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Getting the best from our land - A land use strategy for Scotland

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3 Land use and the environment

Objective: Responsible stewardship of Scotland's natural resources delivering more benefits to Scotland's people

Our economy and society are supported and sustained by natural resources and the services that ecosystems provide. We sometimes take these services for granted, and assume that whatever we do to our environment it will still provide for us. But our ecosystems are fragile and their resources finite.

We are already working hard to care for the environment in Scotland, recognising the importance of the natural and cultural heritage of the country we live in. Our successes attract international interest from other nations and from overseas visitors. We are also at the forefront of showing what can be done in the global fight against climate change. Increasingly our land use must also integrate the conservation of natural resources with social and economic goals, and help to sustain the health of the ecosystems on which we depend. Such an approach is particularly important as our natural systems are put under strain as the climate changes. Key policies in support of this Objective are set out in 3.1 to 3.4.

3.1 A quality land environment

Many of us take pleasure in our wildlife, landscapes and green spaces, enjoying and appreciating them for their own sake. We also value the goods that the environment supplies - food, timber, energy, water. Moreover, we increasingly appreciate that the natural environment services our needs in even more fundamental ways. The food we eat, the water we drink and the air that we breathe are only available to use because the natural environment cycles nutrients, purifies water and generates oxygen.

Scotland is renowned for its high quality environment, and the Government recognises the importance of safeguarding what we have. Our land, freshwater and marine environments continue to face threats from current practices, such as diffuse pollution from agriculture. As well as maintaining the regulatory regime 24, we provide incentives for pre-emptive and remedial measures, such as the planting of riparian woodland to prevent run-off from fields entering watercourses, or woodlands in and around towns which absorb air pollution and trap particulates.

We also have a legacy of land contamination from past industrial and military activities, and we manage the regulatory 25 and development management 26 regimes to help ensure that risks to human health from historic contamination are minimised and that regeneration opportunities are realised.

The capacity of land to regulate water supplies is increasingly valued as the climate changes and extreme weather events become more frequent. We are increasingly recognising that human interventions have affected flood risk, and that reinstating natural features in the landscape such as flood plains, wetlands and forests can help to restore run-off patterns and reduce flooding. Restoring these natural features can also provide a wide range of coincident benefits, including improved biodiversity, and increased amenity and recreational opportunities. Our Flood Risk Management Act (2009) 27 puts sustainable approaches to the management of flooding at its heart, signalling a move away from reactive management of flooding towards a proactive and catchment-focused approach; and we are working with stakeholders to provide evidence of where natural flood management approaches are successful. This approach will work alongside more traditional solutions, and is about looking across catchments and coastlines to see what opportunities exist to deal with flooding at source, while also delivering coincident benefits to the environment and rural businesses.

3.2 Recognising the link between us and our environment

We can think of our natural environment as a series of living, interacting systems - ecosystems - of which people are an important part and biodiversity is a critical aspect. Ecosystems provide the natural services, or ecosystem services, that we need: goods such as food, timber, energy; services such as the purification of water and the regulation of the climate; and less tangible benefits such as opportunities for recreation, exercise, inspiration and reflection.

Well-functioning ecosystems provide these services very cost-effectively compared with other alternatives. It has been estimated that the annual value of Scotland's ecosystem services is over £20 billion 28. Although remarkable, this figure still may not be comprehensive, as many benefits such as enjoyment of landscapes cannot be valued readily in monetary terms. Despite this increasing recognition and understanding, the value of various ecosystem services is often not fully taken into account in decisions about land use. It will therefore be helpful to explore further how better recognition of ecosystems and their services might be built into decision-making so as to improve and sustain the benefits we receive from our land.

Our National Planning Framework recognises that sustainable social and economic development depends on a healthy environment, and sets out supporting policies accordingly.

3.3 Protecting and enhancing our natural assets

Our network of protected areas represents some of our most precious natural resources. Some of our environments are recognised around the world for their special qualities such as the World Heritage Site at St Kilda which is one of only 24 World Heritage Sites across the globe to be awarded World Heritage status for both its natural and cultural significance. Scotland has many sites of European significance which are protected under European law as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. We also have a range of national designations including Sites of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserves protecting the best of our diverse plants, animals and habitats, rocks and landforms; National Scenic Areas which protect special landscapes.

Our two National Parks are of outstanding national importance because of their natural and cultural heritage. They were established to promote all three pillars of sustainable development - economy, environment and community.

All public bodies in Scotland have a legal duty 29 to protect wildlife, biodiversity and natural habitats. The Scottish Biodiversity Strategy co-ordinates the actions of a wide range of partners in the public, private and third sectors, all seeking to achieve broader action on biodiversity. Co-ordinating with this national strategy are Local Biodiversity Action Plans organised by local authorities and local partnerships. The partners also provide advice to help ensure that Government provides the best possible support, for example through the SRDP which includes grants targeted at incentivising land management practices which support a range of important habitats and species.

Soils are vital assets which cannot be fully replenished in the short or medium term: soil formation can take thousands of years and so soil is effectively a non-renewable resource. As described in our Scottish Soil Framework 30 we need to maintain and enhance our existing soils and their capacity to perform valuable functions such as filtering water and retaining carbon, as well as supporting agricultural production.

Through the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill 31 we introduced new measures to tackle the problems caused by invasive non-native species. The Bill also introduced measures to improve the management of wild deer, a major land-use consideration in many parts of the country, providing for a statutory code of practice and revised powers of intervention for SNH to support sustainable management of Scotland's wild deer population. The Bill also introduced a requirement for public bodies to publish reports on compliance with the biodiversity duty.

3.4 Responding to climate change

Locking up carbon from the atmosphere for the long term is an important action to help minimise further changes to the climate. In Scotland, as well as locking up carbon in forests, as described in Chapter 2, we have important opportunities to retain and enhance the significant store of carbon in our soils and vegetation.

Scottish soil contains around 3 billion tonnes of carbon, of which some 1.6 billion tonnes is within peatlands. This represents the majority of the UK's soil carbon. But this carbon can be released by processes which dry or disturb the soils (for example, peat extraction, drainage and ploughing, or removal of vegetation) and, importantly, by the warmer and drier summers associated with climate change. We can also have a positive impact, for example by restoring formerly drained peatlands (particularly where this will re-create valuable peatland habitats) and by adopting lower-impact agricultural and forestry practices on carbon-rich soils.

The Scottish Soil Framework promotes the sustainable management and protection of soils consistent with the economic, social and environmental needs of Scotland, and we are funding research which will help us to understand how this carbon stock may have changed under different land uses in the past, and to predict how it may change in the future. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ( UNFCCC) has agreed in principle to include the emissions and sequestration of carbon from both degraded and restored peatlands in the international greenhouse gas emissions reporting structure, and the Scottish Government is engaging with stakeholders to examine how it may be incorporated into emissions reporting for the Net Scottish Emissions Account. The Government is also working with interested parties, both public and private, to promote the management of high carbon soils in ways that mitigate climate change.

As set out in our Climate Change Adaptation Framework, we also need to adapt to the changes in the climate that are now inevitable. Rising sea levels, for example, are responsible for increasing coastal flood risk 32. Recent rates of sea level rise appear to be quickening, which is expected to increase erosion and flood risk. Flood Risk Management Plans will help address this, while SNH advises on the wider implications for landforms, habitats and species 33.

As the climate changes we need to develop an approach that helps biodiversity to thrive in Scotland as a whole. Ecological pathways are important to form ecologically coherent networks, and the National Planning Framework carries an action to develop a National Ecological Network 34.

In parts of Scotland such networks are already in development. The Central Scotland Green Network 35, for example, is developing a green infrastructure, including woodlands, allotments, orchards, gardens. The aim is to make it a more attractive place to live, work and visit. At the same time, this green infrastructure is providing essential ecosystem services such as flood prevention, improved air quality and a reduction in noise and visual pollution, and the interconnected nature of the network is creating better habitats for wildlife. In other parts of Scotland, landscape-scale habitat restoration projects are being developed, for example in the Borders, the Trossachs and Glen Affric.

3.5 A shift in approach - partnerships with nature

We increasingly realise how valuable nature's services are to us all. We therefore need to develop our approaches to recognise that people are part of ecosystems and rely upon their functioning. We need a more holistic approach to decision-making with a better understanding of how our decisions impact upon nature's functions and processes into the future.

Working more positively with nature will help land managers respect the limitations of the environment, whilst making sure people's longer-term interests are at the heart of decisions. The Scottish Government will help to facilitate a wider adoption of this approach, providing information, case studies and support. SNH has a particularly significant role in the development of a whole ecosystem approach and providing the landscape-scale context for important land use decisions. This will help everyone involved in land-use decision-making to take good decisions which respect the future capacity of our natural resources to deliver the services we need.

3.6 Proposals

Proposal 8

Demonstrate how the ecosystem approach could be taken into account in relevant decisions made by public bodies to deliver wider benefits, and provide practical guidance.Information note to be published 2011. Additional guidance available 2012.

As we make decisions about how to use land, we should take into account the true costs of different options by reflecting how they might impact on the ecosystem services we need. The ecosystem approach to decision-making allows us to recognise the important connections between the natural systems of the land, water and air and the needs of people and business. This approach to informing land-use decisions is currently attracting increasing interest and support. It will help us to understand how to continue to benefit from our natural assets without depleting them, as we seek to adapt to a changing climate and minimise adverse impacts.

Proposal 9

Develop a methodology to take account of changes in soil carbon for carbon accounting purposes; improve understanding of potential benefits from conservation and management of carbon-rich soils; and deliver measures to help secure long-term management of all land-based carbon stores.Develop accounting methodology in parallel with final UNFCCC decision on inclusion of this measure in reporting; 2011-2013. Improve understanding; ongoing. Deliver measures; dependent on CAP Reform, see Proposal 5.

Not all losses of carbon from soils are currently accounted for in the Greenhouse Gas Inventory under international emissions reporting rules, but given their potential to abate - or contribute to - emissions, we must protect and manage soil carbon stores wherever possible.

Proposal 10

Investigate the relationship between land management changes and ecosystem processes to identify adaptation priorities.Emerging findings from Scottish Government 2011-2016 research programme.

We realise that we do not have enough information about the link between the way that the land is managed and the benefits that it provides us, especially in the context of changes in the climate. It may be that to continue to receive the benefits that we currently do, we will need to adapt the way that we manage the land.