Don’t let conservation become a memory

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Perusing the media, you’d be forgiven for assuming that news on the global environment is uniformly, relentlessly negative. It seems that humanity is powerless to make positive changes. On the other hand, many in Scotland glance around at our otters and bumblebees, eagles, wildflowers and seals, and assume that the environment here is managing just fine. Here, nature seems to flourish without much help at all. These assumptions are understandable – but neither is right.

Climate change, habitat loss, marine pollution, introductions of invasive species and a host of other apocalyptic horsemen unquestionably proceed across the planet. They have severe impacts on the natural environment, and Scotland is anything but immune. More than half of our globally important national seabird populations, for example, have been in long-term decline for more than 30 years, with some – including kittiwakes and Arctic terns – down by more than 70 per cent. They face pressures from climate change, invasive species on breeding islands, pollution at sea and damaging developments. Our native Caledonian pinewoods, so rich in their unique wildlife community, stand at just 1 per cent of their original area, fragmented into vulnerable habitat islands.

Yet despite intractable pressures and issues like these, there remain extraordinary successes where people have protected and enhanced the wildlife that shares our planet and our country. Perhaps the best example, and yet among the least appreciated, is the impact of EU wildlife legislation – the ‘Nature Directives’ – and, in particular, the funding mechanism established to help countries implement it: the EU LIFE Nature fund.

The Nature Directives require EU member states to protect wildlife, with special measures for those species in most trouble. This means countries must create positively managed protected areas at the very best wildlife sites – the Natura sites, in which Scotland abounds – with legal boundaries determined by ecology, rather than vested interests. Governments are held to account if the protected wildlife falls into unfavourable condition at those sites. This critical body of law was recently tested in a rigorous formal assessment of its ‘fitness for purpose’ across the EU. The outcome was an eye-opener. Whilst the ultimate challenge of halting all biodiversity loss has not yet been achieved, the report is clear that: the status and trends of species and habitats protected by the Directives would be significantly worse in their absence, and improvements in the status of species and habitats are taking place where there are targeted actions at a sufficient scale.

Moreover, and highly significant in terms of the perceived struggle between economy and environment, the analysis found that the multiple benefits of the Directives, estimated at €200-300 billion per year, significantly exceed identified costs. In other words, the EU Nature Directives benefit not only wildlife – with all the associated cultural, social, educational and health benefits – but they make economic sense too.

The key point of the analysis, however, is that this happens only when the Directives are properly and effectively implemented. This is where the LIFE Nature fund comes in. This fund is available to any organisation working in the EU, and is explicitly targeted to help implement the Directives. It funds specific projects to that end, each typically lasting 3-5 years, costing between €1-10 million. This combination of strong legislation, plus implementation support, has made these environmental laws among the most effective on earth.

Scotland has benefitted enormously: since the LIFE Nature fund’s inception, it has funded over 25 LIFE projects benefitting Scotland, bringing in well over £25m for conservation delivery – 21 per cent of the UK total. And this money, of course, freed additional funds from elsewhere. Among the beneficiaries are Atlantic salmon; the freshwater pearl mussel; the corncrake; the Flow Country peatlands; Caledonian pinewoods; upland invertebrates; the red squirrel; machair grasslands; seabirds on Canna and the Shiants; the Celtic rainforest; the porpoise and the hen harrier.

Now, however, our wildlife faces a twin crisis. With Brexit, regardless of wider pros and cons, we face the possibility of weakening wildlife legislation, and loss of funding for its implementation. This comes at a time when the funding for nature conservation in general is massively challenged in Scotland. SNH budgets have been cut; the Heritage Lottery Fund, now a critical source of environmental funding, is over-subscribed, and its income is shrinking. Moreover, a recent report found that private foundation funding for environmental causes in England and Wales was 20 times as much as that in Scotland. Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has made genuinely progressive statements that, post-Brexit, Scotland would retain environmental legislation at least as strong as that in place now. This is a welcome, indeed essential, commitment. But without explicit commitment to dedicated funding support for the conservation of Scottish wildlife and ecosystems, we risk effective implementation, and all the benefits that brings, becoming little more than a memory.

Anne McCall, Director, RSPB Scotland