Anne McCall takes a look at what’s being proposed in the ‘Forestry Bill’ currently working its way through the Scottish Parliament.
Scotland’s Forestry Bill
The subject of governance arrangements and organisational structures is never one to set the world alight. But these things do matter. As the ‘Forestry Bill’ works its way through the Scottish Parliament, there are some who have raised concerns about the perceived breaking up of Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) and about changes to Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES). To provide clarity on these matters, Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing recently made an announcement setting out his plans. These seem relatively non-contentious to us and we welcome the clarity that has been provided at this stage. Ultimately what matters for forestry, and the impacts it has, comes down to ow the newly proposed bodies exercise their duties and functions.
So what has been proposed? The current regulatory, policy, support and grant-giving functions of FCS will transfer to a dedicated forestry division called Scottish Forestry (FS) in Scottish Government. Management of the National Forest Estate (NFE) will transfer from FES, currently an agency of the Forestry Commissioners, to a new agency Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS). One positive outcome of this change is the clear separation of the regulator (SF) and the regulated (FLS), the latter in its role as a forest manager. A key task for FS going forward will be the production of a new Forestry Strategy. This will set the framework for forestry policy and practice for years to come and we will be working to influence its content and keeping a close eye on it. It will be essential that it has at its heart the promotion of sustainable forestry and that it ensures forestry is integrated with other land uses, such as agriculture. It must also ensure forestry plays its part in delivering the objectives of Scotland’s Land Use Strategy including delivering a wide range of environmental outcomes.
Something else to welcome in the announcement is the proposal for FLS to establish a Stakeholder Panel to engage with, and seek advice and feedback from, stakeholders. As forest managers ourselves on our nature reserves and with a strong interest in forestry policy and practice given the both positive and negative effects it can have on our wildlife, we look forward to engaging with this Panel going forward. As with all organisational change though there are always some downsides and we are concerned about the possible loss of biodiversity and conservation expertise in the move from FES to FLS. We hope our concerns are ill founded and that current conservation efforts on the NFE will not decline as a result of the changes.
In this blog Anne McCall, Director of RSPB Scotland, celebrates this year's World Wetlands Day.
World Wetlands Day 2018
You probably aren’t aware – unless you are obsessed with bogs and swamps - that February 2nd is World Wetlands Day. Here are just a few reasons why we should all be celebrating these fascinating and diverse habitats, not just today but all year round.
One benefit of our frequent wet weather is that Scotland has a wealth of wetland habitats, including blanket bogs and raised bogs, marshes, coastal wetlands and 30,000 freshwater lochs. These areas are home to some of our most loved species and play a far greater role in our livelihoods than most people realise, helping to provide clean drinking water, creating a natural flood defence, improving air quality in urban areas, and acting as a natural carbon store. Wetlands are therefore not only important for their amazing wildlife, but also contribute hugely to public health and wellbeing.
RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows
The Flow Country in North Scotland holds the largest continuous area of blanket bog habitat in Europe. This amazingly productive habitat supports all kinds of wildlife, including short-eared owls, golden eagles, merlins, mountain hares and many other species. Most importantly the Sphagnum mosses which blanket the floor – hence the name ‘blanket bog’ – build up deep layers of peat over time. When blanket bogs are in good condition they capture and store vast amounts of carbon and filter our drinking water. The RSPB has been working to this landscape for more than 20 years and is leading on the ‘Flows to the Future’ partnership project to protect and restore a large area of blanket bog, ensuring that it continues to perform these vital functions.
Marshland habitats play a key role in flood defence, as these grassy plains can hold large quantities of water during floods and storms. This type of habitat provides a home to huge numbers of wading birds, like at our RSPB reserve at Insh Marshes where the air is thick with the song of curlew in Spring, and you can see redshank, snipe and lapwing.
Along Scotland’s coastline salt marsh helps to prevent coastal erosion and tidal flooding, as well as creating a nursery for fish and a food for many birds. Dune slacks, found in some dune systems, flood at certain types of the year and form unique and rare habitat for interesting invertebrates, as well as sheltering birds and other animals from predators and bad weather.
Urban wetlands, the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day, offer significant health and wellbeing benefits for local communities as well as an opportunity to connect with the natural world. Baron’s Haugh, our community nature reserve in Motherwell, offers a chance for local residents to get up close to enigmatic species like kingfishers and otters in the wild, right on their doorstep.
Wetlands are internationally protected by the Ramsar Convention, an agreement that requires member countries to classify important wetlands as ‘Ramsar sites’. These sites exist to protect wetland habitats and species from damaging development and land use change. Sadly, despite these protections, wetlands remain one of the most threatened habitats in the world due to practices, such as drainage of peatlands and floodplains, commercial forestry plantation, intensive agriculture and damaging development, which lead to loss and degradation. Climate change is adding further pressure to already vulnerable habitats.
The Scottish Government has made some good progress towards improving the state of Scotland’s wetlands. Wetland management and creation is being targeted through the Scottish Rural Development Programme and the Draft Climate Change Plan set a bold target to restore 250,000 hectares of degraded peatland by 2030, with funding available under the Peatland Action Programme. This is an ambitious and welcome commitment that will play a key role in helping Scotland to meet its internationally agreed climate and biodiversity targets. However, more could be done to restore our rivers and regain the function of natural flood plains, helping nature help us.
Recent research has shown that the most successful way to conserve wetland habitats worldwide is a combination of protected areas and effective governance. It is critically important that the protections given to designated areas like Ramsar sites are properly enforced. This means ensuring that planning permission is not granted to damaging development, such as the current planning application for a golf course at Coul Links, a unique and undisturbed system of dune habitats in East Sutherland. We must avoid our protected areas becoming ‘paper parks’, protected in name only. If you would like to help save Coul Links, please add your name to the thousands of others who have already objected by following the instructions here.
Wetlands after sunset at RSPB Scotland Loch Leven
Finally, we need our protected areas to be bigger, better and more connected. Land use change has caused our best wildlife sites to become ever smaller and more isolated, affecting the ability of our protected area network to deal with future pressures such as climate change. Increasing investment in Scotland’s National Ecological Network would improve, protect and connect fragmented wetland habitats, including in urban areas through the creation of Green Infrastructure, helping nature and giving communities better access to high quality, wildlife rich greenspace. This would help the Scottish Government to meet internationally agreed targets like the UN Sustainable Development Goals and ensure that these spectacular and invaluable habitats recover and go on to thrive in the future.
This is my last blog wearing my RSPB hat and I have decided to look again at the impact that Invasive Non Native Species (INNS) are having on biodiversity in the UK and across the globe. This is one of the hidden killers of native wildlife-and a by-product of man’s ability to cross oceans and inadvertently transport species to new environments. Trade and carelessness have been the downfall of many island species already, and here in the UK many seabird colonies on remote islands no longer support sensitive species, because of the relatively recent arrival of American mink, rats, feral cats and even stoats and hedgehogs, which predate the hapless eggs and chicks of petrels, shearwaters and auks. This could all get much worse as we grapple with ‘free’ trade issues post Brexit. So please read on, and support efforts to maintain and enhance safeguards against further problems for wildlife caused by invasive non-natives.
Photo credit: Jim Richardson.
One of the things I love about nature is its variety. Species evolve together and this continual adaptation and counter-adaptation means one species can’t dominate all the others. This leaves plenty of species for us to enjoy!
But will this last forever? We’re constantly moving species from their native habitats to ones where they’d never naturally occur, to places where they haven’t co-evolved with the native species. This may not always matter if the non-native species don’t adapt to their new environments and can’t survive. But a number of non-native species always will survive and the really problematic ones are those that then go on to dominate their new locations.
These species are known as invasive non-natives. And they come to dominate when the native species haven’t evolved to compete against them for food, or even to protect themselves from being eaten by the invader. And by the same token, native species also often haven’t evolved to eat the invader. So without the natural population brake that competition and predation provide, the invader simply thrives, displacing many native species in the process.
This is a big problem. In fact invasive non-native species have contributed to over 60% of all recent global extinctions. They’re also currently the world’s second biggest driver of species extinctions and the second greatest threat to UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites. In other words, invasive non-native species are something all nature lovers should care about. But what’s this got to do with Brexit?
Well, domestic laws to tackle the threat from invasive non-native species are poor and out-of-date across most of the UK. Scotland has the most recent and fit-for-purpose legislation, thanks to revisions that were made by the Scottish Parliament in 2011. But even Scotland’s modern legislation was written before the current EU standard, the EU’s ‘Regulation on Invasive Alien Species’ (IAS) was drawn up, and so is missing some of the vital elements that the Regulation provides for. This Regulation represents the best international law we currently have to protect our nature from invasive non-native species. The Westminster Government is to be congratulated on committing itself to retaining this law after Brexit, but how can this be achieved in practice? Many questions remained unanswered.
How will the regulation be made to work across all four countries of the UK without the co-ordinating function of the European Commission? How will the Government continue to co-operate with the EU on invasive non-native species surveillance and management? Will the Governments of the UK commit to regularly updating and refreshing the ‘black-list’ of banned invasive non-native species and will they manage to have a co-ordinated single list? Will the independent scrutiny and oversight of an expert scientific panel be maintained? Will the Governments of the UK commit to the essential, specific provisions necessary to protect the seabirds that nest on our wonderful offshore islands?
So one clear risk from Brexit is that we lose the strong provisions of the EU IAS Regulation. But are there any others?
Well, international trade is the most common way invasive non-native species move around the world - either when they’re traded, or inadvertently when they hitch a ride on other traded goods. Although the exact nature of our future international trading patterns remain unknown, it seems likely there will be some changes, with the risk of weaker controls than we have now. This means there’s potential for a whole new group of invasive non-native species to become established in the UK. So changing international trade is a clear risk to the UK. It may also be an opportunity.
Again, it’s not known exactly what future control we’ll have of our borders and customs. But we’re likely to have a greater control than we have now as an EU Member State. So, there’s a huge potential for the UK to become a world leader in biosecurity, for the UK to become a world leader in protecting our economy, and the environment that underpins it, from invasive non-native species. And in economic terms we shouldn’t forget that invasive non-native species already impose a burden to the tune of £1.7 billion annually, according to UK Government estimates.
Will the Governments of the UK realise and seize this opportunity? Will we start to see the resources needed to protect ourselves and the UK’s nature from the threat of invasive non-native species? Only time will tell, but you can be sure the RSPB and its partners will be working hard to make the necessary safeguards a reality.
If you are interested in non-native species and the work being done to tackle this problem, check out the RSPB's Shiant Isles Recovery Project, which is being carried out in partnership with SNH and the Nicolson family here.