This opinion piece calls for the Scottish Government to remain resolute and ambitious on its nature and biodiversity targets.
When it comes to stunning landscapes and seascapes, Scotland is of course blessed with a world-class great outdoors.
But for all the picture postcard views, things are not well. Our natural world is in big trouble. So much so that we are living in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
Biodiversity and bio-abundance – the web of life of which we are a part, and on which we depend for pretty much everything, including our survival – are being shredded by our intensive mis-management, over-exploitation and pollution of land and sea. Leaving natural processes broken, habitats wrecked, and plant and animal species in freefall.
The recent publication of the authoritative ‘State of Nature Report 2023’ highlighted in no uncertain terms the sheer scale of our loss of nature, and the dire condition of so much of Scotland’s wildlife. The report is a thoroughly depressing read. The fact that one in nine species are threatened with extinction was just one of its shocking conclusions.
Across Scotland, rewilding is surging – offering a major solution for tackling the nature and climate emergencies, while offering a cascade of other benefits for people too. Big wins can include jobs and community wealth-building; better health and wellbeing; repeopling of rural areas; flood reduction; urban cooling; and ensuring pollination of our food crops.
Through an inspiring array of rewilding projects – some well-established, some just emerging – charities, farmers, crofters, communities, landowners and others are creating a growing groundswell of hope all over.
Yet the scale and pace of biodiversity loss and climate breakdown mean we need to do much, much more at a national level, with the full involvement and support of our political leaders.
And a major development this autumn offers us the chance to ensure just that. The Scottish Government has launched a consultation about its plans to tackle the nature emergency by halting biodiversity loss by 2030 – setting Scotland on a ‘nature positive’ pathway so that nature is restored by 2045.
Will the proposals make a difference? It’s easy to be cynical. Generations of politicians have downgraded or sidelined nature, or been complicit in its destruction. Until recently too, the Scottish Government has been largely missing from the rewilding story, although fortunately that now looks to be changing.
There is no doubt that the Government’s proposals are ambitious, and appear to be a genuine attempt to tackle a growing threat that the world has been aware of since the 1960s. The plan is certainly in stark contrast with the appalling row-back on nature protection being inflicted on England by the UK Government.
The proposals include a commitment to protecting 30% of Scotland’s land and sea for nature by 2030. We have protected land and sea already and much of it is in poor condition, but the good news is there is a commitment to managing – in other words restoring – this land and sea for nature too.
The government also intends to hold itself to account by developing legally binding nature restoration targets. This should pile on the pressure to ensure the proposals are delivered in full.
So, taking a glass half full attitude, what could Scotland be like by 2030 if the plan is fully delivered?
There will certainly be at least one new national park, with nature restoration as its primary purpose.
There will be six other areas where nature restoration is taking place at pace – such as the vast Affric Highlands landscape, from Loch Ness to the west coast, that Trees for Life, Rewilding Europe and a coalition of communities and local landowners are rewilding.
And there will be ‘nature networks’ – enabling wildlife to move and spread though the landscape, instead of being isolated in islands of nature among a sea of intensive agriculture.
Not only that, but with related agricultural subsidy reform we could see widespread nature-positive farming, fishing and forestry. This is vital, because these activities are currently the main drivers of nature loss.
If the Scottish government delivers on its commitments to reducing deer numbers to levels that finally allow trees to grow, and to tackling outdated grouse moor management practices such as muirburn and crimes such as raptor persecution, we could really turn a corner.
Importantly, the Government’s plan acknowledges that its stated ambition requires investment from the private sector as well as government support.
Here, the proposals need a clearer, robust commitment that such financial support will genuinely help to restore nature in a verifiable way. It must not be allowed to be ‘greenwashing’, in which corporations – chasing the green gold of subsidies and carbon credits – wrongly claim to be rewilding while doing nothing of the sort. Such schemes often involve planting the wrong trees in the wrong place, and force up land prices in ways that threaten communities, social justice and rewilding alike.
People are key to rewilding, and the Government plan encourages communities to consider taking on publicly owned national nature reserves and other areas. Here locally led partnerships between communities and non-governmental organisations should be fostered – so that community engagement, enthusiasm and knowledge is combined with the skills and experience of NGOs.
Beyond all this, the Government must be resolute and robust in its defense of its proposals, and ensure that statutory targets are ambitious as well as achievable.
This matters, because there is growing pushback on rewilding from vested interests with an anti-nature agenda, often with the support of ambitious politicians. These voices are becoming louder, motivated perhaps by a growing realisation that the demand for positive change by wider society is becoming overwhelming.
The Government must not buckle when so much is at stake – not just for nature, but for our own future too.
By Steve Micklewright, Convenor of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance and Chief Executive of Trees for Life.
This piece originally appeared in The Sunday National on 12 November 2023.
Photo by SCOTLAND: The Big Picture