Never has so much been expected from our Scottish countryside. As a nation, we collectively look towards our delightful rural landscape and expect it to produce food, employment, a space for recreation, clean air and also a space for wildlife to grow.
All of the land in Scotland is managed for a specific purpose and how we offset many of the competing demands can be a challenging balancing act, especially where the management should also make commercial sense. Yet, that does not mean we shouldn’t try our best to get the balance just right.
Wildlife Estates Scotland (WES) is a national version of the European Landowners’ Organisation’s Wildlife Estates (WES) accreditation scheme and is driving forward best practice in land management throughout Scotland’s farms, estates and other rural landholdings. Since being developed by Scottish Land & Estates, with support from Scottish Natural Heritage, more than 1.26 million acres of land has qualified for WES certification. For a scheme which made its first accreditation in 2013, this is an impressive achievement and places Scotland second in the league table of European nations, with only Spain ahead on approximately 1.6 million acres.
However, WES has plans to grow further – we want to double the number of accredited areas to 2.5 million acres by 2023 and have recently appointed a new project officer, Caroline Pringle, to help us pursue that goal.
But why does a voluntary accreditation scheme such as WES actually matter? In truth, there are many different answers to that question. Farmers and landowners want to run their businesses profitably and efficiently but many also recognise that they have stewardship of the wildlife and habitat around them.
This is a theme that is becoming ever more important as we look towards how land will be managed following our departure from the European Union.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) currently supports farming production across Europe and this is likely to be replaced by a new form of public support for land management as we move into the mid-2020s and beyond.
South of the border, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has hailed the future of a ‘Green Brexit’ where financial support for land-based businesses would be more closely tied to delivery of public goods. By that, we mean landowners supporting strategies such as carbon capture, provision of clean water as well as flood mitigation, and, naturally, the enhancement of biodiversity.
Whilst there is currently less detail in Scotland on what will replace the CAP, the Scottish Government has ambitious climate change targets and with land managers already supporting the government on delivering these policies, it means WES accredited properties are already well-placed to help the Scottish Government meet these targets.
There is no archetypal landholding that goes through the accreditation process. It covers farms and estates with a wide variety of land uses, including sporting, forestry and conservation.
One of our most recently accredited properties is Glenbervie Estate in Kincardineshire. It is a diverse 2,000 acre estate and sits at the heart of the Macphie food business, the UK’s leading independent ingredients manufacturer.
Roxburghe Estate received its accreditation shortly after Glenbervie and it covers 52,000 acres in the south of Scotland where land management encompasses agriculture, forestry and sporting activities.
Recent conservation projects undertaken by Roxburghe include a five-year programme to enhance biodiversity and habitat on moorland at Byrecleugh and Rawburn, benefiting birds such as curlew, lapwing and snipe and, in particular, black grouse. The estate has also been developing a project to restore grey partridge numbers, with 43 pairs in 2012 building to 127 pairs by 2017.
Different forms of land use achieve distinct outcomes for biodiversity and conservation and there can often be conflicts between those. Species that thrive on certain forms of land do considerably less well on others, such as wading birds which flourish on moorland but are becoming a far rarer sight on other land types. This can often lead to tricky balancing acts for land managers but all of the WES accredited properties have a shared resolution to enhance biodiversity, on a landscape scale, while maintaining their livelihoods.
WES has recently assembled a new advisory board and technical committee which has a broad spectrum of representation from organisations including the Scottish Government, SNH, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Angus Glens Moorland Group, the RSPB and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust as well as representatives from private landholdings.
It is hoped that this will build a broad consensus on how best to manage all the different forms of land we have in Scotland and that the range of skills and knowledge available to WES will ensure that it is the standout accreditation scheme for land managers who are serious about conserving and enhancing biodiversity.
As we move forward into the next decade and whatever the future holds for our rural areas, it is incumbent on all of us to follow standards of excellence as custodians of our precious land.
Dee Ward, vice-chairman of operations, Wildlife Estates Scotland.