SNP is backtracking on promises about vital environmental issue – Jonny Hughes

When 26 environmental organisations come together to write to the First Minister of Scotland expressing “extreme concern” over an issue, something is normally wrong.

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham needs to ensure Scotland's wetlands are adequately protected (Picture: John Devlin)
Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham needs to ensure Scotland's wetlands are adequately protected (Picture: John Devlin)

Time and again over the past few years, and particularly since the Brexit vote, the Scottish Government has reaffirmed its commitment to European and international environmental laws and conventions.

Scotland was one of the first countries to sign up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and we are often reminded our legislation on climate change is “world leading”. Just in the past week we have seen the very welcome launch of Scotland’s first natural capital accounts which will give us a much better understanding of the value that nature and natural assets provide to the nation.

Such progressive initiatives make it all the more perplexing that Scottish ministers appear to be backtracking on promises to protect our most important wetland sites.

The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty for the conservation of globally significant wetland sites, named after the city of Ramsar in Iran where it was signed in 1971. Wetland sites designated under Ramsar are afforded the same high level of protection as European Natura sites. At least they were until recently when Scotland broke ranks with the rest of the UK and decided, without any public consultation, to downgrade their status to the equivalent of nationally designated sites north of the border.

As things stand, the 51 Ramsar wetland sites in Scotland are currently afforded a much lower level or protection than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This means it is more likely they can be drained, built on, or damaged by unsustainable use. Wetlands – including fens, marshes, wet woodlands, salt marshes, dune slacks, mountain flushes, loch edges and peatlands – are important not just because they contain an abundance of wildlife, they are also vital stores of carbon and provide clean water.

Internationally they are in serious trouble. The Ramsar Convention estimates 87 per cent of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700, and we are currently losing wetlands three times faster than natural forests.

In Scotland the majority of our wetlands have been lost or degraded through centuries of drainage and conversion to agricultural land. The few that remain in good ecological condition are thankfully now given a degree of protection under domestic nature conservation laws. The very finest of these have been conferred Ramsar status in recognition of their international importance.

Our remaining wetlands are rare, vitally important for wildlife, and play a key role in providing ‘ecosystem services’ to society. It therefore came as a shock in January when Scottish ministers reneged on the statement made by environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham in Parliament in April last year when she said: “It continues to be Scottish Government policy to apply the same level of protection to Ramsar sites as that which is afforded to designated [EU] Natura sites.”

It is unclear whether this is an oversight by civil servants, or a deliberate strategy to undermine nature protection to facilitate unsustainable development on wetlands. Either way, it is not too late clarify the position and make it understood to the public that Scotland’s Ramsar sites are on a par with those in the rest of the UK.

At a time when the country faces unprecedented external political and environmental pressures, we need consistent, calm and reliable leadership from our politicians when it comes to the enactment of critical nature protection laws.

Jonny Hughes is on Twitter @JonnyEcology