Scotland's Species

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:02 pm on 22nd March 2006.

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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.