Scotland's Species

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:00 pm on 22nd March 2006.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 3:00 pm, 22nd March 2006

The next item of business is a statement by Rhona Brankin on Scotland's species. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement. There should be no interventions.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 3:02 pm, 22nd March 2006

I add my condolences to those of my colleagues and say that my thoughts are with Fergus Ewing. I, too, will remember Margaret Ewing.

I am grateful that time has been found in our busy parliamentary schedule to allow me to update members on an important document that has just been launched by Scottish Natural Heritage. On Monday, SNH introduced a public consultation on "Making a difference for Scotland's Species: A framework for action", copies of which are available from the Scottish Parliament information centre.

The consultation provides to those who appreciate and value Scotland's natural heritage and biodiversity a unique opportunity to influence the future action of SNH, the Executive and others and to shape the future of Scotland's landscapes.

The consultation paper invites the public to offer its views on 23 species in relation to which SNH judges that priority action is required. The framework offers the views of SNH on those species for which management measures or other interventions are required to protect Scotland's biodiversity. The framework is a proposal to focus the attention of all who care about Scotland's natural heritage on concerted action for those species in relation to which the need is greatest and the need for action is most urgent.

This is not an alternative to the extremely effective methods that we already have in place to protect and conserve our species and our habitats through the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and the specific biodiversity action plans that we have in place. Those policies already contribute to the protection and sustainability of many of our most important native species. However, some species need more focused attention and the framework advances some of the thinking about the actions that are needed at this point.

I warmly welcome the approach that SNH has taken in launching the framework this week. We in Scotland take much pride in our natural environment, much of which is unique or rarely replicated in Europe and beyond. We have something special in Scotland and we need to plan—and plan now—how we can best safeguard what we have.

Let me establish those unique characteristics. We are a small country but one that has 800 islands. We are one of the few countries in the world that support so many different habitats—coastal, upland, lowland, moorland, grassland, peatland and woodland. We are a small country but one that is extremely diverse.

Scotland has 50,000 different land species and 40,000 species live in the seas around Scotland. Scotland is host to 242 bird species and 42 mammal species. Some 42 per cent of all bird species in Europe are to be found in Scotland. That range and diversity place a responsibility on Government to take stock both of what we have and of what we are doing to prioritise the risks and threats. That must include consideration of formerly native species that are now missing from the Scottish landscape but whose reintroduction would further enhance Scotland's biodiversity. Those are the aims of the SNH species framework.

SNH has come forward with a strategic approach to prioritising action for Scotland's species. The framework will help to deliver action that will make a difference. I am not aware of any similar approach having been tried in any other country. The framework covers what is needed and what will benefit Scotland as a whole. It is not a matter of one species being more important than another. The framework complements everything that is currently in place and it underpins our legal and other international obligations under various conventions.

By definition, the natural world has been developed by evolutionary processes over many thousands and millions of years. Intervention requires caution and circumspection, but we must consider intervention when a native species is in decline or at risk, when its population growth is not sustainable, or when its range across the country is insufficient to sustain the long-term future of the species. Such intervention requires a long-term planning process, which has been taken another step forward by the SNH species framework. The consultation on the framework seeks the public's views on whether it has got the criteria and species right. That further demonstrates SNH's determination to look to the future and to seek public opinion and support for its important work.

The consultation has begun and more than 500 organisations and individuals are being directly canvassed for their views. However, everyone has a chance to influence SNH's thinking by commenting not only on the 23 species that it has identified for priority action but on the rationale that led SNH to draw up its preliminary list. It is therefore right and fitting that the Parliament has an early opportunity to shape and influence the consultation process. I hope that members will take that opportunity both today and during the consultation period, which will end on 30 June. I expect SNH to publish a report on the findings of the consultation in the autumn.

Species issues have a high profile in the minds of members, the public and the media. Sometimes, they raise emotive and complex issues. Some issues bring tensions—what is, to some, a species that requires protection is, to others, a pest that they would like to control. The framework fully recognises some of the difficult questions and the importance of the issues to people throughout Scotland and to our visitors.

The framework seeks to engage with people. It accepts that species management is not an abstract concept and is not confined to the scientific community. People relate to the fate of animals that are pictured in the newspapers or on their television screens. People's views on such issues differ—I am sure that members will testify to that, given their postbags from their constituents and various interest groups. Members will agree that people's views are often strongly held and forcibly expressed.

We need to recognise the importance of our native species in key aspects of Scottish life. Agriculture, forestry, fisheries, renewable energy and recreational pursuits all play an important part in Scotland and its economy and we must take full account of them in any action that we take to protect our native species. It is estimated that more than 12,000 jobs are dependent on natural heritage protection. Wildlife tourism generates about £50 million for the Scottish economy each year and supports 2,000 jobs. Angling and shooting generate approximately £200 million for the economy. The framework recognises that the connections between species and people have social and economic dimensions.

SNH's list of species for priority action does not rely on what might be regarded as the usual suspects. It includes the Scottish wildcat, the great yellow bumblebee, the woolly willow and the small cow-wheat, all of which have a strong claim for help alongside the more familiar black grouse, capercaillie and red squirrel, which are also identified for action. Those species are, or may be in the near future, regarded as critically endangered.

Most of the action that is needed on Scotland's species is likely to have a price. I assure the Parliament that SNH will receive an increase in its grant-in-aid funding for the next two years to allow it to prioritise action across its range of responsibilities, including any shift in priorities that it needs to make to implement the findings of the consultation process. However, we also need to recognise the role of other public bodies, such as the Forestry Commission Scotland, in taking forward action on species, and the contribution from the voluntary sector and private landowners. Prevention and early action now are preferable to and cheaper than remedial action in the future.

The work that SNH proposes is consistent with the Executive's Scottish biodiversity strategy, which was published two years ago and which set out a clear path for action to conserve our natural environment in the next 25 years. That strategy recognises the key importance of protecting our species and habitats.

SNH's framework is therefore important to our long-term vision of protecting and enhancing Scotland's biodiversity. Our habitats and wildlife are rich and diverse. We need to protect what we have, to assess the species that are at risk and to consider what we need for the future, which will include determining whether formerly native species that are missing from our landscape might be reintroduced. I emphasise that point because it was suggested last year that the Executive opposes any reintroduction of species that were formerly native to Scotland. My support for the approach in the framework, which includes species whose reintroduction is suggested, shows that nothing could be further from the truth.

Scotland must remain a country where biodiversity thrives and where the enhancement of our natural and cultural heritage runs the length and breadth of our country. That is integral to what makes Scotland such a distinctive country. Our population expects that, as do visitors to Scotland, many of whom come here because of our country's unique characteristics.

Our landscapes and species are not just important; they are a defining part of Scotland's cultural heritage. The cultural connections are real and it is for us to protect and preserve them. SNH's framework recognises those distinctive links.

The balance in the framework and the approach that SNH has taken are well judged and I invite the Parliament and the public to make their views known.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

I will allow up to 20 minutes for the minister to take questions on the issues that her statement raised, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

I thank the minister for giving us an advance copy of her statement. The commitment to protecting our biodiversity is very welcome and the Scottish National Party lends its support to that. I am interested in how the consultation will pan out.

The evidence that we already have makes me concerned about the influence of human beings in altering biodiversity. We note the introduction of non-native species of coarse fish, for example. It is easy to upset the great biodiversity that Scotland has by introducing foreign versions of native fish such as the Arctic char.

How have breaches of the current law on the status of native species been handled? How is that developing? How will the framework prioritise the risks and threats, so that we can apply sanctions against people? It is often people who alter our biodiversity. How will we deal with that in the near future?

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

The acoustics in the room are extremely good and I have heard even a whispered conversation from the back, so members should be a little cautious.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I thank Rob Gibson for referring to invasive non-native species. Scotland faces a big challenge because of species such as the American mink, the rhododendron and the signal crayfish. It is clear that issues will need to be addressed. We need to work closely with a range of people within and beyond Scotland to deal with invasive non-native species, which are invading not just Scotland but England and Wales. Therefore, we are working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the National Assembly for Wales on, for example, some transboundary issues. We are members of the Great Britain-wide programme board for non-native species, which was set up to ensure that policy and action on non-natives is joined up across Governments and agencies.

In Scotland, a working group has been set up specifically to co-ordinate the overall response of public sector bodies to the challenges that non-native species pose. The working group will consider a range of issues, including the better integration of policy and practice across the public sector, the action that is already being taken and the support that is needed to consider wider action on non-native species. I would be happy to provide the member with further detail on the work that is being done on non-native species in Scotland.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

On behalf of the Conservative group, I welcome the minister's statement. All who care for Scotland's wildlife accept SNH's view that intervention or direct management of species is sometimes appropriate. I note that SNH has listed situations in which such management is deemed appropriate.

As a lifelong ornithologist, I have two questions for the minister. First, under the sustainable use of species heading, does she foresee a time when certain species among Scotland's growing raptor populations may need to be controlled? I note that absence of predator control is among the reasons that SNH lists for the decline in the population of black grouse. Does she accept that the predators of the black grouse are largely avian? Secondly, does she believe that the growing number of pine martens in the Highlands plays a role in the diminishing number of capercaillies?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Clearly, we need to ensure that we strike the right balance, but I am conscious of the raptors issue, which is one reason why the hen harrier has been identified as a species requiring conflict management. SNH and the people who manage moorlands are engaged in valuable work that seeks to get that balance right by ensuring that we obtain the most up-to-date information on the potential effects of raptors while working constructively with the various people involved. On moorland and game birds, we need to strike the right balance, as I said, between the various different interests. Work on those issues is going on in Langholm.

The hen harrier has shown some signs of recovery, but the species still suffers from a degree of persecution in Scotland, which is home to most of its population. We need to be able to work closely with people and we are doing just that, as SNH is working with Scotland's moorland forum. Of course, we need to ensure that we have the most up-to-date scientific advice.

SNH keeps species such as pine martens under review. I am conscious that the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has expressed concerns about pine martens, but SNH will continue to keep the species under review.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

I welcome the minister's statement and the good that will be done for biodiversity, but I have a question about the reintroduction of formerly native species to Scotland. I know that the reintroduction of sea eagles has been successful on the west coast in places such as Mull, where the sea eagles Itchy and Scratchy were featured on television a few months ago. However, I notice that press reports this morning suggest that SNH might release sea eagles on the east coast around Aberdeen and Dundee. I realise that press reports are not always terribly accurate, but I have some concerns about that proposal. Can the minister give us more information about exactly what is planned?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Before I call the minister to reply, I remind members that this is questions, not stories. If members keep their questions sharp, I will be able to call all those who want to ask questions; otherwise, I will not.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I am aware of the story that appeared in the Press and Journal today. The return of sea eagles to large areas of Scotland, including the east coast, is potentially very exciting. The sea eagle is one of the species that have been identified by SNH in its priority action list and I know that RSPB Scotland has been working on a reintroduction programme. That has been the subject of preliminary discussion with SNH.

A lot of work will be required to manage further reintroductions of these magnificent birds to ensure that they are successful. Also, we will have to think carefully about where the reintroductions might take place. I am asking SNH to give me detailed advice on this specific proposal and when it may proceed, and I will keep members informed of progress.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I thank the minister for providing members with a copy of her statement in advance. Perhaps one of the biggest threats that our species in Scotland face in the medium to long term is climate change. How does the framework link in with the imminent Scottish climate change programme? In particular, which species under which scenarios are going to be affected?

The minister said on the radio yesterday that she would look favourably on a new application for the reintroduction of the beaver. Has there been a change in Executive thinking regarding that species? If so, what has changed?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The new Scottish climate change programme is due to be launched soon. A range of different criteria was considered when SNH was drawing up its list, and many of the species that are potentially at risk could be affected severely by climate change. We must consider which species are most at risk in the context of the climate that Scotland will experience in the future. I am sure that SNH would welcome any thoughts that the member has had on specific species. Climate change must be one of the factors that we consider in any plan of action for those species.

I have said that I am open to proposals being brought forward on the reintroduction of the beaver. We had a legal problem with the specific proposal to reintroduce beavers that was made last year, in view of a recent European Court of Justice judgment, and we did not believe that it was appropriate to reintroduce beavers into an area of Scotland that constituted a special area of conservation for the Atlantic oakwood. I make it clear that we are not opposed to the reintroduction of native species, which we think could make a valuable contribution to Scottish biodiversity. I look forward to receiving information not just on sea eagles but on beavers.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I welcome the minister's statement today. I also share the sentiments that were outlined in the press release that she issued on Monday. She said:

"People care deeply about Scotland's wildlife and want to be involved in protecting it. The future make-up of Scotland's natural landscape is in our hands".

Does the minister agree that the framework provides a unique opportunity to protect our natural environment? I do not want to be negative about this, but I want to understand what the relationship will be between the biodiversity list that was issued last year, as part of the Scottish biodiversity strategy, and the framework list that has been announced this week. Which of those documents will be given the premier position? How will public bodies and others know how to work with those two different documents? Will the minister consider issuing guidance to public bodies to ensure that there is no room for confusion and to ensure that they know what is expected of them in complying with their duties?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I am conscious that there might appear to be several different lists and that we must bring clarity to the situation. The list that SNH has produced is an attempt to bring clarity and priorities to the situation; it is a system of prioritisation. The public, the various conservation bodies and other interest groups have given many different views on just where action and resources should be targeted. The framework aims to identify those species that are of greatest value to our long-term conservation goals. I acknowledge that the biodiversity list already exists and that the lists of species and habitats of principal importance are hugely important, but the new list goes much further; it is broader than any we have had before and it is an eclectic list, which is important. It reflects the range of species that we have in Scotland and the diversity of action that is needed.

After the consultation has taken place and any revisions are made, the list will influence species management and the resources for that. It will identify the work that is needed now to deliver on Scotland's biodiversity. It is a system of setting out the key priorities for action. We will be judged on that in future.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

I welcome this excellent initiative and the opportunity that the consultation gives to address the complexities of how, when and for what there should be human intervention in the natural world. I want to ask the minister about Scottish Executive funding to support the actions that will emerge from the process. Is it envisaged that funding will be channelled through SNH or will additional support be provided through other avenues, for example by augmenting the rural stewardship scheme, using land management contracts or supporting bodies such as the farming and wildlife advisory group?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

As I said in my statement, there will be an uplift of funding to SNH. Conserving biodiversity is a core function of SNH and Scottish ministers provide SNH with funding for that function. SNH expects to spend £18.7 million on biodiversity conservation in 2006-06. It also has a grant programme of more than £15 million in 2006-07, more than £2 million of which is allocated for biodiversity action.

Nora Radcliffe is of course right: several other organisations have a specific responsibility to promote biodiversity and fund biodiversity activity. Those bodies include the Forestry Commission Scotland, which expects to spend £7.6 million on biodiversity conservation during 2006-07: £3.6 million on woodland management and £4 million on planting woodlands that have a high biodiversity benefit. That money will mostly come through the Scottish forestry grant scheme. The Forestry Commission Scotland also spends a further £5.7 million on deer management.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency also has a specific responsibility to contribute to biodiversity conservation through its core function. SEPA has appointed additional staff to support that function and it also funds research on biodiversity and conservation issues. Other bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund also provide funding for biodiversity action. That is in addition to the wide range of public bodies throughout Scotland that are engaged in furthering biodiversity conservation as required by the biodiversity duty under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

In her statement, the minister said that 42 per cent of European bird species are found in Scotland. That includes the unique and rich population of ground-nesting birds in the Western Isles, particularly in the Uists. A few years ago, £1.6 million was made available to SNH for a mink eradication project to protect ground-nesting birds from non-native predators such as the mink. That funding was for stage 1 of the project. Can the minister explain why the funding for stage 2 of the project is apparently no longer forthcoming? Why is SNH now unable to attract that funding from Europe?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I do not have any specific information on mink eradication programme funding with me. However, I am more than happy to send that information to Mr McGrigor.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

I declare an interest as a member of the RSPB committee for Scotland.

Is one aim of the framework, which I welcome, to meet international obligations? Is there any plan to review it every five years?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The framework is set in the context of a variety of different imperatives. After all, we have to meet not only international obligations but other obligations that have been introduced in Scotland. The framework itself sits alongside both the United Kingdom biodiversity action plan and local biodiversity action plans in Scotland.

We are consulting on the list of 23 species and on the criteria that have been used to draw it up. Specific action plans are also under consideration, and I am more than happy to come back to Sylvia Jackson on the question of when the plans should be reviewed. I must point out that we are at the earliest stage of this process—we are consulting on the list and action plans just now—but I very much welcome hearing Sylvia Jackson's views on when it would be appropriate to review the suite of action plans that will arise from our approach. Clearly, the measure is intended to make a difference to Scotland's natural heritage and we must ensure that we have the necessary tools to allow us to judge whether that is happening.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Is the minister aware of the many reports of capercaillies flying into deer fences, often with fatal consequences? Will she reassure us that that species has a reasonable prospect of survival?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The capercaillie, which is a very important species, is under huge threat, and the member will be aware that some estates and the Forestry Commission Scotland are carrying out valuable work on removing some deer fences in order to reduce the risk of mortality among those birds.