This should be the climate election – Alex Foulkes

By planting trees, restoring soils and protecting habitats we can reverse the biodiversity decline. Picture: SWNS
By planting trees, restoring soils and protecting habitats we can reverse the biodiversity decline. Picture: SWNS
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We should demand that aspiring MPs commit to protecting and enhancing the wild places of Scotland, writes Alex Foulkes

Our wildlife is not in good health.

Since 1994, nearly half of species have declined across Scotland – with only 28 per cent increasing.

Sir David Attenborough and the Scottish Wildlife Trust have called for urgent action to create and connect wild places in Scotland.

We need to urgently examine how we use land and how our actions impact on species, the environment and our climate.

That’s why we need a Green New Deal for the climate and for our wildlife and wild places.

Next week, TV presenter and conservationist Chris Packham will launch the “plant a tree to save the world” campaign on television.

This welcome move will help raise awareness of the need to plant more trees, but it will take more than just individual action to reach net-zero targets.

Scotland has hugely ambitious plans to become carbon neutral with a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 and carbon neutrality by 2040. To achieve this, it will require a widespread and sustained combined effort from government at all levels as well as private businesses, communities and philanthropists.

By planting trees, restoring soils and protecting a range of habitats such as peatlands we can not only reverse the decline in biodiversity but also play a crucial part in addressed the looming climate crisis.

Scotland is the country that spawned the great pioneer of conservation, John Muir, and sent many of its sons and daughters to far flung lands to escape persecution and poverty at home.

Many of these voyagers ended up in New Zealand – a Moa’s Ark of unique, endemic and soon to be endangered species.

They were pushed to the brink by rapid land-use change and habitat loss as well as predation by introduced mammal species.

Kiwis have fought hard to protect their wildlife and through necessity have developed some of the most innovative techniques and cutting-edge science to help protect these species that are teetering on the brink of extinction.

New Zealanders are now global pioneers in conservation with over 35 per cent of the land mass – about 8 million hectares or roughly the size of Scotland – being protected as Public Conservation Land.

I have been lucky to work with some of the most passionate, dedicated and skilled conservationists on the planet in New Zealand who have saved species such as the Chatham Island Brown Robin, the Takahē and the famous night parrot or Kakapo from the edge of extinction. Kiwi populations are now expanding after years of decline.

New Zealand has launched a Billion Trees Initiative to plant a billion trees across the country. This initiative not only provides habitat for its unique flora and fauna but also creates jobs and economic opportunities for communities, areas for kiwis to relax and recreate but will also vitally sequester billions of tonnes of carbon. Kiwis have already planted over 149 million trees in only a few years.

It must be asked why does Scotland not plant a billion trees? We certainly have enough land and have ambitious targets, but we can achieve so much more.

Many of the heroes of conservation trace their ancestry back to Scotland and recently it was Scottish environmentalists who helped South Georgia to eradicate rats to protect the island’s abundant birdlife.

But it is time to bring home the revolution in conservation to Scotland.

We have one of the lowest levels of forest cover left in Europe – only 18 per cent compared to an average of 44 per cent across Europe. Much of this is plantation forest – particularly the hated Sitka Spruce which have low biodiversity value and sequester only a fraction of carbon compared to native forests. Sadly, only tiny fragments of the great Caledonian Forest that swathed Scotland remain.

We need to ask if the millions of hectares that we set aside for driven grouse shooting, deer stalking, and hill sheep farming is the best use of vast areas of land in Scotland.

Scotland has a very high concentration of land ownership with 70 per cent of land owned by just 1,125 owners.

Policy-makers, conservationists and landowners need to work together with communities, businesses and investors to develop landscape-scale ecological restoration projects.

The Cairngorms connect project which aims to restore huge sections of the Cairngorms is already a great example of such a multi-stakeholder project. Organisations such as Trees for Life and the Borders Forest Trust have been undertaking incredible work to protect and enhance habitats for many years now.

There are many grandiose schemes to sequester carbon from the air to deal with climate change. Some may be required, and some would be more suited to the pages of the novels of science fiction, but we already have the best tools at hand.

With a General Election campaign upon us we should demand that the candidates commit to protecting and enhancing the wild places of Scotland, reversing the decline in biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis.

This election should not just be about Brexit – however important this is – but it must address what kind of country and planet that we will leave for future generations.

In New Zealand a Kaitiaki is a Māori term for a guardian of the environment. It is time for all of us to become guardians and protectors of our wonderful wild places and well-loved species.

Alex Foulkes is managing director of Kaitiaki Consulting