Scotland is known worldwide for its rich and diverse landscapes and nature. This richness is often lauded – it is used to promote our tourism industry, our food and drink products, our national identity.
However, despite these positives, not all is well – our wildlife has suffered and declined considerably over the years through climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, marine pollution and the impact of invasive species. It remains in danger, as the State of Nature Scotland 2019 report details in full. Without significant intervention, today’s children cannot hope to experience what their parents, yet alone their grandparents were able to discover and enjoy in nature.
The State of Nature Scotland 2019 report shows that 1 in 9 species is threatened with extinction. More than half of our globally important national seabird populations, for example, have been in long-term decline for more than 30 years, with some – including kittiwakes and Arctic terns – down by more than 70%. The declines illustrated in this report are part of a much longer term trend. The data only take us back to the 1970s at which point, Scotland’s wildlife was already in significant change. For example, Scotland’s woodlands have been in decline for much longer. Our native Caledonian pinewoods, so rich in their unique wildlife community, making up c. 28% of Scotland’s native woodland, are severely impacted by herbivores, are at risk of Dothistroma Needle Blight disease and remain fragmented into vulnerable habitat islands.
Fortunately there are significant interventions that have seen strong successes, where people have protected and enhanced the wildlife that shares our planet and our country. Perhaps one of the most effective, yet least appreciated, driving forces behind those successes has been the impact of EU wildlife legislation – the ‘Nature Directives’ – and, in particular, the funding mechanism established to help countries implement it: the EU LIFE Nature fund.
Scotland has benefited enormously from that fund: since its inception, LIFE has funded over 25 projects benefiting Scotland, bringing in well over £25 million for conservation delivery in the country, a massive 21% of the UK total. And this money, of course, freed additional funds from elsewhere.
Among the beneficiaries are Atlantic salmon, freshwater pearl mussel, corncrake, hen harrier, red squirrel, porpoise, upland invertebrates, seabirds on Canna and the Shiants, machair grasslands, the Flow Country peatlands, Caledonian pinewoods and Scotland’s rainforest.
There are two key factors in the success of initiatives supporting these species and ecosystems, and they both relate to scale: geographic and temporal. LIFE funding supports projects at a landscape scale, each typically lasting 3-5 years, costing between €1-10 million.
Biodiversity projects by their nature often require sustained investment until a clear tipping point has been reached: invasive species eradication is a clear case where unless eradication is achieved and maintained, the situation very quickly deteriorates again. Equally, the factors driving nature loss and biodiversity decline are pervasive: tackling small and scattered sites is not an economic way of finding an ecological solution. Large- scale action, able to bring a suite of habitats and entire ecosystems back to health, is a demonstrably effective mechanism to restore biodiversity at a scale where it is more likely to survive into the future.
Action at this scale is best delivered through partnership and LIFE supported projects have enabled wide partnerships to operate at scale. The principle of additionality also enabled LIFE funding to be used to match against other funds and thus offers a mechanism to drive investment at levels far beyond the reach of individual funding sources.
MSPs have noted the benefits of LIFE funding: ‘The EU LIFE programme…has provided £42 million in matched funding to support peatland restoration over the past 20 years. Where will that support come from now, when we need healthy peatlands more than ever for both their conservation value and their vast carbon sinks?’ (Mark Ruskell MSP 2016)
On leaving the EU, Scotland and the rest of the UK are no longer eligible to apply for LIFE funding and there are currently no proposals on how LIFE funding will be replaced. The UK Government’s Shared Prosperity Fund will replace Structural Funding from the EU: this does not include replacing the competitive funds such as LIFE and Horizon 2020.
‘It definitely makes you wonder if such landscape scale ‘game changing’ projects for biodiversity will ever get off the ground again without a LIFE programme to support them.’ (Alison Connelly RSPB 2021)
So what are the options going forward? The significant benefits that LIFE supported projects have brought to Scotland and right across the UK cannot be ignored. It is possible that the UK Government will work with the devolved governments to find a way to put in place a replacement fund that can replicate the benefits gained from LIFE funding. However, this is far from guaranteed and allocating such future replacement funding according to the Barnett formula would see much lower levels of funding coming to Scotland.
It is clear that building wide and diverse partnerships is an effective way to deliver at scale and in an ecologically successful and sustainable way. Networks such as LINK and EFN can help to foster and build partnerships. Key to success however is finding investment that operates over at least 3 years. Anything less than this is unlikely to yield clear and sustainable results. Ecological restoration is an endurance race, not a sprint.
The main element that is required is vision: vision in those able to deliver change on the ground and vision in those with resources to support and drive that change forward. Where funders and recipients can come together behind clear visions of change towards a better future, then we might see life after LIFE.
More examples of this approach in action can be found in the Still Delivering The Goods report (2021).
Deborah Long, Chief Officer, Scottish Environment LINK and Julie Christie, Scotland Coordinator, Environmental Funders Network.