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Shell sand beach at Traigh Scarista, Isle of Harris. ©Lorne Gill/SNH.  For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or

How to apply an ecosystem approach

Discover key actions and tools to help you apply an ecosystem approach and thus improve decision-making to sustain nature’s benefits.

Key actions in applying an ecosystem approach

  1. Identify the natural assets (green infrastructure) that provide benefits, what these benefits (ecosystem services) are, and who benefits from them.
  2. Understand the effects of different planning or resource-use choices on nature and the benefits it provides.
  3. Involve people in decision-making and in getting things done.

The Scottish Government’s push to empower communities to look after local natural heritage assets firmly supports this last action.

Tools for applying an ecosystem approach

You can use existing tools such as marine and development plans, environmental assessment, cost-benefit analysis and participation.

New tools are also being developed to:

  • map ecosystem services
  • quantify the value of these ecosystem services to people
  • analyse trade-offs between different options for achieving objectives

The Ecosystems Knowledge Network provides a Tool Assessor, which can tell you about tools used to analyse the environment.

Scottish Natural Heritage has worked with others to help people include cultural ecosystem services when applying an ecosystem approach. Read our working paper on this topic below.

Read: Cultural ecosystem services – towards a common framework for developing policy and practice in Scotland

We’ve also prepared an overview of tools, examples and guidance to help marine planners apply an ecosystem approach.

Read: An ecosystem approach to marine planning – a summary of selected tools, examples and guidance

You may also wish to view and download our ecosystem approach case studies.

Evaluation framework

Our framework enables you to evaluate policies, strategies, plans or projects that seek to apply the ecosystem approach. It is useful whether you wish to assess new work or review current work.

Read: An evaluation framework for applying the ecosystem approach

Other resources

To find datasets you can use to map and assess ecosystem services, explore the Land Use Data Directory on the Scottish Government website.

Find further guidance and tools for applying an ecosystem approach on the Ecosystems Knowledge Network website.

Stakeholder engagement means working with a new language to understand and value the natural world. Organisations can view Using ecosystem services in public engagement and dialogue on the natural environment on the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) website.

The Scottish Government Land Use Strategy promotes an ecosystem approach to land use. Read more about this in:

The latter note shows how development and design plans, and delivery of services, can make better use of land to maximise ecosystem services for communities.

Find out more

Embedding the value of the natural environment in decision-making – overcoming barriers and encouraging enablers

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