Landscape and outdoor access

Policy actions  3 of 5

Natural heritage designations

We are protecting and enhancing Scotland’s landscapes via a range of mechanisms, including statutory and non-statutory designations and planning policies.

Natural heritage designations identify areas of the countryside that are significant due to their wildlife and/or scenery, and which are important for natural conservation and enhancement.

The main national designations are based on formal statutory procedures which give the areas special management or protection. They usually involve the landowner obtaining consent from, or reaching agreement with, the Planning Authority and/or Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) about proposals for a change to or management of the land. They are:

We have produced a map showing all the natural heritage designated areas in Scotland.

International designations

National designations are sometimes overlain by others originating from the European Union or international treaties, for example Special Protection Areas (SPAs), in recognition that a site has importance beyond Scotland. 

Non-statutory designations from international conventions, such as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, don’t usually impose any additional duties on landowners or occupiers.

Local and other designations

Local authorities can also designate sites where certain policies apply, for example Local Nature Reserves (LNRs), regional parks and country parks.

Other public and voluntary bodies may also target specific areas for particular management or to show where special incentive payments apply. Other designations have a statutory basis, for example, listed buildings and scheduled monuments designated by Historic Environment Scotland.

A landscape’s character is determined using SNH's Landscape Character Assessment.

National Scenic Areas

National Scenic Areas (NSAs) are areas that have been designated as having outstanding scenic value in a national context. There are 40 NSAs in Scotland, mainly in remote and mountainous areas. They were identified in 1978 by the Countryside Commission for Scotland (CCS) in its publication Scotland’s Scenic Heritage, and their boundaries remain unchanged today.

NSAs have been recognised within the planning system since 1980. In 2010, Scottish Ministers issued directions to local authorities under provisions in section 263A of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 (inserted by section 50 of the Planning etc. (Scotland) Act 2006) to designate the current suite of 40 NSAs. Provisions enable Scottish Ministers to designate these in a national context if the special protection measures specified are required. 

SNH has surveyed all the NSAs and produced an up-to-date list of the special qualities that, individually or combined, make each area's scenery outstanding and justify their designation as NSAs.

Section 263A(2) of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 requires planning authorities to pay special attention to the desirability of safeguarding or enhancing the character or appearance of an NSA when exercising any powers under that Act in relation to any land within that NSA. Scottish Planning Policy may help authorities to comply with this. View maps of Scotland's NSAs and more information below.

UNESCO designations

Three UNESCO mechanisms are used in Scotland to designate areas for special management and protection:

  • World Heritage Sites: the only natural World Heritage Site in Scotland is St Kilda, which is recognised for both its natural and cultural significance
  • Biosphere reserves: this applies to Galloway and Southern Ayrshire as well as Wester Ross, which are designated as representatives of natural habitats characteristic of the world’s natural regions to enable community empowerment through environment
  • UNESCO Global Geoparks: this applies to the North West Highlands Geopark, Geopark Shetland, and Lochaber Geopark, which were designated as such to protect their geological heritage, promote geology to the public, and to use geology and other aspects of the natural and cultural heritage to promote sustainable economic development
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