vision of a world living in harmony with nature by 2050.
This leadership role, appropriate in a country renowned for its wildlife, is now being delivered through the proposed Natural Environment Bill. The consultation includes plans to introduce legal targets for nature restoration as well as the details of the first delivery plan for the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy.
Setting targets is important. It’s a way to measure progress towards the goal of halting the loss of nature and restoring it. Targets also help us understand better how much we completely rely on the natural world and the enormous risks to our future if we do not act. On 30 August we published our report on what the nature targets should look like and what they should aim to achieve. We have been clear that the targets must have a clear end date and milestones to measure progress towards that date, be focused on reversing current negative trends and on effective restoration of biodiversity to ecological health. They need to be measurable, achievable and realistic. What they will do, if they are all of those things, is help to focus our efforts and resources on effective action.
These targets also provide a helpful measure to sit alongside Scotland’s climate targets. Without them, we teeter on the edge of supporting action that meets climate targets but trashes biodiversity. Having both sets of targets lays this risk clear. Planting, for example, sitka across vast areas, does not meet biodiversity targets and in the wrong place, without nature networks, hinders it. Creating native woodland however, meets both climate and biodiversity targets.
The actions required to meet these targets is embedded in the Biodiversity Strategy and its delivery plans. These plans are also out for consultation and aim to provide the framework for focussed, effective action. They aim to accelerate the pace and scale of actions to halt the loss of biodiversity. Produced every 5 years, these plans will evolve as species and habitats move and recover so that by 2045, we are able to show what we’ve achieved and how nature has benefitted. Some examples that we will be looking for in this consultation include:
A national programme for ecosystem restoration: we warmly welcomed the commitment in the draft biodiversity strategy to a national programme of ecosystem restoration. Coordinated and delivered at ecosystem level, not land use level, will, we believe, enable Scotland to deliver effective action at scale.
A national programme for species recovery: we believe this is needed to sit alongside the programme for ecosystem recovery. It is not necessarily true that action at ecosystem level will automatically benefit all threatened species. Using NatureScot’s Species at Risk initiative to underpin this programme will be helpful.
For effectiveness, all proposed actions must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevent and have clear timescales.
Scotland’s Protected Areas are important and require specific action to help them deliver for threatened species and habitats. Our 30×30 report describes how to conserve nature in our wider land and seas. We are also looking for commitments in the delivery plans to improve Scotland’s protected areas on land and at sea so they are able to protect and restore species and habitats.
The marine environment is crucial for climate and nature action. We will be looking for marine actions to be effectively embedded alongside actions on land and at the coast. They need to be effective at scale and tackle the key pressures and drivers of change in Scotland’s marine habitats: the impact of climate change, fisheries and pollution.
We have high hopes for the targets and plans outlined in this consultation. LINK and our members are fully committed to continuing to do everything we can to restore Scotland’s environment for future generations. We will be playing our part fully, with conviction and encouraging and enabling others to do their bit too.
This is part of our work towards our vision that:
Scotland’s environment is connected | restored | resilient |
Our society and well being have nature at their heart, benefiting people, communities and the planet
As Scottish Environment LINK’s Nature Champions initiative celebrates its tenth year, Nature Champions Coordinator, Andy Marks, highlights its value in galvanising political support for Scotland’s threatened and iconic species and habitats.
It is incredibly heartening to catch Members of the Scottish Parliament discussing which species and habitats they are championing as part of the Nature Champions initiative. The light-hearted pride with which some MSPs announce the name of their species or habitat is very encouraging to hear, particularly when so few species and habitats have historically been recognised and valued in public life.
There were many exchanges of this kind at last week’s formal launch of the public exhibition, A Voice for Nature: 10 Years of Nature Champions. The free exhibition, which is located outside the front of the Scottish Parliament until 22nd September, highlights how past and present MSPs have been working as Nature Champions over the past decade to be a voice for nature in the Scottish Parliament.
For those unfamiliar with the initiative, Nature Champions works on a simple premise: each MSP champions a threatened or iconic Scottish species or habitat for the duration of that Parliamentary session. By becoming a Nature Champion, MSPs from all political parties work alongside Scottish Environment LINK members to champion their chosen species or habitats. Scottish Environment LINK members support MSPs by raising awareness of the threats the different species and habitats are facing, as well as the political action needed to halt or reverse these declines.
On a more individual level, part of the beauty and importance of the initiative is also its ability to foster unanticipated connections between our elected representatives and our natural environment. From attending site visits to see their species or habitats in situ, to meeting passionate members of their constituencies, the initiative helps to emphasise the value of Scotland’s species and habitats at a time of unprecedented decline in global biodiversity.
As the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report has described, the causes of biodiversity decline can be understood as falling into two categories: those so-called ‘direct’ drivers of global biodiversity loss including climate change, pollution, invasive non-native species, direct exploitation of organisms and changing use of lands and sea, and those ‘indirect’ drivers of biodiversity loss, namely, a cultural lack of value and recognition of the importance of nature, and a societal disconnect with nature. In Scotland, as with the rest of the world, these indirect drivers of biodiversity loss need to be addressed to prevent further biodiversity loss. In other words, to halt the ongoing decline of Scotland’s biodiversity (Scotland ranks in the lowest 15% of countries in terms of its biodiversity intactness) we must transform those values and behaviours that have led us here, and not just the immediate symptoms of an unsustainable culture.
In this vein, the Nature Champions initiative not only brings the direct drivers of biodiversity loss in Scotland to the attention of MSPs, particularly those that immediately affect their chosen species or habitat, but it also helps to transform the perceptions of MSPs towards different species and habitats, including those so-called ‘uncharismatic’ species or habitats: our ecologically vital leeches, lichens, molluscs and bogs, for example. Through learning more about their species or habitats, seeing them in person and meeting the people who rely upon and care for them, Nature Champions develop on-the-ground (or under-the-water!) relationships with Scotland’s wildlife. These connections are of the upmost importance if we are to successfully tackle the indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and ‘mainstream biodiversity into all areas of policy’, as recommended by the Scottish Parliament’s 2022 SPICe Spotlight report, Governing Nature – Halting Biodiversity Loss.
The initiative has been a huge success over the past ten years, with over 175 different MSPs becoming Nature Champions, and similar programmes taking off in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, as well as within schools, community groups and local authorities.
Since 2013, Scotland’s Nature Champions alone have lodged over 200 Parliamentary Motions and Questions in support of their species or habitats and discussed their roles in 17 Parliamentary Debates on the natural environment. They have also taken part in hundreds of site visits and constituency activities, many of which are featured in A Voice for Nature at the Scottish Parliament. These visits have included boat trips to Scotland’s rainforest to see mature oak woodlands, snorkeling with local residents in sea lochs to discover important flame shell beds, or even night walks around Holyrood Park to search for native bat species. Each of these encounters between a Nature Champion and their species or habitat has moved us a step closer towards meaningfully considering their interests in policymaking.
As we look to the future of Nature Champions, we hope that even more MSPs will take up the opportunity to become Nature Champions. At present, iconic and threatened species and habitats including the Black Grouse, Coastal Sand Dunes and Common Glow-worm, to name a few, remain without representation in the Scottish Parliament. With continued political buy-in, we hope to support Members of the Scottish Parliament to learn more about the extraordinary species and habitats that we live alongside, thereby encouraging the necessary revaluing of our natural environment as a key political priority for our future.
A Voice for Nature will be located outside the main entrance of the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, until Friday 22nd September. You can find out more about the exhibition, as well as all the audio clips and transcripts featured in the exhibition, on our website.
By Deborah Long, Chief Officer at Scottish Environment LINK. Originally published by the National.
HOW often do you think about nature? For many, the natural world is somewhere for relaxation or enjoyment – the place we go to disconnect, to get dirt underneath our fingertips, or to feel sun on our backs or cold water on our ankles.
But how often do you really think about nature, and how dependent we are upon it? The food on our plates, the clean air that we breathe, even the unspoken confidence that the river upstream will not flood our home – these are all aspects of our daily lives that are dependent on a healthy natural environment. And, sadly, nature is in decline.
The climate crisis is the most obvious example of the environmental challenges we face. The shocking impacts of wildfires and extreme weather we’ve witnessed globally this summer alone show how urgent it is that we rapidly reduce emissions.
But reducing emissions is only one part of the picture. The reason why climate change is such an enormous threat is that it disrupts our natural ecological processes – crops struggle to grow; habitats and ecosystems are lost or damaged; and extreme events including fires, droughts, and floods become increasingly common.
While nature is threatened by climate change it is also our first line of defence. Our forests and peatlands have an incredible capacity to lock up carbon, and a healthier natural environment can help us adapt to the warming that is already happening. But our failure to protect nature is undermining its capacity to help us.
Biodiversity – the abundance and genetic diversity of all life on Earth, from iconic large mammals to the microscopic life in our soils – is key to our collective health and wellbeing. But the way we manage our land, seas and natural resources is driving a shocking decline in the state of our natural environment.
The Scottish Government will shortly publish its delivery plan to stop and reverse our collapse in biodiversity. This will come at the same time as a consultation on the upcoming Natural Environment Bill, which will introduce legal targets for nature restoration – finally giving biodiversity the same legal standing as the climate.
Meeting these ambitions will be challenging but achievable. There are actions we can take that we know will work, such as reducing deer numbers to allow our native woodlands to regenerate naturally.
Protecting more of our land for nature will provide bigger areas of natural habitats for species to move across and to create conditions that species can move into.
Our farm funding system can be made fairer for farmers and crofters while supporting them to adopt nature- and climate-friendly methods of food production. The solutions are on the table and it is up to our political leaders to have the vision to champion them.
Earlier this month the leaders of Scotland’s nature charities wrote to all Scottish party leaders calling for renewed commitment to tackle the climate and nature crises.
We hope that the imminent publication of the Biodiversity Framework marks the start of a more consensual approach to environmental policymaking and the resumption of the cross-party consensus that has driven previous successes, such as our climate targets.
Both government and opposition parties in Scotland have a moral responsibility to take these crises seriously, to offer ambitious solutions and constructive challenges, and to work in partnership in our long-term interest. Without that, not only will Scotland’s environment, our landscapes, our seas and our wildlife suffer, but so will Scotland’s communities, our people and our economy.
The old saying goes that the best time to plant a tree was yesterday, the next-best time is today. The same is true for action on climate and nature – we have understood these challenges for a long time but yesterday’s failures must not stop us from acting now.
The faster we can restore nature, connect up habitats, and halt unsustainable use of natural resources, the sooner our environment can start to mend and the better chances we, and our children, will have in the future.
It is important to remember that the Circular Economy Bill only contains measures which need legislation. Much of what the Government plans to do with regard to making our economy more circular doesn’t require legislation and will be laid out in a separate policy document (here is the draft route map which was consulted on).
Another thing to bear in mind is that most of the provisions in the Bill give the Scottish Government powers to bring in new measures, but the details of those measures will be laid out in future secondary legislation.
LINK members working on circular economy are generally supportive of the measures in the Bill. That said, we would like to see some of them tightened up and we are discussing our priorities for additional measures we would like to see included. For example, we are pleased that the Bill includes the powers to set consumption targets and the duty to publish a Circular Economy Strategy, to be updated every 5 years. However, the wording leaves the setting of targets as optional (whereas they need to be an obligation) and a rather weak requirement for Scottish Government ‘to have regard to’ the Circular Economy Strategy in making policies (‘in accordance with’ makes it stronger). We will be highlighting weaknesses like these to the Committee and suggesting improvements.
The Bill also contains a number of other measures and the Committee is seeking views on five of these – they are keen to hear from as many people as possible:
Additional charges for single use items. We think it is a good idea to give Scottish Government the powers to do this, with the intention that it would lead to the reduction in consumption of single use and encourage re use. It should only be brought in for items for which a reusable alternative is readily available and a practical option.
New measures around household waste, creating a penalty for householders who do not comply with existing responsibilities. We think this is a good idea to help reduce flytipping and reduce contamination of recycling; but we strongly believe that it must only be brought in once everyone has access to clearly labelled and easily accessible recycling facilities.
Recycling targets for local authorities. We think this is a good idea as there is currently a huge discrepancy between recycling rates achieved by different local authorities. Targets need to be set with the distinctive features of the areas covered by different local authorities in mind; and local authorities need to be properly resourced to enable them to meet the targets.
Restriction on the disposal of unsold goods. We think this is a good idea and hope that it will be applied as comprehensively as possible.
Fines for littering from a vehicle. We think this is a good idea as a disincentive to littering from vehicles.
Providing your view only takes a few minutes – you can give each measure a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ with the option to leave comments as well.
LINK will be submitting detailed evidence to the Committee – as mentioned above – which we are currently working on. If you have any questions or want to know more, please get in touch with email@example.com.
Last month (July 2023) the Scottish Government released their Vision for Sustainable Aquaculture, setting out its plans for how the industry should develop all the way to 2045. Aquaculture in Scotland is big business, adding £885 million to the economy in 2018. It is dominated by salmon farming which produced 205,393 tonnes of farmed Atlantic salmon in 2021. In fact, Sottish salmon is not just Scotland’s, but the UK’s, largest food export. This is the first time the Scottish Government has set out a vision for the industry and it is an ambitious one. Balancing recognition of benefits that aquaculture can provide and encouraging its continued development, whilst simultaneously understanding the need of the industry to work within environmental limits, protect sensitive habitats, and in some cases, actively restore them.
The Vision is not itself a new policy, but instead guides policy development and sets a number of goals and outcomes that everyone should work towards achieving. It was developed with Scotland’s legally binding 5 guiding principles of the environment in mind, effectively ensuring that protecting the environment is equally considered in the agenda alongside economic and social considerations.
Scottish Environment LINK were invited to take a seat on Scotland’s Aquaculture Council and welcomed the opportunity to help shape the Vision and advise on areas where we felt protection for the environment did not go far enough. We were very pleased to see many of these recommendations being included in the Vision, such as committing to information on the regulatory performance of aquaculture being made publicly available, and the principle that unsuitable aquaculture sites can be designated aquaculture-free zones rather than automatically passed on for redevelopment. In particular the Vision’s overall focus on Environment as one of the three key themes is welcomed.
The Scottish Aquaculture Council is a great opportunity for collaboration between government, industry, NGOs, scientists and other stakeholders to meet and outline their shared ambitions for the future of aquaculture. A key area acknowledged within the Vision is the need for better data collection and use. This means working more collaboratively, sharing information to understand best practices, using the precautionary principle when we do not have all of the answers and creating a more holistic, adaptive regulatory system for the industry that considers the cumulative impact of all activity within an ecosystem.
But now the hard work begins. There are some bold, and in our opinion, long overdue commitments in the new vision that we want to see come to fruition, it will require the focus and dedication of everyone involved. We would like to see the Vision’s aims reflected in constructive workplans with definitive timelines as soon as possible. We would also like to see the Scottish Government’s approach of multi-stakeholder engagement continued alongside this, with greater inclusion of local community representation. Scottish Environment LINK will continue to use our role on the Scottish Aquaculture Council to advocate for the environment, ensure that the commitments within the Vision are implemented in a timely manner and that progress on these commitments are being measured and achieved.
By Sarah Evans, Aquaculture Policy Officer for the Marine Conservation Society
From the sewage spilling into Scotland’s rivers and seas, to the toxic chemicals entering our food, our right to a healthy environment is being violated.
We face a triple planetary emergency of climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the pollution of our air, land and water. It’s a sadly familiar story and one that LINK members encounter every day.
Yet if all goes well, something might be about to shift.
Recognising our right to a healthy environment
For the first time, the right to a healthy environment will be enshrined in Scots law as part of the new statutory framework for human rights in Scotland. The Scottish Government is set to incorporate the right to a healthy environment as part of its Human Rights Bill, delivering a package of new rights to empower people across Scotland.
The right to a healthy environment includes both substantive and procedural elements. The substantive element of the right includes six interdependent features: clean air, a safe climate, clean water and adequate sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments in which to live, work, and play, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems. These are set to be recognised as fundamental standalone rights for the first time. The procedural element relates to the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice.
The right to a healthy environment could be transformative for communities and campaigners fighting for a fairer and greener future – but only if new rights have ‘teeth’ and are enforceable against public bodies and polluters.
To this end, ERCS is urging all members of LINK to respond to Part 5 of the Human Rights Bill consultation: Recognising the right to a healthy environment. It’s imperative that Scotland’s green movement speaks with one voice, demanding not only that the right to a healthy environment is recognised, but that both the substantive and procedural elements are comprehensive, enforceable, and consistent with international best practice and the environmental justice principles enshrined in the Aarhus convention.
A recent LINK/ERCS report explains how the substantive features of the right can translate into meaningful change, through defining each feature according to the highest standard and applying enforcement mechanisms which keep pace with international best practice. A strong and unified response can ensure the government listens and puts robust enforcement mechanisms in place that uphold access to justice.
Image credit: Cailean Hall Gardiner
What about enforcement?
This is a real opportunity for people to take back control – and exercise their rights to challenge profit-hungry developers, polluting industries, and complacent public bodies. Yet the Human Rights Bill is only half the story. For environmental democracy to really take hold, we need a justice system that allows people to effectively enforce their rights.
This is where the picture sours.
The Aarhus Convention has repeatedly ruled that Scotland is in breach of the Convention’s access to justice requirements. Article 9(4) states that access to justice must be ‘fair, equitable, timely, and not prohibitively expensive.’ The Scottish Government are now required to set out reforms they will enact to achieve compliance by October 2024, and these will be key to ensuring the procedural elements of the right to a healthy environment.
However, rather than progressing on these issues, the Government risks backsliding.
A report to Parliament, triggered by Section 41 of the Continuity Act 2021, was supposed to consider ‘(a) whether the law in Scotland on access to justice on environmental matters is effective and sufficient, and (b) whether and, if so, how the establishment of an environmental court could enhance the governance arrangements.’
Its conclusions are deeply disappointing. We urgently need a dedicated Scottish Environment Court with comprehensive jurisdiction to increase access to justice, address the current fragmentation in routes to remedy, and develop judicial expertise in environmental matters. Such a court would reduce costs, increase efficiency, and speed up the process for resolving environmental governance disputes.
For many years LINK members have been campaigning to reduce the barriers to access to justice on the environment. As Scotland’s nature continues to deteriorate, it is vital that we push back against the erroneous arguments of the environmental governance report through forceful engagement in the subsequent consultation – restating the case for a dedicated environment court and an improved environmental governance regime. We need comprehensive reforms to legal expenses and dedicated legal institutions, so that we can effectively stand up for the environment in a court of law.
Image credit: Kris Frampton
Scotland is at the crossroads. Despite the promise of new environmental rights on the horizon, we risk squandering a once in a generation opportunity to transform Scotland’s environmental governance landscape. This is bad news for the natural world, and for our own health and wellbeing, with mounting evidence highlighting how environmental harms compound other forms of social and economic inequality.
LINK has fought long and hard to reform Scotland’s antiquated and fragmented legal system so that it better serves people and the environment. Now is the critical moment to break down the barriers which prevent access to justice and leave our right to a healthy environment unprotected.
Scotland’s environmental movement must once again, speak up loud and clear to demand better.
By Fanny Royanez, Marine Policy and Engagement Officer
Scotland’s seas are amazing, and they matter to us all. Many people will be spending time on Scotland’s coasts this summer – rain or shine. Even just a day trip to the beach can feel like a little holiday, refreshing and replenishing us.
That’s not all, of course. As anyone who watched the ocean episode of David Attenborough’s Wild Isles series will know, our seas are home to the most fantastic array of wildlife, much of which is hidden deep beneath the waves. They’re of huge importance for the climate too, as ocean ecosystems can store even more carbon than those on land.
Our seas are a vital resource, central to the lives of communities that rely on marine industries like fishing and wildlife tourism. And they are a source of food.
We all want Scotland’s seas to be healthy and teeming with life. But the threats facing our seas are immense, and we need to act fast to help them recover.
Five million seabirds breed around our coastline every year, but many species are in steep decline due to climate change, unsustainable fisheries, disease, pollution and the impact of invasive non-native species.
Recent bird flu outbreaks have made things worse. It’s estimated that up to 90% of some great skua breeding populations may have been lost in Shetland’s Hermaness Nature Reserve, for example. Great skuas – or ‘bonxies’ as they are also known – are top predators, and this level of loss will have a dramatic impact on vulnerable marine ecosystems.
The effects of climate change are also making themselves felt. Scotland’s seas have experienced extreme and unprecedented heatwaves this summer, with water temperatures up to 4°C above normal in some places. Marine heatwaves pose a serious threat to wildlife, risking high levels of mortality and loss of breeding grounds. They have led to concern for industries such as salmon farming that rely on healthy seas.
Image: Wynand van Poortvliet, Unsplash
Ocean recovery zones
So what can we do to protect our seas and help them recover?
Tackling climate change is part of the answer. But caring for our seas and managing them well will also require a number of carefully planned and interlinked measures. Experience worldwide shows that strictly protecting certain defined and limited areas from damaging industrial activity is a key piece of the jigsaw.
Strictly protected areas provide dedicated havens for vulnerable and depleted marine life to recover. They become, in effect, ocean recovery zones. As marine animals and plants are able to grow larger and live longer, they reproduce more, and their increasing populations can overflow into surrounding waters. This helps marine life recover both within and beyond the strictly protected area. And these ecological benefits in turn support marine industries, including fishing and tourism.
Internationally agreed standards, including the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030, call for at least 10% of the ocean to be strictly protected to enable large-scale ecosystem recovery. Currently, less than 1% of Scotland’s seas are strictly protected from damaging human activities.
Scottish Government proposals
The severe threats facing our ocean, and the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of strictly protected areas, led the Scottish Government to release proposals earlier this year to create ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’ (HPMAs) in 10% of Scotland’s seas. These areas would have been given the strongest possible form of protection.
The proposals didn’t include any suggested sites for HPMAs. In part due to the uncertainty involved, HPMAs became a controversial topic, with many members of Scotland’s coastal and island communities in particular expressing concern that restrictions on fishing would damage the sustainability of areas dependent on the industry.
Image: Longspined sea-scorpion Taurulus bubalis on maerl bed, South-west Loch Gairloch. Graham Saunders, Nature Scot.
Communities at the heart of ocean recovery
Community involvement will indeed be key. While healthy seas are vitally important for all of us, they play a particularly central role in the lives of Scotland’s coastal and island communities.
It’s crucial that measures to protect our seas, including strictly protected ocean recovery zones, are designed collaboratively, with these communities engaged at the heart of the process. Our best chance of restoring our seas to health will come from communities, environmental organisations, fishers and other marine industries working together with government.
That’s why in March we and other organisations wrote to the Scottish Government calling for improved stakeholder participation along with independent scientific scrutiny of its proposals for marine protection.
One of the only parts of Scotland’s sea that already has strict protection, in north Lamlash Bay off the isle of Arran, has protected status brought about through pressure and organising by local people, showing the importance of community involvement. Since the Lamlash Bay ‘no take zone’ was established, the area has seen dramatic ecological improvement. We need to see this success replicated around Scotland’s coast.
Everyone in Scotland wants to see our seas in a better condition, and creating ocean recovery zones will be a crucial step to restoring our ocean biodiversity.
Scottish Environment LINK members are calling on the Scottish Government to honour its commitment to set Scotland’s seas on the path to recovery by 2030, and create strictly protected ocean recovery zones in 10% of Scotland’s seas.
The Scottish Government is expected to develop new proposals this autumn for enhancing our marine environment, and we’re looking forward to contributing to this urgent work. Now is the time to work together to find transformative ways to help restore our amazing seas to health.
Featured image: Dead man’s fingers and anemones below the kelp zone in Loch nam Madadh, Credits to Nature Scot (Photographer: George Stoyle)
Scotland is a land of contrast. Contrasts in our landscapes, in our geography and weather patterns, our language, culture and our traditions.
Scotland has world-leading access legislation ensuring that everyone, no matter who they are, can access and enjoy Scotland’s outdoors, as long as they adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
By contrast, Scotland also has one of the most inequitable land ownership systems in the world, where just 0.008% of the population owns 50% of the land.
We are, in Scotland and across the planet, in a climate and nature emergency. The changing climate, and the ongoing and significant decline in Scotland’s nature, is testing the resilience of our landscapes and our seas.
Climate change brings more frequent storms, unpredictable rainfall, high winds and widely varying temperatures. Species and habitats are finding it harder than ever to survive, with changes in their environment happening much more quickly than they can cope with.
This is reflected in the ongoing declines in Scotland’s wildlife. In 2019, the State of Nature report showed that 11% of species were under threat of extinction, with 49% of species in decline and 62% showing strong changes. The 2023 report is not going to show an improving picture.
Without biodiversity, the landscape we’re accustomed to and love, and the ecosystems and services we rely on are changing and becoming much less reliable and resilient. Habitat loss and fragmentation on land and at sea is one of the biggest drivers of change.
It makes species and habitats much less flexible and it renders ecosystem services such as flood protection, water provision and pollination much more uncertain.
There is no doubt we need to turn this around. If we are to continue living the way we’re used to, and with the benefits of wildlife and nature we enjoy and promote to the world, we need to change the way we manage our land. We have no choice.
Management of our uplands, our woodlands, our farmland is all about stewardship. Land managers, farmers and crofters are stewards of the land on our behalf and for future generations.
Theirs is therefore a long term view – how can or should I treat this piece of land so I can hand it on in better condition to future generations?
This long-term view is also an ecological view.
Ecosystems are amazing – they can absorb huge amounts of change until suddenly they can’t. Ecosystems are also extremely complex. We don’t know when they will no longer be able to cope with change.
But once they change, change is dramatic and reversing or correcting that change takes an exceedingly long time, with exceedingly high costs. We only need look at the impact of cod stock collapse or desertification in other countries of the world.
If land managers and farmers are to adapt to the changing circumstances that we are all witnessing in the news and outside our front doors, they need to know not just what those changes will look like but also what they are expected to do about it and whether they be will be supported in adapting.
THIS is where a Just Transition is so vital. Unless they know, and unless they are brought into the conversation about future land use and future agriculture, they can’t plan and can’t adapt. The Just Transition Commission’s visit to Grantown-on -Spey in May 2023 was part of this process.
Planning environmental sustainability into any business is not an obstacle – it is a necessity and a responsibility. The responsibility of the business owner or manager is to ensure that the business can keep running into the long term.
If we look forward into the long term, a decade or more from now, we know that rainfall, wind speed and temperatures will be even more unpredictable. Wildlife will find it increasingly difficult to move to more suitable habitats or to stay where they are and survive.
Unless we make sure they can survive, or move, species will continue to disappear. And once they disappear, we lose pollinators, flood protection habitats such as peatlands and natural flood plains, grasslands and woodlands, healthy and productive soils.
The Just Transition is a social contract for the ecological transition we know is coming. Everyone must be involved, everyone must have their say and everyone must be clear on what is happening and what they need to do.
The climate targets, the upcoming nature targets and the Scottish Government’s clear vision for sustainable and regenerative agriculture are all very welcome. But we will only reach them if we work together and enable everyone to contribute and play their part.
Science is telling us we must act now. If we don’t, it is future generations who will lose out and who won’t experience the joy of Scotland’s landscapes and the wildlife that lives there.
The red squirrel is a true emblem of the Scottish countryside. To catch a glimpse of fiery red fur flickering up a tree and out of sight is a rare treat for most of us. There are only 140,000 red squirrels left in the UK, and more than 75% of these reside in Scotland. Their decline has been driven both by habitat loss and the introduction of the invasive non-native grey squirrel from North America. Grey squirrels outcompete reds for food and nesting sites, and spread squirrelpox, a virus which greys are immune to but which is deadly to reds. When greys move into a red squirrel territory, left unchecked, they can overthrow the native red population within 15 years.
Can we save Scotland’s red squirrels?
The grey squirrel exerts such pressure on the red squirrel that, if the current situation was left to play out, there would not be much hope for the native red in Scotland. The UK’s core red squirrel population in the Scottish Highlands is threatened by the expanding grey-only population in the Central Belt, and the remaining reds in South Scotland are consistently challenged by the influx of greys from Northern England.
Fortunately, there has long been abundant support for the red squirrel’s cause here in Scotland. Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) was formed in 2009 by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and partners (the current partnership includes NatureScot; Forestry and Land Scotland; Scottish Forestry; Scottish Land and Estates; and RSPB Scotland; with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund; Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority; and Aberdeen City Council). The establishment of this successful project brought together volunteer efforts from around the country and installed a coordinated, strategic approach to grey squirrel control on a landscape scale.
Now, 14 years on, grey squirrel control officers, with support from a dedicated network of volunteer monitors and trappers and grant-funded landowners, continue to work in priority areas, where the incursion of greys most threatens core red squirrel populations. Through this coordinated effort, SSRS demonstrates that it is possible to halt the regional decline of red squirrels and allow them to expand into new areas with targeted grey squirrel control.
So why not just let grey squirrels replace reds to fill the squirrel niche in Scotland?
Aside from wanting to save one of the nation’s most loved mammals for future generations to enjoy, there are other reasons to keep grey squirrel numbers under control. Unhindered, grey squirrel populations can reach densities eight or more times those of red squirrels. This is much more squirrel action than our native broadleaved woodlands can withstand, and it is at these densities that bark stripping becomes a real problem. Indeed, gangs of grey squirrels have been known to decimate whole woodlands! In England, where the majority of woodland cover is broadleaved, and where grey squirrel densities are much higher than they are in Scotland, tree damage costs the forestry sector an estimated £31 million annually.
Thanks partly to the grey squirrel’s preference for broadleaves, and partly to the work of SSRS, the conifer-dominated Scottish forestry sector is not yet feeling quite so nibbled. The Scottish Government, however, through its statutory forestry agencies, and in partnership with environmental NGOs, is actively engaged in landscape-wide native woodland restoration programs that will likely increase our national share of broadleaves. Initiatives such as Riverwoods – reconnecting the riparian habitat along our waterways, and the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest – revitalising the rare and important temperate rainforest ecosystem of the West Coast, could be put at risk by an unchecked grey squirrel population in Scotland.
What is next for SSRS?
Luckily, the SSRS program is a tried and tested approach already in place for keeping grey squirrel numbers down and stopping their spread into new areas. However, the program is now coming to the end of its latest round of funding and is in a Transition Phase. The Final Report from SSRS’ last major project phase (Developing Community Action) was released last month with a clear overarching recommendation that centrally coordinated, professional grey squirrel control and monitoring should be continued in the priority areas long-term to ensure a future for the red squirrel in Scotland. It is, however, no longer sustainable for this work to be delivered on short-term funding cycles with a charity responsible for leading delivery.
The draft Scottish Biodiversity Strategy to 2045 provides scope for invasive grey squirrel management to be continued as part of the Government’s plan for its delivery. Continuing this work would align with the Strategy’s commitments to continue effective species recovery programs, tackle invasive non-native species, and enhance forest and woodland biodiversity.
The re-shaping of SSRS therefore provides an opportunity for the Government, through its statutory agencies and other public bodies, to follow through on its biodiversity commitments by adopting a blueprint, developed over the lifetime of the project, to sustainably deliver a coordinated landscape-scale mosaic of grey squirrel control. Doing so will not only ensure the future of the iconic red squirrel in Scotland, but will also serve to protect our vulnerable existing and restored native woodland ecosystems and the vast assemblages of life that they have the potential to support.
Guest blog by Hazel Forrest, Species Advocacy Officer at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, May 2023.
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