13 May 2020
More than three quarters of Scotland’s natural features are in good condition or on the road to recovery, new figures show.
Official statistics published by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) show that 78.8% of more than 5,000 features on protected nature sites were assessed as in a favourable or recovering condition in the last year. Natural features include habitats, species and geological features such as fossil beds and caves.
The figure has remained relatively stable since last year but is up over the long-term from 71.4% in 2005.
Around two-thirds (65.4%) of features were found to have already reached favourable condition, with a further 13.3% assessed as on the road to recovery.
Dragonflies, marine habitats and earth science were the categories with the highest proportion of features in favourable condition, while the biggest increases were noted in vascular plants (up 1.3 percentage points), as well as heath and upland habitats (up 0.8 and 0.6 percentage points respectively).
Meanwhile the largest decrease was for fish (down 4.4 percentage points). There are a relatively small number of features in this category (46 in total) and analysis shows the drop is due to a decline in the abundance of two arctic charr populations on different sites, the causes of which are being investigated as there appears to be a healthy population of younger fish and no apparent change to their habitat.
The natural features with the lowest proportion in favourable condition remain marine mammals (57.1%), woodlands (64.3%) and birds (67.8%).
The figure for marine mammals is largely due to a well-documented decline in harbour seal numbers and research into these declines, funded by Marine Scotland, is ongoing through the Marine Mammal Scientific Support Research Programme.
For many of the other features in unfavourable condition there is no immediate on-site action that can be taken because they are caused by wider, often global pressures. For example, declining seabird populations are thought to be related to changes in prey distribution brought about by a combination of factors, including climate change. Climate change is also believed to be a factor in the decline of a number of natural features on protected areas and poses a long-term threat to Scotland’s nature.
Invasive species remain the single biggest reason for features being in unfavourable condition, representing 21% of all negative pressures, followed by overgrazing (17.8%).
Both of these pressures have an impact on our woodlands, where herbivores browse and non-native species such as rhododendron or Himalayan balsam compete with native species for nutrients and light.
SNH is working closely with partners, farmers and landowners across Scotland to take remedial action, including through hundreds of individual management agreements as well as support through the Scotland Rural Development Programme Agri-Environment Climate Scheme.
SNH also leads the four-year partnership Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) project, which is working to control invasive non-native species along riversides in Northern Scotland.
Sally Thomas, SNH Director of People and Nature, said: “As we mark the 20th year of our monitoring programme, it’s encouraging to see the progress that has been made over the long-term.
“Despite this there remain significant pressures on our nature sites - including invasive species, overgrazing and climate change - and we are working closely with partners, farmers and landowners to help them tackle these challenges and ensure a nature-rich future for Scotland.
“At the same time we will continue to review our programme to equip us for the next 20 years, where we can anticipate more rapid changes to nature on our protected areas, and to guide our response. We will do this by ensuring we make the best use of new and developing technology such as remote earth sensing and environmental-DNA analysis to give us the most robust picture possible of the state of Scotland’s nature and better target conservation action.”
These Official Statistics cover the period up to March 2020, before the implementation of restrictions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The overall 78.8% figure is rounded to one decimal place and this is the reason that it is 0.1 percentage points more than the sum of the 3 components. The full statistical publication can be accessed here: https://www.nature.scot/information-hub/official-statistics/official-statistics-protected-sites
There are more than 1,800 protected areas across Scotland covered by the Official Statistic including Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Natura sites and Ramsar sites.
The condition of features on these designated sites is assessed by Scottish Natural Heritage’s (SNH) Site Condition Monitoring (SCM) programme. SCM aims to assess the condition of a sample of designated natural features each year. Where features are found to be in unfavourable condition, remedial management measures are put in to place with the aim of improving the feature condition.
SCM is a rolling programme of monitoring and these statistics are therefore a snapshot as at March 31 2020, when of the 5,389 natural features hosted on designated sites, the condition of 5,315 had been assessed.
In 2019/20 there were 59 SCM feature assessments completed. This is lower than in previous years and reflects a planned reduction in direct monitoring activity as SNH reviews its monitoring approach, including investigating innovative new monitoring methods and the use of new technologies.
Scottish Natural Heritage is Scotland’s nature agency. We work to improve our natural environment in Scotland and inspire everyone to care more about it. We work to ensure that all nature in Scotland – our key habitats and landscapes, all our green space and our native species – is maintained, enhanced and brings us benefits. It is the job of all of us to achieve a balance in the sensitive management of our natural world in order to maintain and enhance biodiversity.