We have a huge challenge on our hands when it comes to looking after our nation’s wildlife. We may feel like we live in a nature-rich country – and, comparatively to some, we do. But it’s not what it should or could be.
The recently published State of Nature Scotland report 2023 showed that that Scottish wildlife had decreased on average by 15% since 1994 and that one in nine Scottish species is at risk of going extinct. Seabirds have been particularly badly hit, with a 49% decline between 1986 and 2019 – that’s before the tolls seen by the latest bird flu outbreak.
It’s not positive reading, but we do now have a better understanding of what’s causing it – and, critically, what we can do about it.
This is because of a piece of work NatureScot recently asked us to do. It was a major project looking into what the indirect drivers of biodiversity loss in Scotland are. Not just what causes loss of wildlife, such as pollution and climate change, but what we do as a society that drives those causes.
It showed that considerable change is needed to stop nature loss in Scotland.
In 32 years in ecology, it was one of the hardest technical reports I’ve written, cutting across science and policy. It’s also a hard read in terms of the scale of the challenge when it comes to stopping nature loss continuing even further than it already has.
We drilled right down to which sectors of society have to take ownership of each underlying cause, from individuals, civic society, business, local and national governments, public bodies to international institutions.
The challenge is that there’s no single simple solution and it will impact almost every aspect of how we live, work and organise society today – because how we do that now is the problem.
The solutions also mean working together, between government and business, business and individuals, communities and local government.
But we have an opportunity. By working together and by mainstreaming biodiversity into policy through considering the indirect causes of biodiversity loss, Scotland could go from being nature-depleted to setting a much-needed global example.
While there are many recommendations in our report (led by The James Hutton Institute with support from researchers at the University of Glasgow), I’ve distilled nine here that hopefully give a sense of the direction of travel we should take.
One, decision making at all levels, from the individual to the state should be forward-looking and compatible with long-term sustainability. A Well-being of Future Generations Act as enacted in Wales is a potential direction.
Two, Scotland is a comparatively wealthy country with a culture that broadly encourages consumption. Economic decision-making should be based on broader sustainability and taxation could move towards resource use rather than income.
Three, we need to recognise where our food comes from. Grains and pulses fed to livestock may produce cheap meat, but as these could be fed direct to humans, they are ecologically inefficient; that extra land could be used for biodiversity restoration.
Four, we need an ecologically engaged population, which means connecting adults and children to nature through greater provision of green and blue spaces in urban areas and inclusion of sustainability across STEM and geography at school.
Five, the UK is the 5th ranked country in exporting its biodiversity footprint. Reducing imports with poor sustainability records and a zero-waste society will reduce Scotland’s global biodiversity footprint.
Six, Scottish level action to restore habitats (e.g., by replacing plantation forestry with native woodland) potentially export impacts elsewhere. Land and marine management decisions should be framed in terms of both their local and global biodiversity impacts.
Seven, managing shared resources such as air, oceans and wild species populations is inherently problematic. Future resource management should support biodiversity enhancement and carbon sequestration and be underpinned by more inclusive governance.
Eight, managing land for biomass production puts it in competition with food production and biodiversity: mechanisms are needed to prevent locally and imported biomass coming from systems that degrade biodiversity.
Nine, difficult decisions will need to be made as to which habitats to prioritise and whether priority should be given to carbon sequestration or onshoring food and timber production to prevent biodiversity loss overseas or improving local biodiversity.
Reversing biodiversity loss and even restoring biodiversity isn’t just about saving species, like the Scottish wildcat. Biodiversity plays a hugely important role in the ecosystems that support the food, resource and natural systems that we rely on. We should be protecting and restoring it and, thankfully, there are many ways we can.