By Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland and convenor of Scottish Environment LINK’s wildlife group
The natural environment is important to 92% of Scots, according to a recent poll commissioned by Scottish Environment LINK. That’s a high figure, but it didn’t come as a surprise to me. Surely almost all of us have a sense of pride in Scotland’s landscapes and wildlife – in our eagles, pine forests, and wave-battered coastlines.
I think our connection to Scotland’s wildlife runs deeper than those picture-postcard images. Nature and culture are intrinsically linked here, not least because the way we manage the land has given rise to some of our most wildlife-rich habitats. What we eat and drink is bound up with the health of the land and seas that produce it. And the events of the last three years brought into stark relief the importance of accessible natural spaces for everyone.
This means it can be hard to get our heads around some depressing statistics about the state of Scotland’s environment. But the science points towards a nature crisis, right here. Survey after survey tells us that our wildlife is not faring well. And the Biodiversity Intactness Index, an internationally-adopted measure of biodiversity, puts the UK in the lowest 12% of countries. Whilst Scotland performs better than the other UK countries, all four countries sit close to the bottom of this biodiversity league table. Put simply, Scotland’s wildlife and habitats are a shadow of their former selves.
For a long time, Scotland’s environmental groups have been calling for a meaningful plan for nature recovery. This plan must be ambitious, and must focus not just on nature protection, but, crucially, on restoration. Our battered, beleaguered ecosystems need to be rebuilt if they are to function properly.
Restoring ecosystems means restoring all the building blocks of those ecosystems – which means we need a targeted programme of species recovery to sit alongside these ambitious ecosystem restoration proposals.
In December of last year, the Scottish Government published its draft Scottish Biodiversity Strategy to 2045. The strategy outlines key outcomes to be achieved by 2045 – but for these high level outcomes, and the series of priority actions which follow, more detail about how they’re going to be achieved is critical, alongside targets which will demonstrate success. These targets must be legally-binding, and integrated into all government delivery. If it lacks this accountability, the strategy stands a good chance of gathering dust on a shelf in the library of good intentions.
Greater ambition on species recovery is essential – without this, there’s a real risk that, even if our ecosystems recover, some of our most iconic species will slip away. We can’t allow this to happen.
All this talk of targets and plans can seem a million miles away from the glint of an Atlantic salmon running a Highland river, or the rich, vibrant patchwork of the Hebridean machair. But the fate of those things rests hugely on the actions of government over the next few months and years. Scotland could be a world leader in biodiversity recovery. For a nation that values its natural environment so highly, that feels like a pretty good place to aim.
This article was first published in the Scotsman on 16 February 2023.