2020 Challenge for Scotland's Biodiversity

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

4 Wildlife, habitats and protected places


The special value and international importance of Scotland's nature and geodiversity is assured, wildlife is faring well, and we have a highly effective network of protected places.

Key steps

  • Ensure that the management of protected places for nature also provides wider public benefits.
  • Align habitat restoration on protected areas with national goals for improving ecosystem health, with local priorities determined at the catchment or landscape scales.
  • Integrate protected areas policy with action for wider habitats to combat fragmentation and restore key habitats.
  • Develop a wildlife management framework to address the key priorities for sustainable species management, conservation and conflict issues, including reintroductions and invasive non-native species.
  • Involve many more people than at present in this work and improve our understanding of the poorly known elements of nature.


This chapter considers how we can take better care of nature. Scotland has some of the world's best places for wildlife; our seabird colonies, blanket bogs, remnant Scots pine woods, species-rich western woodlands and heaths are world renowned. Heather-dominated moors and machair grasslands are prized as cultural landscapes. These and much more characterise what is best about Scotland.

In the context of wider economic and social demands, we need to be clear about what needs to be done to care for nature and where. This chapter outlines what is needed.

Drivers of change

Scotland's Environment Web identifies the main drivers of environmental change in Scotland, including:

  • changing land use and land management practices, resulting in varying degrees of habitat fragmentation and loss.
  • eutrophication and pollution of land and water.
  • climate change, influencing the functioning of ecosystems.
  • trade in plants and animals and globalisation of transport, leading to the spread of invasive non-native species, pests and diseases.
  • the rise in environmentalism and its expression through international and national strategies and legislation.

Action for habitats, species and protected places

Ecosystems are made up of a range of habitats, species and processes. Protecting these is essential to support natural capital and to underpin the many ecosystem services discussed earlier. Habitats should be protected through wide measures considered in the next two chapters. However, we also need to have the best areas safeguarded and managed as protected places, and ideally connected within wider ecological networks.

In order to protect special places, we have a suite of Sites of Special Scientific Interest ( SSSIs) and 'Natura' sites, established under the EC Habitats and Birds Directives (1992 & 2009) 42,43 . National Nature Reserves ( NNRs) showcase the best of nature. A range of other designations; National Parks, Geoparcs and Biosphere Reserves promote sustainable development and local community involvement, and Local Nature Reserves reflect nationally as well as locally important priorities. Most people in Scotland live close to protected places and have great opportunities to visit and enjoy them.

Protected places are especially valuable providers of ecosystem services because the ecosystems within them are in the best condition. They integrate conservation with people's enjoyment of nature, provide jobs, particularly in rural Scotland, and offer many other public benefits to health, education, employment, environmental justice and tourism. They contribute towards many of the Scottish Government's 15 National Outcomes and its over-riding purpose of sustainable economic development.

Nature conservation sites cover about 18% of Scotland's land area and are particularly extensive across mountains, moorlands and coasts. SSSIs are the main protective mechanism, and over 75% of our SSSIs (by area) are also designated as Natura sites, highlighting their international importance.

Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, has recently identified a number of Marine Protected Areas ( MPAs). These will potentially bring together new areas to add to those covered by other designations such as SSSIs, Special Areas of Conservations and the Ramsar Convention providing an overarching and unifying network of marine protection. The Scottish Government may also consider other suitable areas for MPA designation. The suite offers opportunities for ensuring conservation targets are met, broadening the sustainable management of marine ecosystems, and deepening public awareness and involvement in marine issues.

SNH monitors the condition of nature conservation sites and reports on this every six years. This gives a good indication of the pressures acting on these sites, and on their habitats, species and other features e.g. grazing levels, agricultural and forestry operations, the spread of invasive species, built developments and human disturbance.

Improving the condition of protected sites is a high priority in the European Biodiversity Strategy (2011) [6] . A lot of progress has been made in Scotland, with an overall 6.7% improvement in the condition of protected habitats and species since 2005. Nevertheless, with only 78% of protected features in favourable condition, we need to do much more. Some protected areas are too isolated to be at their most effective, and joining them up through an ecologically coherent network is vital. Networks can ensure resilience and better protection, and improve land and freshwater management. However, we need to ensure these connections do not ease the spread of invasive non-native species.

Great advances have been made in recognising how geodiversity (rocks, soils, landforms and related processes) supports biodiversity and underpins ecosystem services. We must develop our understanding of this in order to improve the management and care of nature. We need to draw on specialist skills and expertise in this area, a lot of which is found in the voluntary sector.

We have many excellent species and habitat atlases and some of these provide fascinating and vital detail on changes across Scotland, often placed in wider UK and international contexts. However, we still have more work to do on habitat mapping. Following the requirements of the European INSPIRE Directive (2007) [44] , we want to produce a comprehensive map of Scotland's main habitats.

With a core area of green infrastructure already in place, wise investment can restore many natural systems back to near full capacity. We shall produce a priority list of key habitats for restoration, including peatlands and other wetlands, native woodlands, coastal dunes and species-rich grasslands, to support carbon capture, adaptation to climate change and to encourage low impact recreation.

We have great ambitions for nature and to meet these we need to work with the land-use sectors, not least the environmental NGOs, to protect, improve and manage nature. Overall, our priorities for habitats, species and protected places are to:

  • conserve at least 18% of land and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine ecosystems, within protected areas by 2020.
  • complete the suite of protected places, and improve their connectivity through a national ecological network centred on these sites.
  • meet the targets for favourable condition of Natura sites and SSSIs, and the conservation objectives for priority habitats and species.
  • make significant advances in developing the relatively new suite of Marine Protected Areas ( MPAs).
  • publish a comprehensive terrestrial habitat map of Scotland.
  • In the face of climate change, take forward an adaptive management programme for key habitats and species.
  • use data from the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland (2012) [45] to guide expansion, restoration and improvements in all types of priority woodland habitats.
  • use NNRs to promote best practice for conservation and adaptive management.
  • improve our understanding and strengthen the role of geodiversity in our care for nature.
  • Improve and broaden awareness of the many benefits of protected places.

Action for wildlife - setting priorities

Earlier chapters consider the great value of nature for Scottish life not just for the provision of water, food, fuel and timber, but as a defining characteristic of Scotland. There are compelling reasons for at least maintaining and restoring the diversity of wildlife in its own right. Most of us enjoy seeing birds and mammals, insects and flowers; our spectacular wildlife is a magnetic draw for visitors. The Scottish Government is committed to conserving this rich diversity of wildlife, and there are many examples of this such as its support of the Wild Plant Horizons (2010) [46] ; the UK's response to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (2011) [47] , and the Strategy for Scottish Invertebrate Conservation (2009) [48] .

The Scottish Biodiversity List (2004) [7] ( SBL) is the statutory list of animals, plants and habitats considered to be most important for conservation in Scotland. Work is already underway to provide greater clarity on priorities for the SBL, which will help public bodies meet their Biodiversity Duty (2004) [9] and help set priorities for Scottish species and habitats.

In managing wildlife populations, urgent action is often needed to address species conflicts or to manage wildlife resources sustainably. In Scotland we have had considerable successes with the recovery of species such as the corncrake, woolly willow and slender Scotch burnet moth. There are further candidates for action and we have to focus our limited resources on those in most urgent need of help. For red and roe deer and several geese species we have to work at ways of managing populations sustainably.

The Species Action Framework ( SAF) ( 2007) [49] and Woods for Nature (2008) [50] laid out strategic approaches to species management in Scotland which are making a real difference for nature. These concentrated work by a range of partners on 34 key species, resulting in great gains for nature and people. A management handbook arising from the SAF programme will set the benchmark for good practice.

SNH is developing a Wildlife Management Framework to help SNH make consistent, targeted and cost-effective decisions on wildlife management - some of these involving sensitive and contentious issues. Through its leadership of the National Species Reintroduction Forum, SNH is developing a code of good practice for species reintroductions to guide its work and proposals from others.

All of this work means we need to focus on clear priorities for wildlife action. We propose to:

  • clarify the significant actions for habitats and species arising from the Scottish Biodiversity List, and use this to guide funding.
  • integrate species management covering plants, animals and other organisms to ensure far better results for whole ecosystems.
  • devise species indicators that reflect the broad state of biodiversity in response to the major drivers of biodiversity loss and monitor these.
  • use the Wildlife Management Framework to identify priorities for tackling species conflicts, species conservation issues, reintroductions and sustainable management of wildlife resources.
  • develop a strategic programme for re-establishing species lost locally or nationally, or threatened by climate change and other pressures, and take this forward through the National Species Reintroduction Forum.
  • put in place a new programme for priority farmland species, recognising that some of these are in a parlous state.

Tackling invasive species, pests and diseases

Invasive non-native species ( INNS) are damaging our environment, economy and health. They cost Scotland as much as £250 million annually. INNS are a significant cause of species decline and extinctions worldwide. Although only a small proportion of introduced species become invasive, these can cause great harm by carrying disease, preying on native species, crowding out native vegetation and even damaging buildings and infrastructure. Islands are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of INNS.

The worst invaders are land mammals, aquatic plants and invertebrates. Our top priorities are to identify how these species invade and act quickly to prevent their establishment and spread. Once they take hold, their control is expensive and sometimes not possible. This is particularly the case in the marine environment where we need internationally agreed prevention measures.

Diseases like ash die-back and Phytopthora threaten biodiversity as well as rural industries. We need to work closely with plant and animal health colleagues on biosecurity issues not least to maintain the resilience of ecosystems.

To combat the threat of INNS, we must work to:

  • prevent their establishment and spread, identify their means and routes for invasion, raise awareness of the need for biosecurity, and implement legislation and international agreements.
  • act quickly to respond to emerging threats; support early detection through monitoring programmes (including 'citizen science), assess risks as these arise, and develop appropriate responses.
  • restore terrestrial ecosystems degraded by invasive species, develop strategies to deal with established species (e.g. rhododendron and riverside invasive plants), in a coordinated and cost-effective way that engages the public, landowners and industry in tackling problems at a catchment-scale.
  • make concerted efforts to protect Scottish islands and water-dominated environments.

Developing our understanding and awareness of nature

Arguably the least understood parts of our biodiversity are the most important to ecosystem services. Some of the latest research is identifying the role of soil invertebrates, fungi and microbes in supporting decomposition, nitrogen and carbon cycles. Some plants such as bryophytes, need further work because we have world hotspots of some species and uniquely rich communities in the west.

New techniques and technology (such as DNA barcoding and species diagnostic kits) are helping us discover much more about the diversity and role of nature. Much remains to be learnt about life in the soil, which supports many of the ecosystem services described in earlier chapters. We want to see universities and research institutes devoting more resources to this area, and greater efforts to bolster 'small biodiversity research' below ground and in fresh waters.

We must develop the remarkable volunteer base we have in Scotland, to help identify where action is needed for wildlife. And of course involvement in this will reap additional dividends for our health and wellbeing.

Key messages from this chapter

  • Protected areas offer many benefits beyond caring for nature, and provide enhanced ecosystem services, create jobs (especially in rural Scotland) extend recreational opportunities, (which benefit health and wellbeing), and contribute to tourism and our quality of life.
  • An integrated, adaptive approach to the management of protected places, involving the range of land-use interests, will enhance these benefits.
  • More concentrated work is needed on key species and habitats to target threatened native species, species conflicts, invasive non-native species, and potential reintroductions.

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

  • Protected areas will lie at the heart of healthy landscapes that contribute multiple benefits to the people of Scotland.
  • Scotland's ecosystems will be more resilient, and threatened species will be recovering though targeted conservation action.
  • The damage to our environment, economy and health from invasive non-native species will be greatly reduced, and contingency plans will be in place to guard against future invasions.
  • The public will recognise their vital role in contributing to these outcomes, and volunteer 'experts' will be helped to play a major part in developing knowledge of our wildlife and its role in sustaining life.


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