In this blog Rea Cris, Parliamentary Officer at RSPB Scotland, reflects on two recent important debates on Scottish nature that took place at the Scottish Parliament.
Nature needs champions like these
There are currently 63 MSPs who are Species Champions
You know how it goes; you wait ages for a bus to come along and then two to show up at once. That’s how environmentalists felt when the Scottish Parliament had not one, but two debates in chamber around the subject of biodiversity just nine days apart: the Species Champion Re-launch and the State of Nature 2016 Report.
No-one could have predicted that they would come away knowing more about the Casanova-eqsue sexual exploits of the slowworm during the Species Champion debate, but the slowworm’s Species Champion, Bruce Crawford MSP must be commended on not only setting the bar high from the get go, but demonstrating his earnest interest and concern for this species and the action required and expected of Members of Parliament to protect it. A similar sentiment ran throughout the debate, which was so popular that despite being extended by 30 minutes, speeches had to be restricted to three minutes to allow everyone a chance to speak.
As Convenor of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) committee, Graeme Dey MSP, Species Champion of the wooly willow, made an imposing presence at both debates (to be fair the Species Champion debate was in his name). As an incumbent MSP and stalwart Champion, with much gravitas, he gave his fellow colleagues a call to arms by reminding them: “given the scale of the challenge that we face in protecting threatened species and our wider biodiversity, it is incumbent on all of us—not just those of us who serve on the ECCLR Committee—to provide leadership in the area” and posing with a soft toy of your species didn’t count.
Highlighting the RSPB’s own Species Champions, Johann Lamont MSP, and Champion of the lapwing, reminded Parliament that we mustn’t be distracted by the ‘aw’ factor of cuter species, but strive for better land management to ensure conditions to safeguard all species, even the 'sexy' slowworm. Her fellow Labour colleague, Lewis MacDonald MSP, another stalwart Champion of curlews went a step further, explaining that changes in farming practices had correlations to the decline in curlews and the future of farming and how we support it was a decision we couldn’t long avoid.
Our Champions would not be outdone on culture and heritage either. Christine Grahame MSP, house sparrow Champion, recited Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘Sparrow’ while Mark Ruskell MSP paid homage to our recently deceased (and much missed) colleague Richard Evans on his work examining ancient cultural reference to sea eagles. Richard had found 276 place names that referenced eagles in Scots Gaelic and 152 in Old English. He celebrated the reintroductions of these majestic birds thanks to the collective work and “support of conservationists, landowners, farmers and the police, as well as the many community groups [and] passionate volunteers”.
Mairi Evans MSP knows the challenges facings her species - the hen harrier. She used her speech to reaffirm the SNP manifesto commitment to “accepting the recommendation of the wildlife crime penalties review group to introduce tough new maximum penalties for people who commit crimes against wildlife”, something that Graeme Dey MSP mirrored in his speech during the State of Nature debate. During that debate, he highlighted that progress can be made through “genuine partnerships” as exemplified in the increase of golden eagles, thanks to the achievements of government agencies, charities and the land management sector, but warned “the absence of golden eagles in the eastern Cairngorms is an issue that simply cannot be ignored”.
Bruce Crawford MSP, Species Champion for the slowworm
While the mood of the Species Champion debate was more celebratory, things got serious during the State of Nature debate. The fact that Scotland ranked in the bottom quarter of global biodiversity intactness had obviously made shockwaves as it was mentioned in nearly every speech. Angus Macdonald MSP, in whom the debate's name was, set the scene by confirming: “It [the State of Nature report] highlights the importance of well-planned, targeted and adequately resourced conservation action and of collaboration between—to name a few—the Scottish Government, non-governmental organisations and local land managers”.
Maurice Golden MSP argued more attention needed to be given to protected areas and ensuring “the necessary capacity and resources are in place to manage our natural environment properly”, whilst Claudia Beamish MSP reminded us of our ‘blue’ protected areas highlighting the complex picture and the gaps remaining in the network of marine protected areas. All of this work would need to be underpinned by a robust planning system and David Stewart MSP proposed that “we need to put the same amount of effort into our green planning as we put into our grey planning”.
Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, Paul Wheelhouse (SNP) MSP stepped in for Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP (due to her attendance in Marrakech for COP 22 climate change conference), assured the chamber that the Scottish Government was succeeding in tackling climate change and plan to push for further action such as decarbonisation of energy, nature-based tourism and making more use of ‘green prescriptions’. The Minster also quoted RSPB Scotland’s very own Dr. Paul Walton regarding the impact that climate change is having on the marine food-chain, and therefore on our internationally important seabird populations.
Conservation efforts have been greatly enhanced by having these issues highlighted in these Parliamentary debates. The collective we; parliamentarians, government, charities, the land management sector and wider society, should now work together to maximise the resilience of our species and protected areas to the challenges that we know lie ahead. As the Scottish Government moves forward in the light of the EU Referendum result, there is an opportunity to secure world leading protection for our species, putting Scotland at the top of the league rather than our current bottom ranking.
Rather than resign ourselves to the threats of climate change and species decline, there is in fact a great deal that we can do, such as implement effective protected area management, take decisive action on invasive non-native species and set ambitious targets for biodiversity by 2030. Actions speak louder than words and now is the time for courageous decisions and significant investment in the environment, to ensure the protection of wildlife for future generations to enjoy.
Nature needs heroes; people to protect it, to defend it and to inspire others about it too. In Scotland we have some fantastic wildlife and we’re lucky enough to have some pretty amazing people out there conserving it as well. The most passionate and dedicated of these have just been recognised at the Nature of Scotland Awards – an annual event organised by RSPB Scotland that searches for and celebrates the country’s nature heroes.
In total, there were eight projects from the same number of categories that took home trophies this year, as well as one special couple who were honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award. We’d like to share a little of the stories behind this year’s amazing winners - read on to learn more about them.
Youth and Education Award
The winner of the Youth and Education Award was a project called Leith Community Crops in Pots. A small but growing charitable organisation, Crops in Pots encourages and supports people and organisations in Leith to grow food, vegetables, and flowers in urban spaces. The aim is to improve health and well-being, community cohesion and the environment. Following the event, Evie Murray from the project, said: “The Leith community is absolutely thrilled to accept this award, which recognises our contribution to transforming a small slice of the urban landscape of Scotland. We would be delighted to see this model replicated right across the country, as we believe it can provide a great space for nature and the local community to thrive together.”
The highly commended entry in this category was Gartocharn Primary School, in West Dumbartonshire, for their achievements in outdoor learning.
Food & Farming Award (sponsored by the James Hutton Institute)
The Food and Farming Award was brand new for 2016 and boy was it a tough one to judge! Taking home the inaugural trophy in the end was Future Farming Scotland which is run by Soil Association Scotland. This project works with farmers and crofters to promote organic and sustainable farming practices, which work in harmony with nature. They look to produce healthy and sustainable food while also delivering multiple environmental benefits for people and the planet such as fertile soil, clean water and habitat for pollinators. To date over 350 farmers, crofters and leading-experts have participated in farm-based events and workshops to share their knowledge and skills for nature friendly farming.
The highly commended entry in this category was The Real Junk Food Project for their efforts to tackle the problem of food waste.
Nature Tourism Award (sponsored by Sustrans Scotland)
Seeing white-tailed eagles in their natural habitat is one of Scotland’s most highly regarded wildlife watching experiences. The winner of the Nature Tourism Award this year – Mull Eagle Watch – offers ranger led visits to view these mesmerising birds of prey and truly sets the benchmark for environmental education and nature tourism in the UK.
It’s a partnership project which is run by several community woodland groups: the Mull and Iona Community Trust, the South West Mull & Iona Development and the North West Mull Community Woodland Company. Receiving the award, Moray Finch from the Mull and Iona Community Trust, said: “We are all delighted and honoured, it’s a real privilege to be part of this world-leading conservation tourism project. My congratulations to everyone involved – including the eagles!”
The highly commended entry in this category was Mull of Galloway Trust which was set up to facilitate a community buy-out of the Mull of Galloway, in order to safeguard and develop the area for the benefit of the community.
RSPB Species Champion Award (sponsored by Ardmore Whisky)
Another tough category to judge with so many champions out there doing their bit for nature, but Craig Macadam was our winner this year and a very worthy one at that. Craig works for the wildlife organisation, Buglife, and has championed the conservation of invertebrates for nearly a decade now. He also managed to develop Buglife Scotland from a single part-time post to an established and respected operation with five employees.
Craig’s passion and enthusiasm never fail to inspire others, and his talent, knowledge and dedication have delivered countless positive results for conservation in Scotland. Craig said: “Winning this award is an important step towards saving the small things that run the planet, as it means that invertebrates have been recognised for their crucial role by the wider conservation movement.”
The highly commended entry in this category was Developing Conservation Action for the Chough in Scotland for their research and work on protecting choughs.
The Corporate Award was also a new category for 2016 and was brought in to help highlight some of the fantastic businesses, corporations and partnerships supporting conservation action across Scotland. The trophy this year went to The Famous Grouse. Back in 2008, The Famous Grouse entered a partnership with the RSPB to help black grouse - a species in need of urgent support.
Eight years on, and £600,000 in donations later, the partnership has grown to fund work across seven RSPB nature reserves. This money has helped to improve grouse habitats across 85,000 acres of land and supported the planting of 185,000 native trees. The fund also helped RSPB Scotland purchase the Crannach reserve - a woodland and upland area within the Cairngorms national park that supports species such as black grouse.
The highly commended entry in this category was ScottishPower for their commitment to renewable energy, as well as their work on landscape restoration and habitat management.
Community Initiative Award (sponsored by GreenPower)
Regenerating 4,000 m2 of derelict land while also creating 12 community food gardens is no mean feat, but our winner of the Community Initiative Award has done just that. Concrete Garden, Growing Together started with a group of community members and a dream to turn disused land into a garden and urban food project. The main aim was to reduce carbon emissions and waste while also regenerating land.
Since the project started, each year, they’ve also grown 600kg of organic produce, collected 800 eggs from their hens, converted 500kg of food waste into compost and clocked up 7,500 volunteer hours. “We are overwhelmed and extremely proud to have won an award in the Community Initiative category”, said Rev David Wostenholm, Chairperson of Concrete Garden. “Concrete Garden volunteers, community growers, staff and friends alike truly deserve this. Their dedication to environmental protection and ability to turn dreams into action is a constant inspiration.”
The highly commended entry in this category was Evanton Community Wood, in Dingwall, which conserves and manages a 150 acre woodland for the benefit of the local area.
Innovation Award (sponsored by Vattenfall)
With the novel use of accessible farm machinery, the field staff at the Balruddery Farm of The James Hutton Institute established the Magic Margins project – the outstanding winner of the Innovation Award in 2016. The purpose of the project is to halt soil erosion on farm land and to diffuse pollution. ‘Magic Margins’, which act as mini dams, are created in fields that are vulnerable to erosion and sown with wild grass and flowers. Research also demonstrates that these margins are excellent refuges for small mammals, while the increased plant diversity is attracting pollinators and insects which in turn provide improved food sources for bird life.
There were two highly commended entries in this category - The Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations and Shetland Peatland Restoration Project.
Politician of the Year (sponsored by ScottishPower & ScottishPower Renewables):
Sarah Boyack has been a dedicated campaigner on a huge array of conservation issues - from climate change and marine conservation, to the preservation of some of Scotland’s smallest creatures. Her political career has been defined by her passion for the conservation of Scotland’s environment and wildlife. From holding the government to account on fracking, to protecting seabird populations put at risk by windfarms, Sarah has consistently demonstrated her commitment to the protection of our natural world. At the Nature of Scotland Awards 2016 she took home the Politician of the Year Award.
Lifetime Achievement Award
The Lifetime Achievement Award this year went to Brian and Sandy Coppins from East Lothian. In 2002, there were just two lichenologists left in Scotland - Brian and Sandy. The husband and wife duo has been working on lichen conservation for several decades and Brian is considered the UK’s foremost lichen taxonomist. They are quite simply a great team and lichens are their passion. Brian is the academic taxonomist, whilst Sandy is a great project manager and organiser, and both are excellent field lichenologists.
Together they have carried out countless surveys and assessments, are responsible for hundreds of published papers as well as several books, and run training courses to teach and inspire lichenologists of the future. They also established an apprentice scheme, the result being a stronger cohort of lichenologists in Scotland than at any time in the past. Even in retirement, Brian and Sandy remain at the heart of this community, actively recording and reporting lichens, while continuing to give their expert guidance and share their boundless knowledge on these species.
The Nature of Scotland Awards is an annual event organised by RSPB Scotland, to discover and reward the most impressive people and projects working to conserve wildlife across the country. The trophies for 2016 were created by Edinburgh silversmith Bryony Knox and sponsored by Turcan Connell. A huge well done to all of the winners and highly commended projects this year – we can’t wait to see the entries we get in 2017! To find out more about the awards click here.