Scottish Biodiversity Strategy: report to Parliament 2017 to 2019

The fifth report detailing progress on the implementation of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, covering the period 2017 to 2019, as required under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.

3. Outcome 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 (also relevant to key steps under section 4: Outcome 2 Natural Capital).
  • Use assessments of ecosystem health at a catchment level to determine what needs to be done.
  • Government and public bodies will work together towards a shared agenda for action to restore ecosystem health at a catchment-scale.
  • Establish plans and decisions about land-use based on an understanding of ecosystems. Take full account of land-use impacts on the ecosystem services that underpin social, economic and environmental health.

3.1 Ecosystem restoration

Restoration of ecosystems has been a primary focus of activity, ensuring they support biodiversity and deliver important services for society, such as flood management and climate change mitigation. Targets for restoration of peatlands, freshwaters and native woodlands are identified as priorities in the Route Map to 2020. There has been a considerable amount of activity and effort across many organisations and partnerships to restore these ecosystems.

There are many landscape-scale projects completed and still underway to restore ecosystems across Scotland. These include projects close to urban populations in the central belt such as EcoCo Life+[33] and the suite of Inner Forth Landscape Partnership[34] projects. Projects in other areas of Scotland include the Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape[35] and the Flows to the Future project[36] in Sutherland. The Scottish Biodiversity Strategy Landscape Scale Conservation Working Group[37] organises workshops and provides information to support this activity.

Local authorities have led successful regional land use pilots in the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire, with lessons learnt feeding into proposals for further development of this approach in the Land Use Strategy 2016 to 2021 and the Programme for Government commitment to develop Regional Land Use Partnerships.

Reversing ecosystem degradation, loss and fragmentation are key aims of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. Considerable efforts have been made on restoration of some of Scotland's most threatened habitats over the past few years. In particular, peatlands and rivers have seen focused efforts which help towards Scotland's climate change targets. Rivers have seen continuous improvement in condition over the last 25 years. The area of woodland has more than trebled since 1900, much of this being commercial forestry rather than native woodland.

3.2 Peatlands

Over 19,000 hectares of peatland across Scotland have been improved through restoration management since 2013, funded through the Scottish Government's Peatland Action Fund of £14 million and managed by SNH. Demonstration events to share best practice have helped to support additional restoration work.

The Flows to the Future project has been working with many partners in Caithness and Sutherland to restore extensive areas of blanket bog. A World Heritage Site status application for this important area was supported by The Peatland Partnership. A Technical Evaluation application was submitted to the UK government in early January 2020 as part of the package to be considered for proposing as the World Heritage Site nomination.

3.3 Native woodland

The Native Woodland Survey of Scotland was carried out from 2006-2013 and this provided the first authoritative picture of the extent and condition of Scotland's native woodlands. The field-based survey results were released in February 2014 by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) and provided valuable data to assist land managers and deer management groups identify the potential actions they could take to help restore native woodlands in Scotland.

The National Forest Inventory (NFI) map was established in 2010 and is updated annually. It is based on aerial photography and satellite imagery, and covers all forests and woodlands over 0.5 ha with a minimum of 20% canopy cover (or the potential to achieve it), including new planting, clear-felled sites and restocked sites. The NFI field survey assesses a large, stratified-random sample of woodlands on a 5-year rolling cycle using a standardised protocol. The first cycle of survey took place between January 2010 and January 2016 and this provides a baseline against which future results can be compared. As a sample survey, this does not produce site-based data, but is a valuable source of data that can be used to assess trends in woodland condition.

New native woodlands have been planted, mainly with support through the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) totalling 8,240ha between April 2017 and April 2019, meeting the Route Map to 2020 target of 3-5,000ha per year.

Herbivore impacts, particularly from deer, have been highlighted as a serious issue in relation to native woodland condition. The Native Woodland Survey of Scotland (NWSS) identified that 46% of native woodlands were in good condition. There has been no follow up survey since 2013 but a narrower dataset on the condition of woodland features on Protected Areas is used as a proxy measure for the condition of the wider woodland resource. It shows an overall decline in woodland condition between 2017 and 2020, with 33% of features now assessed as unfavourable, an increase of 2%. Evidence from Site Condition Monitoring (SCM) shows that herbivores are at least partially the cause for 63 of the 82 declining woodland features. Invasive non-native species, either in combination with pressures such as over-grazing or individually, account for 42 out of the 82 declining woodland features.

3.4 Freshwaters

SEPA's most recent condition assessment for rivers and lochs (2018)[38] shows that there is variation in the condition of freshwaters across Scotland. For Scotland as a whole, 65.7% of our surface and groundwater water bodies are at good or better status (as defined in the Water Framework Directive). This is a slight increase from 2017 (64.9%) while 57.1% of water bodies (rivers, canals and lochs) meet the required EU standard of being of 'Good' or 'High' status. In some regions, such as the Western and Northern Isles, Argyll and North Highland water bodies are in much better condition than the national average.

Four water bodies have improved due to real changes in the environment. These are because of improvement measures to reduce rural diffuse pollution and action to tackle barriers to fish migration. There are four downgrades due to real changes in the environment; one is due to a complex diffuse pollution event, one because of a new confirmed record of invasive North American signal crayfish, and two are due to newly authorised hydropower developments. The CCCF (Current Condition and Challenges for the Future) Report was published in December 2019 for consultation, is due to be published in December 2020, followed by the draft 3rd River Basin Plan in 2020. These reports will provide a more detailed analysis of improvements and predicted success of measures.

Current work to improve freshwater quality is detailed in the second river basin management plan (RBMP) for Scotland 2015-2027[39]. This focuses on regulation activities and alignment of objectives into land use planning and flood risk management, with five six topic areas for focused RBMP actions[40]:

  • Improving water quality – including waste water discharges and rural diffuse pollution
  • Improving physical condition
  • Improving access for fish migration
  • Improving water levels and flows
  • Preventing the spread of invasive non-native species

Further information is available on the Water Environment Hub[41] data tool. Progress on actions to deliver the current RBMP are being utilised to inform the third RBMP due for publication in December 2021.

3.5 Assessing progress towards this outcome

A suite of indicators developed in 2006 enable reporting against this outcome and progress against each of them is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Indicators relevant to monitoring progress on Outcome 1 – Healthy Ecosystems.




Trend/ status

EUNIS Land cover Scotland[42]


Improve the condition of terrestrial & freshwater protected nature sites[43]



Native woodland condition[44]


High Nature Value Farming[45]


Terrestrial Breeding Bird index[46]





River water quality indicator[47]



3.6 Eunis Land Cover Scotland

The Habitat Map of Scotland was produced by Scottish Natural Heritage with data from national surveys reclassified to match the European Nature Information System (EUNIS)[48]. The Habitat Map plots habitats at a broad scale across the country[49] for use at national and regional scales. An interactive map and all the datasets are freely available through Scotland's Environment Web[50] and from Natural Spaces[51] on the SNH website. Work is underway to improve the data resolution for the upland regions of Scotland and new data will be added when it is available.

3.7 Protected nature sites (terrestrial and freshwater)

There are 1,866 terrestrial and freshwater protected sites in Scotland (although some of their boundaries overlap) and they host a total of 5,355 designated natural features, as of 31st March 2017. In March 2019 78.7% of designated natural features were assessed to be in favourable condition. This figure represents a decrease of 0.8 percentage points from 2018 but a slight increase between 2010 and 2019[52].

3.8 Native woodland condition

The native woodland condition indicator[53] has been developed by Forest Research and Scottish Forestry using measures from the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland carried out between 2006 and 2013. The indicator combines four attributes; canopy cover, percentage of canopy comprising native species, herbivore impact, and invasive species. Native woodlands in satisfactory condition cover 143,163 ha (39.3%) of all native woodland, while those in unsatisfactory condition cover 167,991 ha (46.1%), with much of the remaining area covering 39,672ha (10.9%).comprising Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS), most of which have now been planted with non-native commercial conifers.

Forest Research, together with a team including SNH and Scottish Forestry, have also developed a Woodland Ecological Condition (WEC) indicator[54] using National Forest Inventory survey data. This uses a set of 15 indicators to classify sample squares as favourable, intermediate or unfavourable. The results are extrapolated to report on native, non-native and 'other' woodland.

Native woodland in favourable condition covers 14,000ha (3%), with 409,000ha (94%) in intermediate and 11,000ha (2.5%) in unfavourable condition.

3.9 High Nature Value Farming

High Nature Value (HNV) Farming[55] refers to farming systems where the overall management characteristics of the system provide a range of environmental benefits, particularly maintaining and enhancing a wide range of habitats and species (such as butterflies and birds) that are of high nature conservation importance at a Scottish, UK and European level.

The area of Scotland estimated as being under HNV farming has ranged between 2.3 and 2.4 million hectares of agricultural land between 2007 and 2013. This equates to a range of between 40% and 44% of the total amount of agricultural land in Scotland[56]. This will provide the baseline measurement for assessing HNV delivered through SRDP for the period 2014-2021. This indicator has therefore not been updated during this reporting period.

3.10 Species diversity – bird populations

In Scotland, annual monitoring of terrestrial breeding birds[57] is achieved primarily through the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). Randomly located 1km survey squares are visited by volunteers twice in each breeding season (April to July). In addition scarce species are assessed using targeted surveys.

Since 1994 the smoothed all-species index steadily increased, peaking in 2007 then becoming more variable after this time. In 2018 it was 12% above the baseline and 9% below the peak in 2007. Between 2017 and 2018 the all-species and woodland bird indicators decreased, whilst the upland and farmland bird indicators were stable. The decline since 2017 probably has multiple causes, but there is evidence that the harsh winter of 2017-18 was a factor.

3.11 River water quality indicator

The standards for measuring water quality were modified in 2013 and the impacts of this are described in the river water quality indicator[58]. SEPA's most recent (2018) condition assessment for rivers and lochs[59] shows that there is variation in the condition of freshwaters across Scotland. For Scotland as a whole, 65.7% of our surface and groundwater water bodies are at good or better status (as defined in the Water Framework Directive). This is a slight increase from 2017 (64.9%) while 57.1% of water bodies (rivers, canals and lochs) meet the required EU standard of being of 'Good' or 'High' status. In some regions, such as the Western and Northern Isles, Argyll and North Highland water bodies are in much better condition than the national average.

3.12 The Ecosystem Health Indicators

Since the previous SBS progress report 2014-2016 a suite of Ecosystem Health Indicators (EHIs)[60] has been published which identifies the attributes to measure the health of ecosystems, and going forward will allow identification of areas requiring restoration. This is a major achievement, which was developed through a partnership between government agencies, research institutes and NGOs. They are useful to policy-makers, planners and land managers as they show where intervention is needed to halt damage to, or restore, ecosystem health. They also show stakeholders where progress is being made and where more effort may be needed.

At this early stage some of the EHIs provide baseline data only while others have many years of data associated with them. In the coming years trends data will become available for all these indicators. The two most recently developed indicators[61] use Scotland's diversity of mosses and liverworts to create the world's first bryophyte indicator. These sensitive species confirm reductions in nitrogen pollution across Scotland and also show some of the adverse effects of climate change on our native flora. The EHIs are brigaded into three groups; condition, function, and resilience; with individual indicators listed below. Condition indicators

The condition indicators listed below provide information about the state of ecosystems. They can be considered on their own, or together with functional and resilience indicators, they can help to provide a broader picture. At the moment they provide a baseline, and in future, we will be able to track changes in the state of ecosystems over time. The links below are to Scotland's Environment Web, where more detail on each indicator is provided. Function indicators

Function indicators (listed below) provide information on how habitats are connected and how well they can carry out their natural functions (for example, dispersal, pollination, decomposition, assimilation, predation, reproduction and growth). There are currently two function indicators: connectivity, and habitats at risk from acidification and eutrophication, and these can be considered on their own or together with condition and resilience indicators to gain a broader picture of our ecosystems. These indicators form a baseline and in the future, we will be able to show changes of time. Resilience indicators

Resilience is a property which allows an ecosystem to maintain its characteristics under the impact of human activities. These may be either positive, such as habitat restoration, or negative, such as climate change or deliberate or accidental introduction of invasive non-native species. The suite of resilience indicators (listed below) provides an understanding of how well ecosystems in Scotland are coping with the pressures placed on them.



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