“EU institutions have played a pivotal role over the past forty years in ensuring that our environment laws have been enforced, and giving a voice to citizens and civil society like ourselves who speak up for nature. The loss of EU oversight will result in gaps in our environmental protections and threaten Scotland’s unique and special natural heritage. This issue must be addressed. That’s why we have been working with colleagues across the four countries of the UK to better understand how our nations might collaborate to tackle the governance gap for nature in 2019. This blog explains our thinking so far, and calls upon the governments in the UK countries to move forward together.”
Anne McCall, RSPB Scotland Director
Working together for nature’s recovery
The four nations of the UK are home to a diverse and special set of species and habitats. Each country has its own iconic landscapes and seascapes to celebrate and protect, from mountains, woods and moors to sea cliffs, sea caves and reefs. However, nature does not recognise political boundaries. Rivers, mountains and seas naturally cross borders and many of our most threatened species regularly move between the four nations and beyond. Likewise, actions in any one country can have far-reaching impacts on nature elsewhere. We all have a responsibility to protect and restore our shared natural heritage for current and future generations to enjoy. And we can only achieve this by working together.
Powers to manage our natural environment (including our agriculture and fisheries) are largely devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, environmental legislation across all four nations is currently guided by common EU frameworks such as the overarching environmental standards that the UK as a whole is bound by as an EU Member State. For very good reason the EU has promoted cooperation and collaboration on transboundary environmental issues that affect us all – including for the protection of our wildlife.
There are many reasons why this cooperation and collaboration must continue. Our natural environment faces huge challenges – including pollution of our rivers, air and seas, the alarming decline of some of our most important and iconic species and the growing impacts of climate change. These challenges will not be easily overcome, but we stand a far better chance if we work together across the UK and beyond, ensuring that standards remain high, that species and habitats are effectively protected as they move between countries, and that our laws are effectively enforced.
A healthy future for our natural world requires robust, independent and well-resourced institutions to hold all our governments and public bodies to account. Currently, EU institutions play a vital role in upholding environmental standards across the four nations. For example, they allow individuals and NGOs to raise concerns about how our environmental legislation is being implemented and enforced – providing the environment with a voice on the ground. Without a suitable set of replacement institutions, our exit from the EU will create a serious ‘governance gap’ across the four nations.
Thankfully, the importance of filling this governance gap has now been recognised to a greater or lesser extent by all four nations. For example, the governments in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood, and Westminster have all committed to bringing forward proposals to fill this gap in their respective jurisdictions. It remains to be seen how these proposals will achieve the collaboration and coordination necessary to ensure effective enforcement of our environmental legislation across the UK as a whole.
We are calling on the governments of our four nations to work together for nature’s recovery. We need them to rapidly agree a process for co-designing new shared frameworks and robust and coordinated environmental governance mechanisms. This will ensure that all of us can work effectively for the benefit of nature, no matter where in the UK we are.
A letter from you could encourage your Ministers to collaborate with their counterparts in the other nations. Please follow these links to find out more and how to contact your relevant Ministers:
Anne McCall, RSPB Scotland Director; Chris Corrigan, RSPB England Director; Joanne Sherwood, RSPB Northern Ireland Director; Katie-Jo Luxton, RSPB Cymru Director.
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.