We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
We will move straight on as time is tight for the next debate.
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-04493, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on Scotland’s biodiversity. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.
I call Roseanna Cunningham to speak to and move the motion. Cabinet secretary, you have seven minutes.
Given that the natural environment is worth more than £20 billion per annum to our economy and supports more than 60,000 direct jobs, I welcome the opportunity to lead this brief parliamentary debate on something that we too often take for granted. We should celebrate our biodiversity, but we should also be alert and we should be acting to address challenges and issues. I want to highlight three areas on which I will focus in the debate, although I know that there are many other issues that members will want to raise.
First, on our marine environment, 30 new marine protected areas were designated in 2014 to ensure protection of some of the most vulnerable marine species and habitats in Scotland. The MPAs will contribute to an ecologically coherent network of sites, and we are now midway through a programme to deliver the necessary management measures to protect that network. Last year, measures were delivered for 16 important locations in Scottish waters, and at the end of the year, proposals for 18 offshore marine protected areas were also published. That is an example of the Scottish Government’s level of ambition with regard to protection of the marine environment.
However, protected area status alone cannot deliver all conservation; there have to be wider processes to ensure that nature outwith protected areas is not forgotten. The marine acts make provisions for marine planning as a means of delivering that, and “Scotland’s National Marine Plan”, which was adopted in March 2015, represents a significant milestone in improving management of our seas.
The second area of success that I would like to highlight is peatland restoration. Protection, management and restoration of our peatlands are important in protecting and promoting biodiversity and in delivering a range of other benefits, all of which are highlighted in “Draft Climate Change Plan: the draft Third Report on Policies and Proposals 2017-2032”. The Government has identified in the budget an additional £8 million to support peatland restoration, and Scottish Natural Heritage will shortly open the peatland action fund to new applications. That will help us to support land managers in delivering the public benefits that are associated with our peatland resource.
Thirdly, I cannot ignore the reintroduction of the beaver. Although we had the very well-run official trial in Knapdale, we also had unlawful—and, to be frank, irresponsible—releases of beavers in Tayside, which led to problems from the beavers’ landscape engineering activities in some of the most productive agricultural areas of Scotland. However, thanks to the efforts of a group of stakeholders—including the NFU Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland—working with me, we were, through recognising reality and finding common ground, able to find a way forward. I am grateful to them all and for their continued engagement on the issue.
On reintroductions, we are hearing a lot about the lynx, so one might get the idea that its reintroduction is imminent. However, the reality is that we have a long way to go. We have limited budgets, and our hands are full with ensuring that the Scottish wildcat receives the necessary resources and support to ensure that it survives as one of our most iconic and loved species. We also have a long way to go with stakeholders. No single group has a veto on what happens in the Scottish countryside, and it is unrealistic to think that we can reintroduce a large carnivore without ensuring that we have the support of those who would be most affected by it. I should also say that anybody who is contemplating the sort of illegal releases that we saw with beavers should take note that we have learned a lesson, and will not hesitate to take immediate action if further such releases occur.
I do not really have time to focus on wildlife crime, but I want to make it clear that the illegal killing of our raptors remains a national disgrace. I advise Parliament that the review of the data from satellite-tagged raptors in Scotland should be completed by the end of this month. I very much hope that that will get us past the claims and counterclaims about the disappearance of tagged raptors.
I am sure that we all desire positive change for biodiversity both on the land and in the sea, and I am pleased that we have far more positive progress to report than I can cover in the few minutes that are available today. That progress is detailed in SNH’s recent reports on progress towards the international Aichi targets and details of delivery against projects in “Scotland’s Biodiversity—a Route Map to 2020”. The non-governmental organisations have also made a helpful contribution with the publication last autumn of the “State of Nature 2016—Scotland” report, which describes change over time and some of the long-term trends. Those trends illustrate the importance of the targets and the work that is under way through the Scottish biodiversity strategy and the route map to 2020.
Looking to the future and the issues that we need to address, I have made it clear that the European Union referendum result does not affect our commitment to maintaining, enhancing and protecting our environment. European legislation and regulation offer vital protection for our environment, and I have been pressing the United Kingdom Government to ensure that it will transfer in full after Brexit.
I have asked SNH to lead on delivery of our biodiversity targets, and delivery of the biodiversity route map will remain a key priority for SNH in 2017-18. I understand that SNH has confirmed to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee that it is increasing resources to support its leadership role for the Scottish biodiversity strategy in 2017-18.
However, enhancing, restoring and protecting our biodiversity are not the responsibility solely of SNH or of the Government. Other public bodies play important roles, but we all have a role and a responsibility to protect, nurture, sustain and enjoy our natural environment. That is why it is important to have an overarching approach to biodiversity. I will shortly lay the fourth biodiversity report in Parliament, which will set out progress across all aspects of the Scottish biodiversity strategy. The report will highlight the achievements over the past three years and will demonstrate the value of working together to achieve our shared aims for Scotland’s wonderful biodiversity.
I am minded to simply accept all three amendments, because I doubt that there is much separating us on this issue. I will, however, listen carefully and with great interest to the Opposition speeches.
Amazingly, I have finished 30 seconds ahead of schedule.
That the Parliament recognises that Scotland’s biodiversity is one of its most precious and valuable assets, has intrinsic value and underpins a strong economy and healthy communities; agrees that significant progress has been made to protect and enhance Scotland’s biodiversity, and notes that, by working in partnership, Scotland can collectively achieve more for its biodiversity, help meet its international obligations and ensure that its biodiversity has a secure and healthy future.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will do my best to make you a happy bunny.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s recognition that biodiversity is one of our most precious assets, and I share her desire to see its intrinsic value being recognised. The range of benefits that we derive from Scotland’s biodiversity is huge and goes from crop pollination to eco-tourism, and from carbon capture to flood prevention. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that access to nature can boost mental and physical health. I was pleased to see the cabinet secretary’s recent comments acknowledging and welcoming such evidence.
The Scottish National Party Government has set ambitious environmental targets, and I offer my praise and support for those ambitions. I agree with much of the SNP motion today. My amendment seeks to clarify that although progress has been made, there is much to be achieved, and we as a Parliament must help to deliver it for Scotland. Ambitious targets have been set; they are important because they set the tone, narrative and direction. Although at times it can be difficult to agree ambitious targets across the Cabinet, it is even more difficult to then achieve them across the chamber and across Scotland. That is my rationale for the amendment in my name.
I also believe that the Green and Labour amendments will enhance and contribute to the motion. They enrich and are consensual where confrontation could have been sought. The Aichi targets, which are defined, and the national ecological network, which needs to be defined, are important and will help to support our biodiversity targets. However, setting an ambitious target is not the same as achieving it. The simple truth is that the SNP Government has come up short on its targets in many areas, and those shortcomings must be recognised. For example, one in 10 bird species faces extinction, as do 13 per cent of plant species. There has been a 40 per cent reduction in seabird numbers over the past 30 years, and 14 per cent of our ancient woodland has been lost over the past four decades. Woodland targets have been missed, with barely more than two fifths planted, and more than 30 per cent of native woodland is in poor condition.
Let us focus on urban biodiversity. We are seeing the steady erosion of our cherished greenbelt. Ask the people of East Renfrewshire, where swathes of the greenbelt are destined to be destroyed, including places like Broom park, where a concrete jungle could be poured over a precious community urban green space. Ask the people of Renfrewshire, whose greenbelt is being attacked by five different planning appeals at the same time, in Kilbarchan, Brookfield, Bridge of Weir—twice—and Elderslie, as well as a host of other communities across the west of Scotland and Scotland as a whole. Yes—there is a need for new housing but not at the expense of our greenbelt and our biodiversity.
We need to get to grips with those sorts of issues by creating specially designated zones to protect our greenbelt, and by setting up a green corridor network. We need to establish a biodiversity baseline to monitor and track conservation efforts, and we need to restore seabird islands and provide support to those who are fighting the spread of invasive species. We believe that measures like those can help to strengthen the common ground between the parties of this Parliament.
We are here to offer critical enhancement because we want to push the SNP Government to do more. Let us build consensus, let us praise the successes that there have been and let us recognise the challenges that remain. The time for talking up targets is over. It is time for action from all of us.
I move amendment S5M-04493.1, to insert after “and enhance Scotland’s biodiversity”:
“in certain areas; looks forward to delivering the ambitious targets that have been set”.
This is a very important debate. Our Aichi international biodiversity targets set us a considerable challenge, as is acknowledged across the Parliament, and it should be recognised that it will take a redoubling of our efforts if Scotland is to rise to that standard and contribute robustly to the United Kingdom’s contribution. Scottish Labour’s amendment highlights the need to embed biodiversity appropriately in all relevant land-use decisions, and the need to improve connectivity for habitats and species. We often focus on the land, so—as the cabinet secretary did—I am going to start with the sea.
Biodiversity should be a consideration in all marine activities and sectors. We all aspire to having healthier, sustainable, productive and biologically diverse seas, so we cannot take a sectoral route. To reach that end goal, we need open dialogue and a holistic ecosystems approach. I look forward to working with colleagues to reinforce that in the emerging regional marine planning system, in the proposed inshore fisheries bill and in whatever Brexit splashes at us.
We all have some connection with the sea—be it food, employment or leisure—so protecting and enhancing our robust marine ecosystems serves all our interests. Scotland has iconic marine species—members may have seen the magnificent photos of the humpback whale who visited the Forth this week. As the cabinet secretary highlighted, 16 per cent of our marine areas are now under protection, which is a very welcome achievement. The next step is to plug the network gaps, including by creating nature conservation areas and special protection areas for colonies and feeding areas of seabirds, sea ducks, grebes and divers.
We have the benefit of increasingly sound science within which marine management should be anchored, and the Government’s report into the first marine protected area management measures found no significant socioeconomic impacts. It is welcome that, thus far, the MPAs are working for coastal communities, conservationists and our habitats. Continued monitoring, funding and resourcing are absolutely essential.
However, biodiversity enhancement is something to which many of us can contribute. It is important to do small things ourselves, such as leaving piles of leaves and cuttings for animals to hibernate in and planting wildflower seeds, even in a window box. What is the Scottish Government doing to raise awareness of the opportunities that we can all take to support biodiversity? When we work in partnership, we can take far greater steps in developing awareness of biodiversity and generating action.
Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting Glenlude, near Innerleithen in my region. Glenlude is owned by the John Muir Trust; I took the opportunity to find out about great projects that the trust has involving schools and community groups in promoting biodiversity. The staff do a fantastic job in working with groups of people who have had alcohol and drug problems to take care of specific pieces of land that they can see regenerating. They also work with employability charities.
A wonderful example of that partnership working in south and central Scotland is the Irvine to Girvan nectar network. It is believed that Albert Einstein once said:
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left”— and woman as well, of course. So, we must thank all those who work on the side of the bees.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust, which celebrated its 50th birthday here in the Parliament this week, is working with businesses, golf clubs and local councils to protect and, crucially, to connect pollinator hotspots by sowing, planning and changing the management of meadow areas and creating nectar pathways across Ayrshire. That is an encouraging model that should possibly be adopted across Scotland. Even University hospital Ayr is involved in promoting the benefits of wildlife and rich green space for the community’s health and wellbeing. Sustrans, which is another partner, is exploring how cycle paths can form ideal pollinator routes. That is encouraging and progressive work.
Later in the debate, Pauline McNeill will talk about the national ecological network—not the “National Ecological Framework”, as I inadvertently and wrongly called it in my amendment, for which apologise.
Deer management is another serious ecosystem issue that remains unresolved in Scotland. Many areas are still without deer management groups, and local authorities do not always have the training or systems in place to provide control and support. My earlier example of Glenlude applies in this, too, as the John Muir Trust has developed an excellent circular-economy model there using brash waste to stop roe deer getting into circles of native saplings.
I move amendment S5M-04493.2, to insert at end:
“; agrees that the Scottish Government must redouble its efforts if Scotland is to contribute robustly to its UN Convention on Biological Diversity 2020 Aichi targets; recognises that reference to the Land Use Strategy is an appropriate way to embed biodiversity in all relevant decisions; agrees that the Scottish Government should take more robust action to develop the National Ecological Framework with partners, and recognises the importance of protection and enhancement of marine biodiversity”.
I declare an interest as a councillor—albeit probably not for much longer.
I thank the Scottish Government for organising this afternoon’s debate. We have had a series of thoughtful one-hour debates on biodiversity in recent months, but it is good finally to have one with a vote at the end. It appears that we are going to have a unanimous vote tonight, which is good.
It is important that we recognise the true state of our nature and the saddening fact that more than half our species have been in decline since the 1970s, with one out of 12 species still at risk of extinction today. Alongside the considerable success stories, we are still dealing with some of the catastrophes. More than a third of our seabirds have gone in the past 30 years, for example, and although it is welcome that a fifth of our seas now have marine protected area status, we have barely even begun to monitor their condition, let alone take the action that is needed for full recovery.
That decline in key species and habitats is not something for which any one single Government should feel directly responsible. Ministers from nearly every party in the Parliament have governed Scotland’s environment, agriculture, fisheries and planning system at some point in the past four decades. We need to recognise collectively that putting nature first in decision making, both for its intrinsic value and for its role in providing the foundation of our economic and social wellbeing, has never truly happened. Opportunities to act in a joined-up way that challenges narrow economic interests and the traditional management of land and seas have been passed up along the way, and the environment has suffered as a result.
I will focus on one big positive action that is needed. It is time for a national ecological network that helps vulnerable species to move between landscapes, secures high-quality green space for communities and enhances the services that the environment provides for us all. We need such a network so that we can plan for our green infrastructure in much the same way that we plan for our grey infrastructure, and the network needs the same status in decision making.
Across the lowlands, a national ecological network could guide public funds towards enhancing and protecting habitats such as hedgerows and woodlands. In the uplands, it could guide catchment-scale work to deliver peatland and native woodland restoration, species reintroductions or flood management. In urban areas, it could join up the vital green spaces, parks and pathways, delivering wellbeing that is shared between communities and nature.
The land use strategy, in turn, should underpin such a network as a clear objective, and should place expectations on land managers, planners and communities to deliver it. So far, the land use strategy has been largely pushed to the background of the climate change plan, which is surprising, given that it was a key tool in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.
The need to line up the uses of land so that they work together to deliver common goals is greater than ever. For example, it is vital for our climate work that we pursue further development and repowering of onshore wind farms at the same time as we deliver on ambitious targets for forestry and peatland restoration. Those things can be creatively balanced through regional land use strategies. That approach should be at the heart of the Government’s upland vision, which should be a progressive vision of community empowerment and sustainable land use, not a degraded vision where SNH’s cries for voluntary restraint are met with truckloads of dead mountain hares, spiralling deer densities and raptor persecution.
I read that, according to the cabinet secretary, SNH is starting the conversation this year on what a national ecological network could look like. I very much welcome that but, given that it has taken six years for successive environment ministers to wrangle over extending the wildlife crime powers of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, I will watch the calendar carefully.
The work to put nature at the heart of the way that we plan as a society could drift unless the Parliament puts a firm marker down. A national ecological network should be the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s infrastructure and define the value of our special places and the communities and nature they sustain. Let us take that first step towards delivery today.
I move amendment S5M-04493.4, to leave out “and notes that” and insert:
“while recognising the scale of the challenge remaining to address the decline in over half of Scotland’s species since 1970, as noted by the
State of Nature Report 2016
, and considers that, by fully implementing a National Ecological Network, embedding the principles and objectives of the Land Use Strategy across all sectors of government and”.
In November last year, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee hosted a round-table discussion with stakeholders about where Scotland stands in relation to progress on biodiversity, which is a hugely important topic. It was sparked by differences in the tone and the picture painted by the RSPB’s “State of Nature 2016—Scotland” report and SNH’s first review of progress, and covered a wide variety of marine and land-based subjects.
On the back of that discussion, the committee entered into detailed correspondence with the cabinet secretary. Among other things, her expansive response to the letter from the committee confirms for me that, in some areas, there is a disconnect between what normally well-informed stakeholders understand is or is not happening and the reality. I say that not as a criticism of anyone but as a reflection of where we seem to be.
The concerns that the committee noted were all clearly articulated by, and widely supported among, the people who gave evidence. Those concerns included progress on completing the habitat map of Scotland and the fact that the high-level biodiversity strategy group had not met for more than a year. It turns out that the former is on course for completion in 2019, which I understand is the requirement. On the latter point, a governance review that was completed before last year’s election but which has not yet been implemented appears to have placed the high-level biodiversity strategy group in stasis, albeit that other consultative bodies continue to operate. However, witnesses seemed to have an expectation that the group ought still to be operational.
It was also suggested to the committee that multilayered reporting structures on biodiversity, along with the number of strategies that relate to that hugely important subject, create an unnecessarily congested policy landscape. That may be required by the need to report at a Scottish, United Kingdom and international level, but might it be possible, if not to streamline the strategic purposes, at least to provide greater clarity on them and to review whether the various strands are sufficiently joined up? A rhododendron strategy is about to be added to the mix. However welcome that may be on one level, when the committee took evidence in November, it was indicated that even people who have a firm understanding of biodiversity would welcome some simplification.
I hope that the stakeholder meetings on land use and biodiversity that are planned for this year, which the cabinet secretary noted in her response to the committee, will provide clarity where it is seemingly needed, as well as progress on some of the points that have been raised, not least because the cabinet secretary, stakeholders and MSPs across the parties have the same ambitions.
As it should be, biodiversity will continue to be woven through the work of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. We await with interest publication of the three-yearly update on progress and anticipate that it will be more encompassing in its reach than the six big steps for nature report was and will offer us a real insight into where we are in responding to the challenges that climate change, among other things, poses to our natural environment.
Having started by highlighting concerns that stakeholders are identifying, I will finish by considering some of the undoubted progress that has been made. There are often two ways of looking at a situation. A perfect case in point is protected areas management. We could point out that, as the RSPB has highlighted, one fifth of our best sites for nature are in an unfavourable condition. On the other hand, between 2007 and 2016, the number of features reported as being in favourable condition rose from 76 per cent to 80.4 per cent. Therefore, we are on the right track, even if we all wish that the pace of improvement were greater. The introduction of marine protected areas is another positive. Personally, I am also very heartened by developments for peatlands and forestry.
On the subject of good news, was it not great to hear in the past few days that the Scottish Wildlife Trust has secured almost £2.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the saving Scotland’s red squirrels project?
There is still some way to go and we will shortly see what the three-yearly Scottish biodiversity strategy tells us. We will also see the potential challenges that are to be faced around Brexit. However, progress is being made and, with regard to building on that, there are some encouraging signs of people reaching out to find common ground and agreement. The newly produced SWT land stewardship policy document is just one good example of that.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate on biodiversity. Biodiversity is vital to Scotland on many levels. It boosts ecosystem productivity and contributes to the maintenance of a healthy planet, and to healthy communities and people.
The benefits of enhancing Scotland’s biodiversity have the potential to affect each of us. A boost to a farmer’s crop pollination can create a potentially greater yield; healthier marine fisheries contribute to more sustainable stocks, securing the future of our vital fishing industries; and improved air, water and soil quality brings health benefits for us all and enhances what I believe are the most stunning scenery and landscapes in the world. Nature-based tourism is estimated to generate at least £1.4 billion per year and provides around 39,000 full-time equivalent jobs to the Scottish economy. There is no limit to the potential to create value from enhancing and protecting Scotland’s biodiversity.
The Scottish Government has taken some important steps in recognising the importance of biodiversity by committing to the European biodiversity strategy for 2020 and the United Nations Aichi targets with its publication of the “2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity” strategy. I think that the only contentious issue today could be the pronunciation of Aichi.
I take the opportunity to touch on a couple of areas in which further progress can be made. The peatland restoration programme that is currently under way contributes to the EU 15 per cent degraded ecosystem restoration target. Since 2013, 10,000 hectares of peatland have been restored. However, Professor Robin Matthews of the James Hutton Institute estimates that restoring 21,000 hectares annually—a figure that he calls modest—would contribute an 8 per cent reduction in total Scottish carbon emissions. We on the Conservative benches welcome the ambitious commitment to restoring degraded peatland, which will help to protect against flooding and act as a natural carbon sink. It will benefit not only the climate but the economy, by providing long-term investment security to projects that have the potential to encourage the creation of local jobs.
Colleagues will not be surprised to hear me mention national parks. Scotland’s national parks are areas of very high value with regard to their landscapes, wildlife and cultural heritage. They provide positive management of areas as well as additional resources to safeguard and enhance those areas and ensure their stability for the long term. They also provide opportunities for the public to enjoy special natural and cultural heritage. We currently have two designated national parks in Scotland, but there is a great deal of scope to create more. There is a campaign in my constituency for the designation of a Galloway national park. I have been active in that campaign for many years and I will continue to push for it.
I am aware of the campaign that the member cites. Does he agree that it is really important that there is community buy-in to such campaigns and that no national park should go ahead unless we are absolutely sure that the whole community is behind it?
Absolutely; that is fundamental to the whole project and I encourage the group in Galloway to make sure that every stakeholder is involved at every part of the process.
The Scottish Government has made good progress on the designation of marine protected areas, but we need to ensure that the aim of each MPA is defined and that there is full involvement by Scottish Natural Heritage, local groups and—importantly—the fishing industry, which might be affected. It is regrettable that the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation had to learn from a journalist that the MPA socioeconomic monitoring report had been published, having received no such notification from Marine Scotland. That is totally unacceptable and I hope that the cabinet secretary will ensure that, in future, proper consideration is given to all stakeholders.
We can all agree that enhancing Scotland’s biodiversity brings many benefits and I support an ambitious programme to achieve that. However, we must always ensure that we follow an evidence-based approach with full engagement from all stakeholders at every stage in the process.
The importance of biodiversity to Scotland’s wildlife cannot be overestimated; it is certainly not a side issue. Three quarters of people in Scotland think that our landscapes are in good condition but, according to the RSPB’s “State of Nature 2016—Scotland” report, several habitats and species in Scotland are in decline. That is an alarming fact for our world.
Scottish Environment LINK asked us all to champion a species, and the species that I chose to champion is the sea trout, so I hope that members will not mind me doing my job. Sea trout are a migratory form of brown trout. About 75 per cent of sea trout go to sea to feed and then go back to the river to spawn. For that reason, they stay in coastal areas close to the river that they were spawned in. When they re-enter the river from the sea, they are very silver in colour, like salmon, but once they have been in the river for a while, they look like the resident brown trout only bigger. Ensuring that sea trout continue to have access to their migration routes is essential to the ability of the species to flourish. Where would we be without the sea trout?
Biodiversity or wildlife corridors are areas of habitat that connect wildlife and are essential in allowing ecosystems to function properly. Some species need to travel long distances to survive. Without safe corridors that allow them to move around, animals are exposed to all kinds of dangers. That issue must be taken seriously in the context of planning. When we put up buildings in urban and rural areas, we must ensure that we protect species and animals. Biodiversity corridors also help to protect genetic diversity, which is essential. If it is reduced, inbreeding will raise the risk of disease and genetic defects.
There are many good examples of biodiversity in Glasgow, the city that I represent. I support what Maurice Golden said about protecting green space, particularly in urban areas. I want to mention the new public park that is to be built over the M8 at Charing Cross. It will be no mean feat but, for the first time, it will give people in that area a nice green space.
A good example of biodiversity working well in Glasgow is Possil marsh near Bishopbriggs, which is a freshwater loch that is surrounded by marsh and swamp areas that support rare plants. The reserve is an important visiting place for water birds during their spring and autumn migration. At one time, the reserve was part of an extensive system of lochs and marshes in the west of Scotland. There is also the Glasgow and Clyde valley green network, one of the main aims of which is to help to create strong and diverse habitats.
We know that, in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, agreement was reached on stopping the decline in global biodiversity by 2020. If the UK is to meet the biodiversity targets that were set by the UN, it is essential that we maintain and develop areas of biodiversity.
Local government biodiversity officers are crucial to increasing biodiversity across Scotland. In 2015, my colleague Claudia Beamish asked Aileen Campbell how many biodiversity officers had been lost as a result of local government cuts. I would like the cabinet secretary to update us on that, if she can, in her closing remarks, or say whether she has any concerns about the loss of such officers, whose work will be essential if we are to meet our UN targets.
As Pauline McNeill did, I declare an interest as a species champion. The species that I champion is the Scottish primrose, which is under threat from habitat destruction.
I am delighted to take part in this brief but welcome debate. I support the motion and all three amendments. In passing, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments in relation to raptor persecution.
In the limited amount of time that is available to me, I want to focus on a couple of local issues that underscore the importance of the interaction between different species and their impact on biodiversity—in this case, in an Orkney context.
As the cabinet secretary will be well aware from my joint work a number of years back on the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill, the Parliament chose to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to invasive non-native species. It was right to do so, but I have a tale of woe involving stoats and geese.
In Orkney, we pride ourselves on providing a warm welcome to most visitors, but we draw the line when it comes to stoats, which were first spotted in the islands back in 2010. As the RSPB has observed:
“Stoats on Orkney pose perhaps the greatest risk to Priority Species on these islands.”
Their predation of Orkney voles and impact on hen harriers, short-eared owls and ground-nesting birds could be dramatic.
Unfortunately, the initial volunteer trapping exercise did not prove successful, but I am delighted that SNH, working alongside the RSPB and other local partners, is now in a position to put in a bid for funding under Heritage Lottery Fund auspices to put in place a more ambitious stoat eradication programme. In the meantime, I very much hope that the interim measures to stop an expansion to the outer isles and to develop the skills of local volunteers who might be involved in that programme can prevent a bad situation from deteriorating further.
Greylag geese are, of course, indigenous, and there is an indigenous greylag geese population in Orkney. However, their number is swollen exponentially by the migrant geese that come in at certain parts of the year. The Scottish Government is to be commended for having introduced an active goose management scheme around five years ago, which was extremely helpful in containing numbers, but unfortunately it has not had the desired effect in reducing those numbers, which are now upwards of 25,000 or possibly 30,000 in total.
The scheme concluded last summer, and there is concern that the gains that have been made will be lost and that the objectives of the scheme will not be achieved. Therefore, I urge the cabinet secretary to look again at how we might be able to maintain the momentum in the interests of avoiding damage to land and protecting many of the ground-nesting birds that are affected by the explosion in the goose population.
Like other members, I welcome this debate. I am sure that we will have the opportunity to return to the issue in due course, and I note and acknowledge the collective commitment across the chamber to up our game in this area. That is just as well, because we are all in no doubt about the scale of the challenge that we face. It is not just an environmental challenge; as a number of members have pointed out, there are also the social and economic impacts.
I am pleased to take part in this debate, and I thank the Scottish Government for giving us an opportunity once more in the chamber to highlight the benefits of biodiversity.
As we know, biodiversity is the key building block of our ecosystem. Therefore, it was with a degree of concern that “State of Nature 2016”, which the cabinet secretary mentioned in her opening remarks and which was discussed in my members’ business debate in November, presented a mixed picture of Scotland’s biodiversity. The report presented a number of warnings about Scotland’s biodiversity, which certainly made people sit up and think. However, it is important to note that it is not all doom and gloom and that it is not too late for Scotland to become a world leader in biodiversity and environmental protection.
The Scottish biodiversity strategy route map interim report highlights good progress with regard to the 2020 Aichi targets in areas such as peatland restoration, taking learning outdoors, restoring fresh waters and increasing the environmental status of our seas. However, as has already been highlighted, a lack of progress has been reported in creating a national ecological network, planting and restoring native woodland, preventing invasive non-native species and applying ecosystem health indicators at the landscape scale.
I thank the Scottish Wildlife Trust for its briefing in advance of this debate. It has called on the Scottish Government to make a lot more progress towards creating a national ecological network and increasing native woodland planting, both of which would increase Scotland’s biodiversity and help to restore ecosystem health. In turn, that would make Scotland’s wildlife more resilient to climate change and resistant to the threats of pests and diseases.
In previous debates in the chamber on biodiversity, I have, as members would expect, highlighted the great work that has gone on in my Falkirk East constituency, which has a varied terrain that ranges from prime agricultural land next to the River Forth to hill farms and moors in the south. There is a wide range of habitats in between, from mudflats and salt marshes to lowland raised and intermediate bogs, marshes, rivers and streams, not to mention canals and coal bings.
The local biodiversity action plan that is being developed and delivered by Falkirk Council and its partners has identified 20 primary habitats and 112 priority species of particular national and local value, which, as such, should be conserved both locally and nationally. For any biodiversity action plan to be successful, education, awareness raising and understanding of biodiversity are essential. I am glad to say that in Falkirk district there has been excellent participation and joint working by local groups, NGOs and individuals on conservation measures.
Sadly, four minutes limits how much I can rave on about what is going on in Falkirk, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the consequences of Brexit for Scotland’s biodiversity. The nature directives, water framework directive and marine strategy framework directive are perhaps the most important tools that we have for safeguarding Scotland’s natural capital against degradation and loss. Although the cabinet secretary made assurances last summer following the EU referendum in June that there would be no weakening of a raft of Brussels measures that are regarded as crucial for conserving plants and animals and keeping air, water and land clean and healthy, there are still concerns that if the UK Government gets its way and those directives are repealed or diluted, the health of our fresh water, wildlife and seas will be severely compromised. We cannot allow the dismantling of all those acts of the Scottish Parliament that have transposed EU environmental directives. We should continue to implement them fully, whatever situation we find ourselves in in the next few years and decades. As the RSPB put it in the briefing that it provided for the debate,
“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 and restoration of our nature.”
I look forward—as I am sure we all do—to working with all the NGOs out there, our local communities and the Scottish Government, to ensure that that is the case.
It has been a short but enjoyable debate. The cabinet secretary kicked us off by putting up a big yellow warning sign around the reintroduction of the lynx in Scotland. I took from her comments that there is a need for due process around that and strong partnership working. That is also an issue when we come to national parks. The comments made by Finlay Carson are absolutely supportable, but we need to see that strong partnership working and to build a case with communities, too. We can point to great successes in the two national parks that we already have.
We need a clear focus. That is why we lodged an amendment on the national ecological network. Part of the issue is governance. Graeme Dey raised the issue of the Scottish biodiversity delivery group; we need to have certainty about the status of that group and its work.
We heard comments on the national ecological network from my fellow “watermelons”, Claudia Beamish, Pauline McNeill and Angus MacDonald. I want to say a little about how the network can work in the urban context, where we find that our parks and green spaces are important. Last year, the Heritage Lottery Fund produced a report on the state of UK parks and, although there is good news in there—it is clear that communities are getting increasingly involved in the management of our parks and that visitor numbers are increasing, which is good and meets one of the targets in the 2020 biodiversity action plan—the bad news is that, unfortunately, the quality of many of our parks and investment in maintenance are going down.
That situation is related to the point that Pauline McNeill raised about the reduction in the number of local authority officers working on the issue. That point was raised by the Improvement Service just a couple of weeks ago in a report showing a reduction in council staff. The danger is that we could be at the tipping point for the quality of our parks, which are a hugely important part of the national ecological network that we are trying to create.
I will focus briefly on the nature of planning. We have an ecological network—the central Scotland green network—and 17 out of the 19 councils that are involved in that network have incorporated it into their local development plans. Indeed, 25 out of the 34 planning authorities in Scotland recognise ecological networks in their planning guidance. However, from a letter that the committee received recently from the cabinet secretary, it seems that the networks are there to protect the environment
“unless material considerations indicate otherwise.”
That takes us to Maurice Golden’s point about the need to protect the green belt and precious places through our planning system. I have some experience of the issue, which relates directly to the central Scotland green network, which is a key infrastructure priority in the national planning framework. In a planning hearing in Stirling Council, a plan to put 600 houses on the green belt, in a completely inappropriate part of the network, at Airthrey Kerse, was being pushed through. The argument was made that the green network is part of the national planning framework and should therefore be protected, but the network had a lot less status than, for example, the Beauly to Denny power line, which is another part of the national planning framework and which assumes far greater weight in the planning system than biodiversity.
We have had a good, consensual debate this afternoon and I am glad that we were able to put down a strong marker on the national ecological network. I very much hope that, as Angus MacDonald said, Scotland can in time become a world leader in how we protect our biodiversity.
Mr Golden, I remind you, notwithstanding the fact that you were only about a minute late, that it is courteous to be in the chamber when members rise to give their closing speeches. I give you plenty of warning.
I thank all members who have taken part in an interesting and well-informed debate.
This is an opportunity to produce a report card on biodiversity, to assess whether we are making the grade. As the great environmental thinker Wendell Berry said,
“the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.”
The UK ranks 189th out of 218 countries on the biological intactness index. Members know that that is the index that is used under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to assess progress towards the convention targets. Of course, it is not too late to change our ranking, but we must act now.
We all know that climate change has already had a severe and damaging effect on our native species and biodiversity. The changing climate has disrupted mating patterns, hibernation and adaptation, leading to decline in populations.
Changes and intensification in land management and land use have also caused great decline in and damage to biodiversity. As the species champion for the great yellow bumblebee, I am very aware of how the intensification of farming and grazing and the decline in traditional crofting practices have meant that a species that used to be found across the whole of the UK is now found on just a few of the Scottish islands, with a tiny population on the north Highland mainland.
However, it is not just about declining species. Scotland is ranked in the lowest fifth of countries on the biodiversity intactness index, as I said, and our ecosystems have fallen below the point at which they can reliably meet society’s needs. The maintenance and restoration of our ecosystems are vital to halting the decline, supporting our flora and fauna and our human population, and balancing our carbon budget and ensuring that we reach our greenhouse gas reduction targets. If we are to do that, we need to support the recovery of species populations, improve habitat quality and develop green corridors between fragmented areas of natural land.
I think that all speakers made those points. The cabinet secretary made three good points when she talked about the marine environment, peatland restoration and the reintroduction of beavers—I was pleased that she mentioned the reintroduction of beavers, which is dear to my heart.
A key issue is what will happen after Brexit. I was pleased to hear the cabinet secretary say that, in discussions with the UK Government, she is pushing for European protections to continue post-Brexit.
Maurice Golden made excellent points about the importance of biodiversity in the context of eco-tourism, flood prevention and mental and physical health. Claudia Beamish made an important point about embedding biodiversity, and I know that the point that she was going to make—before she was cut off so unkindly, Presiding Officer—was that we are pleased that every Labour member is a species champion. I am sure that other parties are looking to achieve that, too.
Mark Ruskell made an important point about putting nature first, and I support what he said about the ecological networks.
I have very little time left, so I will not be able to mention the other members who spoke in the debate. The truth is that we already know how to restore and support our biodiversity and ecosystems. We know what the main threats are. We need to ensure that the policy and regulation are in place and that firm, decisive action is taken to prioritise the health of our natural environment. This is urgent and the sad truth is that the damage has been going on for years—indeed, decades—and our nation is much poorer in nature.
The debate is about much more than biodiversity. It is about the sort of Scotland that we want in the future—a Scotland that is clean, green and sustainable, and a Scotland that is recognised around the globe for the quality of its natural environment, its stunning hills, glens and lochs, and its multicultural workforce. We need to focus on our route map from 2020 to 2030.
We need to build up ambition and investment in our environment to protect Scotland’s habitats and wildlife for generations yet unborn.
As Barack Obama said,
“Our generation may not even live to see the full realisation of what we do here”.
I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.
We have heard much today about how we must do more to secure the long-term future of biodiversity in Scotland and there has been a great deal of agreement across the chamber.
I will talk mostly about land in my speech, but healthy seas are equally important. The cabinet secretary, Claudia Beamish and many others talked about how important marine protected areas are to the health of our seas. I fully concur with that.
Another excellent example of how we can enhance our biodiversity is new forestry schemes that specifically place accessibility at their core to allow folks to get out there and enjoy nature first hand, even when they live in towns and cities. Such schemes also rightly cater for wildlife to flourish as part of a widely recognised desire to boost biodiversity.
My colleague Finlay Carson talked about how we might form a new national park in the south-west. I totally agree that there is room in Scotland for another national park.
Mark Ruskell talked about how land use strategy is one way to drive biodiversity and he said that we need to put nature at the heart of society. I cannot agree more with that.
Undoubtedly, farmers must and do play a crucial part in securing future healthy biodiversity. Farmers are custodians of our countryside, and they care passionately about it. Miles of hedges and millions of trees have been planted, ponds have been dug and grass and water margins have been put in place, and they are all contributing to the success of biodiversity in Scotland today.
Of course, more can be done, such as the restoration of peat bogs that were damaged by inappropriate drainage schemes and tree planting in the 1960s and 1970s. Those peat bogs are a vital carbon sink and help in the fight against climate change. Many other members today have talked about the importance of restoring peatlands.
I am a farmer myself, and I hope that members will permit me to provide some examples of what we have done on our farm. During the past 10 years we have created four ponds, planted 3 miles of hedges, created 2 miles of grass and water margins, as well as putting in place 10 acres of native trees. After harvest, we leave winter stubbles on the fields to provide feed for birds during the cold months and we do not plough until March. I emphasise that our farm is not unique in that regard. All across Scotland, mixed farming and environmental measures similar to what we have put in place are common.
That said, we should look again at some of the less than helpful regulations. For example, as I have discussed before, greening regulations need to be reformed to make them a contributor to our rural landscape instead of a hindrance. The idea that the harvesting of ecological focus area land should not happen until the end of August because of ground-nesting birds ignores the fact that the ground-nesting birds are gone well before then. Similarly, having two-crop regulations that are designed to let bees have more options assumes that bees are confined to only one field, which is a bizarre basis for policy making.
In addition, we must be wary of the introduction of new species without proper thought for how they will impact on the rural economy in their areas. The illegal release of beavers in the Tay catchment is an example of how things can get out of control. I was also glad to hear that, in the cabinet secretary’s opinion, the illegal release of lynx would not be tolerated.
I thank all members for their contributions. As anticipated, there has been a huge breadth of discussion and I am only sorry that I will not be able to refer to every single issue that has been raised.
Maurice Golden—and, indeed, Pauline McNeill and Mark Ruskell—referred to urban green space. No doubt Mr Golden has raised his particular planning concerns with the local councils involved, but I remind everyone that it is this Government that has ensured the existence of the central Scotland green network—Europe’s largest green space project—which covers 19 local authority areas across the central belt and more than 10,000km2
. There are 3.6 million residents in the CSGN area and it includes 86 per cent of Scotland’s most deprived communities, which equates to about 641,000 residents. By any measure, that is a huge achievement.
Both Pauline McNeill and Liam McArthur snuck in references to being species champions—quite rightly. In my job, I am a champion for all species, but I urge anyone who has not already signed up as a species champion to do so as soon as possible. Claudia Beamish referenced the pollinator strategy; both it and the implementation plan are currently being finalised. I hope to have the strategy published this spring, so it is coming very shortly. I agree with Claudia Beamish’s comments on the importance of deer management, but I am sure that she will understand if I wait to receive the committee report on that before commenting.
The issue of the national ecological network was raised by Mark Ruskell and one or two other members. SNH is leading on the development of proposals for the network. It has asked several environmental NGOs to develop a collective view on what a national ecological network should comprise in practice. A response from the NGOs is expected soon, with a view to reaching a conclusion on the topic and agreeing on further action, so things are happening.
On the governance issue that was raised by Graeme Dey and one or two other members, Graeme Dey is correct that a governance review was completed but not considered by ministers before the Scottish Parliament election in May 2016. The review concluded that revised arrangements should be introduced under the ambit of the rural affairs, food and environment—RAFE—delivery board, which brought together the chief executives or their equivalents from public sector environmental and agricultural organisations under the joint chairmanship of the then Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment and the then environment minister.
Since May 2016, the RAFE delivery board has continued to meet informally at official level to work on issues of common interest. We have yet to consider what formal arrangements we wish to see in place of the RAFE delivery board and how we wish to deal with biodiversity and land use governance. However, I can confirm that the delivery support structures—in the form of working groups and the Scottish biodiversity strategy co-ordination group chaired by SNH—have continued to meet regularly to support and co-ordinate the delivery of the 2020 challenge and the 2020 route map.
As many members have said, Scotland’s biodiversity is one of our nation’s most precious assets. Of course it has an intrinsic value and we should respect it for its own sake, but it also contributes significantly to our economy and helps to create the conditions for healthy and resilient people and communities.
We do not take risks with our most precious assets and it follows that we cannot, and will not, take risks with the environment. Good progress has been made towards the international Aichi targets and SNH has also reported good progress on the project-based route map to 2020 targets.
I accept that some areas are not progressing as quickly as we would like, but the value of the interim reports from SNH is that we can identify the areas where we need to step up our efforts and not wait until 2020, when it would be too late.
I firmly believe that we should all shoulder responsibility for improving and maintaining Scotland’s biodiversity. That means getting together and finding practical and workable solutions to problems, being willing to work in partnership—a very important issue, which Mark Ruskell raised right at the end—and, where necessary, putting aside sectoral differences. We saw the practical consequences of that in the decision about the beavers.
The Scottish Government is committed to meeting our international obligations for biodiversity. I will work across portfolios and across the chamber to ensure that we protect and enhance this most precious aspect of Scotland.
Today’s debate has shown the level of commitment across the chamber for biodiversity and, although I cannot get drawn into all the conversations around national parks, stoats and one or two other things that were raised tangentially, I look forward to seeing that commitment translated into action and further progress on the ground and in Scotland’s seas.