Scotland’s native species are in danger of serious decline due to the climate emergency . . . however NatureScot is determined to lead a green recovery by encouraging positive action. By Andrew Collier.
Those of us over a certain age have fond memories of country walks during our childhoods. The nature around us was almost overwhelming, with native flora and fauna everywhere. The landscape was lively, often noisy, and always alive.
Sadly, it is dramatically different today. The number of species abundant in Scotland has declined by at least 24 per cent since 1994. Put starkly, this means children are seeing a natural environment that’s depleted by a quarter since their grandparents were young.
This loss isn’t cosmetic. It really matters. Nature is at the very centre of our own our survival. It regulates the climate, allows our food to grow, purifies water and helps prevent flooding. It also boosts our economy and provides much needed rural jobs in a host of sectors, from farming and fishing through to tourism.
In total, around 195,000 Scots earn their livelihood directly or indirectly through nature – seven per cent of the national workforce.
NatureScot is Scotland’s nature agency, working to improve our environment and encouraging everyone to care about it. Debbie Bassett, the organisation’s Climate Change Coordinator, says this species decline is a real cause of worry.
“It’s a clear demonstration nature is really in trouble. We have a climate emergency and now we have a nature emergency too. It’s not that we’ve lost species, but the populations are all smaller. It’s a slow attrition that we don’t really notice but it’s hugely important. About 11 per cent of our species in Scotland are now at the stage where they could disappear.”
Nature, she adds, also has an essential role to play in a green recovery from Covid-19.
She continues: “Scotland is also hosting COP26 later this year – the world will be here in November to decide what its climate ambitions are.
“We could really set the agenda. The Scottish Government has already committed to achieving 75 per cent of its progress towards its 2045 net zero carbon target by the end of this decade.
“With that kind of positioning, we can say that we are a small nation but we are making big decisions.
“We will be putting ourselves on an international stage.
“We need to stand up and encourage other countries to be as ambitious as we are being. The benefits that will come from change in terms of the way that we use, store and protect carbon will be enormous.”
Ms Bassett points out that, while the contributions governments and countries make to climate change and species restoration are important, there is a lot individuals can do too.
“We can make simple choices – not tidying up so much in our gardens, for example. That leaves more space for nature. Different species need places to hide, to raise their young or to stay out of the rain.
“We need to create those environments in our gardens, and there’s more we can do by encouraging our local authorities to do the same, or by asking managers of our offices in business parks to think differently. These actions aren’t difficult.”
Species loss is not something that has happened overnight, she says: people have shaped the landscape and wildlife for millennia through activity such as woodland clearances, urbanisation, industrial pollution and intensive agriculture practices and fishing.
Invasive non-native species have been allowed to populate indigenous habitats, contributing to further decline. But all of this has been exacerbated by climate change, with an average temperature increase in Scotland of one degree centigrade since the 1950s impacting on nature everywhere.
Unpredictable weather, particularly at critical times of year, is having an effect on insects such as moths in particular, resulting in less food being available for other species, such as birds and bats.
NatureScot is leading conservation efforts with projects such as a Pollinator Action Plan, working with partners to create more meadows, change mowing regimes and encourage wildflowers, all steps which help species such as bumblebees and butterflies.
Efforts are also ongoing to restore peatlands, so again boosting species and helping combat climate change.
Another project, the £3.24 million Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, is working with volunteers to remove non-native species across an area of northern Scotland one and a half times the size of Wales.
“People do feel an empathy and want to do something,” Ms Bassett says. “They can help with small things, such as putting a bowl of water out on the windowsill for birds and insects through to transforming their gardens into nature havens.
“There are a lot of possibilities.”
She says that we are all beginning to understand how nature helps our survival.
“It’s absolutely essential. For instance, all the plants we see outside are making oxygen, which of course we breathe, and they’re regulating the climate.
“They’re also filtering the water and absorbing pollutants from things like the traffic that passes by. And it’s irrigating our food – our strawberries, raspberries and peas. It’s doing an incredible job and it’s doing it for free.”
Local authorities, she adds, are also doing some great things. “Lots of people are starting to notice the grass isn’t always being cut – some of it is being left, leading to the growth of flowers and the return of bees and butterflies.”
She says she has a sense that the tide has turned. “There is a real recognition now that nature and climate are intercoupled. People in Scotland do want to take action. We just need it to be coordinated.”
Habitat restoration and protection vital for survival of Scottish species
There is no doubt about it: our wildlife is in real danger. Climate change and human intervention – or a lack of it – means some of our most loved species are under threat.
The ptarmigan, for instance, is one of our most iconic birds and is notable for its distinctive grey, brown and black features, turning white in winter. It breeds in the Arctic-type landscapes of the highest parts of the Highlands and can be seen all year round.
There are worries, however, it may soon be confined to northern hills. The National Trust for Scotland has been carrying out a survey of numbers on the Isle of Arran but has not found any present in recent years.
There are also concerns about Arctic char, a cold water fish and a member of the salmon and trout family that thrives in northern climes. If climate change leads to temperatures continuing to rise, it will find it harder to survive in Scotland.
The signs for its continued presence in our waters are not good. While it may not sound a lot, the average rise in temperatures in Scotland of one degree since the middle of the Twentieth Century has warmed the sea to the point where identifiable change has taken place. One result has been that phytoplankton – microscopic marine algae that are a key part of ocean and freshwater ecosystems – have moved from cold water species to warm water species. These are less rich in nutrients and that impacts on the whole food chain.
Another issue caused by climate change is unpredictable weather, especially at times of the year that are critical to wildlife. Insects such as moths are particularly affected, resulting in less food being available for other species such as birds and bats.
Alpine plants could also suffer – they need snow in the winter in order to thrive and this can no longer be relied on with any certainty.
Other climate change impacts include flooding, drought and wildfires. All of these can drive species to seek out cooler habitats, which in turn affects their abundance and distribution.
Marine species are particularly affected by rising sea temperatures and plastic pollution, while unpredictable flooding affects salmon, dragonflies and other water-based species.
A NatureScot spokesperson commented: “We really need to ramp up our efforts to provide more space for nature, protecting and restoring the habitats that species rely on for their survival. We know our survival relies on this too.”
Seeking ways to nurture nature
Scotland’s natural landscape faces multiple pressures. Not all the problems are directly driven by climate change: there are other negative factors too.
Intensification of land management, unsustainable fishing practices, pollution and the presence of invasive non-native species are also contributing to species decline.
The result is that nature becomes confined to ever smaller and disconnected spaces, which in turn causes species to be restricted in their distribution and lowers abundance.
NatureScot is currently carrying out research to better understand what drives species loss and how the issues can be addressed.
In particular, it is looking at the actions needed to support marine protected areas in dealing with invasive non-native species.
It is also working to further understand where examples of non-protected species-rich grassland occur in Scotland and how the management of these can be improved at a time when the climate is changing.
Particular species are also being studied. For example, research is ongoing to better understand the impacts of diffuse pollution on the extremely rare natterjack toad, and efforts are being undertaken to find out why a submerged aquatic plant, slender naiad, is declining on the Scottish mainland.
Under another programme, PeatlandACTION, NatureScot is funding work for landowners, contractors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to restore large areas across the country.
Peatland habitats are hugely important as they help address the impacts of climate change through reduced flooding. They also offer other benefits such as helping to clean the water supply.
In addition, they assist in reducing emissions from degraded peat and support species of moss, birds and butterflies.
Scotland’s peatlands cover 14,000 square kilometres but 80 per cent of this area is now degraded. The Scottish Government has committed £250 million to restoring 2500 square kilometres by the end of the decade.
In yet another initiative, NatureScot has created the first genetic conservation area at Beinn Eighe in the Torridon area of Wester Ross.
This will help to protect the diversity of local special species and will increase their resilience to future climate change.
This article is brought to you in association with NatureScot.