2020 Challenge for Scotland's Biodiversity

A strategy for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity in Scotland.

1 Healthy ecosystems


Scotland's ecosystems are restored to good ecological health so that they provide robust ecosystem services and build our natural capital.

Key steps

  • Encourage and support ecosystem restoration and management, especially in catchments that have experienced the greatest degradation.
  • Use assessments of ecosystem health at a catchment level to determine what needs to be done.
  • Government and public bodies, including SNH, SEPA and FCS, will work together towards a shared agenda for action to restore ecosystem health at a catchment-scale across Scotland.
  • Establish plans and decisions about land use based on an understanding of ecosystems. Take full account of land use impacts on the ecosystems services that underpin social, economic and environmental health.


Biodiversity is all of life: animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms and their interactions with their environment. Together, these form living systems, called ecosystems, which sustain nature and upon which our own survival depends.

In 2011 a full account of the value of the 'services' we get from ecosystems was published in the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) [11] ( UKNEA). This landmark publication provided many fresh insights into the value of nature. Some key messages included the need for us to:

  • value all the services and benefits we get from our environment. This means finding ways to account for, and build into decision-making, services that are currently undervalued or omitted (and therefore at risk) from conventional economic analysis. Chapter 2 expands on this.
  • take a more integrated and less sectoral approach to land management. Rather than thinking about 'forestry' or 'farming', or about 'rivers' or 'uplands', it is better to think about 'river catchments', or some other landscape scale. Chapter 5 considers this further.
  • find ways to make the ecosystems we depend upon more resilient, as both population growth and climate change are likely to increase the adverse pressures on them.
  • take the long view, as land management can have consequences far into the future. We need to do better at understanding what these consequences might be. Restoring damaged ecosystem functions or paying to overcome the loss of function is far more costly than being careful to nurture, and build upon, what we have in the first place.

The evidence base on the changing nature of Scotland.

The Strategy is founded on a substantial evidence-base. Scotland's 2010 biodiversity assessment (2010) [4] concluded that biodiversity loss had been slowed where targeted action had been applied, but halting it would require renewed and sustained effort over a longer period. This systematic account was based on, for example: the Countryside Survey; our knowledge of protected areas and a suite of biodiversity indicators designed specifically for such a factual overview.

The Changing Nature of Scotland (2001) [15] , the seventeenth in an annual series of publications from SNH, provides an update of environmental change across the land, water and seas of Scotland. Scotland's Marine Atlas (2011) [16] gives a uniquely comprehensive account of the surrounding seas. Scotland's State of the Environment Report (2006) [17] concludes that, despite a generally good environment, issues continue to affect human health, wildlife and economic success. A key message from the UKNEA (2011) [11] is that the natural world, its biodiversity and constituent ecosystems, are critically important to our wellbeing and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision making.

An ecosystem approach

All of this is central to what is called an 'ecosystem approach', which is defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity as:

'A strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way, and which recognises that people, with their cultural and varied social needs, are an integral part of ecosystems'.

Three key steps guide our use of an ecosystem approach:

  1. Take account of how ecosystems work. Nature connects across landscapes, so we need to consider the broad and local scales. The capacity of ecosystems to respond to impacts and provide resources is not infinite. Ecosystems are dynamic so we must recognise that change will happen. By using up-to-date information, embracing adaptive management principles, and trying to sustain nature's multiple benefits, we can ensure that nature continues to contribute to Scotland's growth.
  2. Take account of services that ecosystems provide to people, such as regulating floods and climate, breaking down waste, providing food, fuel and water, and contributing to quality of life, culture and wellbeing.
  3. Involve people in decision-making, especially those who benefit from ecosystem services and those who manage them. This means valuing people's knowledge, helping people to participate, and giving people greater ownership and responsibility.

Recent progress

Scotland has already begun adopting this approach to national policy. Since 2004, all public bodies have a duty under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act (2004) [8] to further the interests of biodiversity. Through the planning system, Planning Authorities have an important role to play in improving the environment, for example by strengthening green infrastructure, safeguarding and enhancing urban and rural biodiversity, and contributing to the improvement of water, air and soil quality. The second National Planning Framework for Scotland (2009) [18] highlights the fact that the environment is one of Scotland's chief assets, a source of natural capital that can drive broad-based sustainable growth ( Chapter 2 gives more detail on this). The Biodiversity Duty (2004) [9] will also provide a general statutory underpinning to the need for public bodies to work together to meet the 2020 Challenge and achieve its biodiversity outcomes in a cohesive way, and to report on progress (more detail is in Chapters 3 and 7).

Scotland's Land Use Strategy (2011) [12] promotes an ecosystem approach, with land management aimed at securing multiple benefits. An information note on an ecosystem approach for decision-makers and managers has been produced to assist in applying the Strategy. A similar ecosystem approach for our seas is discussed further in Chapter 6.

The climate change adaptation plans prepared under the Climate Change Act (2008) [19] provide sound guidance on a wide range of activities that can improve ecosystem resilience. Farming for a Better Climate (2011) [20] , in particular, deals with critical action at the farm scale.

The Scottish Government's planning policy is set out in the National Planning Framework (2009) [18] and Scottish Planning Policy (2010) [21] . Planning policy gives significant support for the greater connectivity of habitats, and contains proposals to enhance green infrastructure. Across the central belt, there is a history of a degraded natural environment and a lack of connections between people and nature. The establishment of the Central Scotland Green Network ( CSGN), introduced as a National Development in the second National Planning Framework, represents a step change in meeting environmental, economic and social goals through the natural environment.

Scottish Planning Policy (2010) [21] encourages Planning Authorities to promote green infrastructure that will add value to the provision, protection, enhancement and connectivity of open space and habitats; both within and between towns and cities. Green infrastructure can include lochs, ponds, watercourses and wetlands as well as woodlands, parkland and other open habitats. These provide recreational resources and wildlife habitats, and we need to protect and enhanced them wherever possible.

As a result, Planning Authorities have worked hard to set clear proposals for green infrastructure within their development plans and planning policies. Within the CSGN area there is close collaboration through partnership, involving all the local authorities, Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish Enterprise. This is considered further in Chapter 3.

This landscape-scale approach has also been supported by a number of the non-governmental organisations: the Scottish Wildlife Trust in its 'Living Landscapes' initiative; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in its 'Futurescapes' work; the Heritage Lottery Fund through its 'Landscape Partnership' programme; and the Scottish Forest Alliance in its 'Great Trossachs Forest Project'. Such thinking and practical application, show that the opportunity for action is considerable, and its support is wide.

The Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act (2009) [22] supports a catchment level approach to managing flood risk sustainably. Managers are required to consider a wide range of solutions, including natural flood management, which promotes techniques that work with nature to enhance, restore or alter natural features and characteristics. This more sustainable approach ensures opportunities to secure multiple benefits.

Developing an ecosystem approach

This range of examples shows how far we have come since the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy [3] was published in 2004. It demonstrates the extent to which people have risen to the challenge of taking a more integrated, landscape-scale approach, as advocated in that document.

Through the Scottish Environment and Rural Services ( SEARS) initiative, the Scottish Government has sought to bring about a more coordinated rural service in Scotland, aligning the agricultural, forestry and environmental agencies of government. The approach needed to care for nature and safeguard ecosystem services is simply an extension of this. This integrated approach, providing multiple benefits, is reinforced though the Land Use Strategy (2011) [13] .

River basin management planning provides information about the current ecological status of Scotland's freshwater systems, highlights pressures on water bodies, and identifies measures to resolve any issues and targets for improvement. It establishes a structure for involving a wide range of organisations in assessing the state of the water environment and in identifying where action is needed. The Scottish Government intends to build on this work to foster further collaboration.

In the coming years we want to determine the status of Scotland's ecosystems more generally, using a broad range of indicators of ecosystem health. These should be assessed on a catchment by catchment basis across Scotland. Applying an ecosystem approach at a river catchment level will secure efficiency by:

  • streamlining and integrating stakeholder engagement and work into one process with aligned goals.
  • building collaboration amongst SEARS members.
  • meeting simpler and more coherent priorities for land managers and land owners.
  • helping build confidence in what we mean by ecosystem health.

This should enable us to have more focused regulation and less demanding appraisals in advance of development.

At a national level, this approach should identify catchments most in need of attention. At a more local level, information about particular problems within catchments will help us sharpen local priorities (not least those in the SRDP and Local Biodiversity Action Plans), and identify where investment in ecosystem restoration might be most beneficial. All of this will, in turn, help us enhance or restore ecological health. And if we can do that, we should be able to have:

  • a framework for establishing a national ecological network.
  • greater resilience against adverse changes, such as those arising from climate change.
  • key work underway outside protected places to meet requirements under the EU Habitats Directive.
  • agreed regional priorities for the SRDP.
  • a means for planning forest expansion.
  • Local Biodiversity Action Plans contributing to national priorities.

Towards a national ecological network

The second National Planning Framework (2009) [18] proposed the recognition and enhancement of a national ecological network. This idea of a 'network' is grounded in a well-understood feature of nature that species depend on each other in complex relationships; that movement of species across or through the environment requires proximity or connectivity of habitat; and that some species require different habitats for different aspects or stages of their lives. It also recognises the fact that energy and information are carried through natural systems, and that water, nutrients and elements such as carbon are cycled, stored and recycled in complex ways. The term 'network', then, encompasses this idea of functional connectivity, interdependence and the channels of energy, material and information flow that life requires.

Hence, a 'national ecological network' is a way of characterising the nature of Scotland, laying importance on how its different parts relate to each other in ways that best support biodiversity and provide the many benefits (or ecosystem services) to people. This network in the array of woodlands, grasslands, moorlands, wetlands, rivers and lochs across great swathes of countryside, and also the smaller mosaics of hedgerows, marshlands and bogs, woodlands, pastures and arable land on individual farms. This can work well in sustaining diversity and providing multiple benefits of wildlife as well as food, fibre and fuel.

But, as we have seen from the UKNEA (2011) [11] , some ecosystem services are deteriorating. Work on a national ecological network should endeavour to redress and restore these services. Development of green infrastructure in and around our towns and cities will help, as should enhancement of ecosystem health across river catchments.

Improving ecosystem health

There are three simple steps to improve ecosystem health;

(i) devise a simple but robust way of assessing it;

(ii) know what needs to be done to maintain or improve it; and

(iii) ensure that resources follow the priorities so that work gets done.

None of this is straightforward, and we need to learn by doing through adaptive management.

Assessing ecosystem health - the need for indicators

We know from the UKNEA (2011) [11] that ecosystems across Scotland are not meeting their full potential. It is not that they are close to collapse; rather the evidence suggests degradation across wide areas and so reducing their value. Examples of these extensive issues relate to diffuse pollution (mainly by nitrogen oxides); poor soil quality (compaction, loss of soil biodiversity and reduced soil carbon); reduced water retention on land; siltation and scouring in rivers; fragmentation of habitats; the spread of invasive species, such as rhododendron in woodland or signal crayfish in rivers; and rapid change in land use. We want to reverse these trends, pursuing the Aichi target of restoring 15% of degraded ecosystems.

Ecosystems, by their nature, are extremely complex. No single measure of 'ecosystem health' can usefully be derived. Rather, as for our own health, we need a suite of indicators with which we can make a diagnosis and determine the treatment. In the first instance, we plan to have around 6-12 broad indicators. These will be drawn from time-series data collected routinely, and which can be assessed at the catchment scale. Chapter 7 considers this further.

What needs to be done to improve ecosystem health?

Assessment of catchments using indicators will produce information about what needs to be tackled and where. Action must be informed by science and by practical experience through adaptive management. Science tells us that the following sorts of action are the ones most likely to help;

  • reduce adverse pressures on ecosystems, habitats and species.
  • make space for natural processes, including geomorphological and soil processes.
  • enhance means for species dispersal and genetic adaptation through improving connectivity and habitat availability.
  • improve habitat management where it is the cause of decline in species diversity or where it could improve resilience to climate change through increased habitat diversity on farms, in forests and elsewhere in the landscape.
  • take an adaptive approach to land and conservation management, changing objectives and management measures in response to new information and by anticipating effects.
  • plan for change where assessments indicate that it is likely and unavoidable, for example as a result of sea level rise.

Restoring the quality, or increasing the area, of some habitats, which past land uses have adversely affected is an important way of trying to recover ecosystem health. Some examples of what we need to do to help us meet restoration targets under the CBD, include;

  • restoration of the hydrological integrity of peatland.
  • restoration of coastal dune systems.
  • restoration of native woodland, montane scrub and near-natural treelines where these have been suppressed or eliminated by grazing and burning.
  • expansion of woodland in some catchments.
  • restoration of riparian and woodland flora where invasive species such as rhododendron or Japanese knotweed are becoming dominant.
  • establishment of saltmarsh in some areas where there is coastal inundation.

The importance of adaptive management, and our need to learn, means we should give extra attention to current projects that are tackling land management through an ecosystem approach at the landscape scale. We need to learn from what works well and share the results widely. In addition, we intend to explore this further through the Land Use Strategy regional pilot studies.

Resources needed to meet the priorities.

The Scottish Government intends to target resources where they will have greatest impact in meeting the 2020 Challenge. From 2015, the revised SRDP will be of key importance in making a difference. Rural priorities may be more targeted towards specific measures that address the issues identified as locally important in individual catchments. The 'greening measures' associated with direct support payments can help ensure that good practice in land and soil management is adopted across the country.

A more cohesive approach by the Scottish Government and its agencies should result in shared common objectives at local and national levels being met. In the early years of the 2020 Challenge, the focus has to be on projects and places already identified as priorities for action among the agencies, local government and NGOs.

Key messages from this chapter

  • Ensure we benefit from resilient ecosystems that continue to provide robust ecosystem services and natural capital for future generations.
  • Use an adaptive, integrated approach at the ecosystem level, which is best managed at the spatial scale of river catchments.
  • Coordinate policies and action across Government and public bodies, and involve others including managers of land and sea and non-governmental bodies.
  • Devise an effective means of assessing ecosystem health.
  • Restore and enhance ecosystems.

What will be different as a result of applying the principles in this chapter?

  • Agencies, including SNH, SEPA, FCS and Local Authorities, will work together to restore ecosystem health in catchments across Scotland.
  • Land-use plans and decisions will take better account of how nature functions and provides valuable services to communities and the economy; effective data and analytical tools will support these.
  • Resources will be used where they are most needed, to ensure the resilience of ecosystems, and to sustain natural capital for the economic wellbeing of Scotland.
  • We will have a far better understanding of the benefits nature provides through the systematic mapping of ecosystem health and ecosystem services at the catchment scale.


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