Natural Heritage Zones Programme

Natural Heritage Zones Programme

Natural Heritage Zones Programme

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Natural Heritage's (SNH) consultation on the Natural Heritage Zones Programme. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience of land use and the environment.

These SNH documents provide a quite comprehensive attempt to set out a forward vision and series of ‘plans’ for the whole of Scotland and provide an interesting basis for a stimulating discussion. However, it is unclear how SNH will use the Programme to deliver the actions listed under the different thematic programmes, nor is the connection clear between the 6 themed national prospectuses and the 21 Natural Heritage Zones.

In addition, it is unclear whether the stakeholders have been pre-consulted about their envisaged roles or not. For example, the documents set out tabulated summaries of the roles of the various stakeholders in the process of sustainable development, but curiously do not list SNH, leaving some uncertainty about SNH’s proposed role. If the publication has been initiated ‘top down’ there is a risk that the spirit of partnership that SNH wishes to promote across the range of agencies and organisations that SNH has identified as stakeholders may not be furthered by the documents. Partnership implies equals working together, and most organisations are keen to engage in their own agenda setting.

Specific comments on the Overview and different National Prospectuses are addressed below:


The Overview document ‘The Diversity of Scotland’s Natural Heritage’ is a wide-ranging and aspirational paper on sustainable development, encompassing the challenge of integrating local sustainability with the wider global sustainability. The statement ‘We need better stewardship of our own resources without imposing inequitable demands on people and natural resources outside Scotland’ (para. 13) sets a national standard that few developed countries aspire to - and even fewer manage to achieve. The document, however, has very little detail on the nature of and reasons for the 21 National Heritage Zones, and there would have been merit in providing a summary of the salient characteristics and scientific justification of the individual Zones.

In terms of some specific points:

  • In paragraph 1, mention could be made of the high productivity of Scottish waters, the fjordic ecosystems of the west coast that introduce deep-water elements into nearshore waters, and the rich and varied fish stocks that are so much under threat. It is this richness and diversity that is the basis for the great importance of the seas and coasts around Scotland.
  • In paragraph 15, it should be emphasised that "Technological Advances" include the ability to fish previously abundant stocks to economic extinction. At the end of paragraph 15, reference is also made to ‘decreasing soil fertility’. However, there is little evidence that there has been any recent-timesloss of soil fertility in Scotland which has not been caused by the economics of agriculture and the associated reductions in fertiliser application (including lime).
  • Mention is also made (Box 1) of the paucity of marine data. While much remains to be discovered, Scotland with its long-established Marine Stations, Universities and Fisheries Laboratories has a long history of marine research and observation and is far from lacking in marine data.

Coasts and Seas

The summary (paragraph 3) could make reference to the human demands of shipping, energy and other mineral resource exploitation, pipeline and tele-communication usage, military requirements, and renewable energy possibilities. It might also be mentioned that the key objectives and issues identified in para 5 are not in order of priority, but all are important.

Description of the Natural Heritage
With regard to the description of bird populations on high cliffs, if the rare petrel colonies referred to involve Leach’s Petrel, it should be noted that this bird is not rare internationally, with an estimated world population of 7-9 million pairs. The paragraph also gives the impression that the puffin is confined to the Isle of May and Rum. However, the majority of breeding puffins are in Shetland. In addition, raised beaches and their fragile marshland habitats should get special mention as many continue to be damaged by drainage and poor farm management.

Key Influences
The key issues affecting the coasts and seas of Scotland have been noted and, in the main, addressed. Some specific comments include:

  • In terms of the threat of alien species, no mention is made of mink, which can destroy ground nesting seabird colonies such as those of terns on a large scale in some areas of Scotland. Another (botanical) example could be the spread of sea buckthorn in certain dune systems. Some mention, here or later, should be made of the need to control rat populations on islands and islets. These have had significant effects on the breeding success of a number of sea-birds and are a major conservation problem.
  • In terms of coastal aquaculture, mention might be made of the conflicts that arise as a result of predator control at fish and shellfish farms, and of the harvesting of algae for food and for the alginate industry.
  • On the topic of fisheries, paragraph 60 mentions that some seabird populations have been ‘unbalanced’ by fisheries discards. However, the evidence supporting the suggestion that discards have played a role in the population increases of some species, is not strong.
    * With regard to estimates of the size of sustainable yields for the exploitation of new species, a lot of research has been conducted in this area and reference should be made to acting upon this existing knowledge as well as to the need for new research.
  • In terms of the oil and gas industries, mention could be made of the continued deposition of oil residues in coastal habitats (in addition to significant spills), and the impact of major on-shore developments which have destroyed or modified important coastal habitats (e.g. by pipe-line landfalls and crossings).
  • With respect to alternative energy sources, it should be noted that these technologies are not without their own environmental impact. For example, off-shore wind generators could pose a threat to migratory birds in certain areas. Tidal power is also dismissed a little too readily as not all tidal power systems require the use of tidal barrages.

The proposed vision is sound, but in order to be achieved in 25 years will require adequate funding and a lot of National and International agreement.

The objectives address the key issues and, for the most part, are appropriate. The proposed actions are also relevant and will need to be taken up quickly if the vision is to be achieved. In particular the RSE would support further research and development on the ‘soft engineering’ approach to sea defence, and on the establishment of Integrated Coastal Zone Management and marine protected areas.

In terms of specific comments, it is not clear how wildfowling on intertidal mudflats (para. 99) can be expected to contribute to the 'physical integrity and high biodiversity of these habitats'.

Key Stakeholders
Additional key stakeholders, could include the British Geological Survey who are responsible for creating and maintaining the earth-science databases for Scotland, both on- and off-shore. The data and staff resources available in Murchison House, Edinburgh could be engaged with advantage in many of the actions and associated research projects envisaged, especially in the context of the physical and chemical properties of the sediments and rocks on the coast and beneath the sea, with particular reference to pollution, engineering and stability matters. Other potential stakeholders include Oil Companies and Coastguards.

Forests and Woodland

Key Influences
With regard to climate change, the importance of tree cover in carbon sequestration is recognised in the document but care must be taken that this role does not subvert the need to maintain other habitats which are important for biodiversity.

While accepting the main components of the Vision, it is over-optimistic as a vision for 2025. This is inherent in the long time-scale for forest re-growth, expansion and even for the creation of new 'native' woods by planting.

The list of objectives appears to list things which should already be being undertaken, although inherent in much of this section is the need for imaginative planning on a large scale, for example river catchment planning. In terms of specific comments, mention could be made of the interaction between forest and woodland expansion and archaeological interests, and the use of some types of woodland for the cultivation of edible fungi.

Key Stakeholders
Possible additional stakeholders include the Game Conservancy Trust and the National Trust for Scotland.

Mountains and Moorland

In the section on geology and geological history, more could be made of Scotland's special alpine and sub alpine soils, and the section on global position and climate should make mention of the effects of the North Atlantic Drift.
In terms of the 'Upland Vegetation' section, mention could be made of Montane Grasslands which are important, especially on the more base-rich mountains, and in terms of bird fauna, special mention could be made of the recolonisation of Scotland by the Osprey.

Key Influences
In terms of wider social change, the challenges of switching the mountain and moorland areas of Scotland to a knowledge-based economy are substantial and will be difficult to achieve within a generation. Reference could also be made to the need for effective education programmes (for both young people and adults) to increase awareness of the natural and cultural heritage.

In general a sound approach and a good, realistic set of aims. The section on climate change might mention the possible loss or contraction of area, of some of the rare arctic-alpine plants as a result of climatic warming (not just those associated with late snow beds).

In general the Objectives seem comprehensive and appropriate, and the Actions also acceptable. In terms of Objective 2, 'to secure improved diversity, and good condition of Scotland's upland habitats (and their fauna)…', the objective should refer to both flora and fauna. Mention could also be made of the need to maintain and even improve biodiversity in these important areas.

Key Stakeholders
Possible additional stakeholders include Aberdeen University and the National Trust for Scotland.


In the summary of this prospectus it is implied that that it is unacceptable to have ‘polarised farming’. However, there is likely to be support for the idea that high production systems (while sacrificing some biodiversity) are kept in selected areas and simultaneously support the smaller farms (which may or may not be more bio-diverse and may or may not be less economic). This is the case in France, Germany, Spain and other EU countries.

Key Influences
In terms of the key influences, specific comments include:

  • Mention should be made of the need for a well-integrated transport system (sea, inshore, road, rail and air) in order to facilitate rural businesses such as agriculture and tourism.
  • With reference to the overriding agricultural policies, it should be recognised that agriculture is a mature industry in most of Europe, and that the number of people employed in mature industries will decline as economic efficiency increases. Therefore, the decline in the number of people working in agriculture is a natural economic trend and should be recognised as such. There should also have been associated growth in the value-added activities further along the manufacturing and retailing chain, but this has been the area in which Scotland’s rural performance has been weak.
  • In terms of Paragraph 45, the statement that contract ploughing, planting and harvesting or taking advice from consultants ‘runs counter to the inherited traditions of land management and the sense of stewardship’ could be contested. Most of the ‘land stewards’ of the last century were substantial landowners who would never have been behind a plough or have driven a harvester.
  • The paragraph on soil structure and composition gives the impression that soil compaction and erosion are major problems in Scotland. There is little evidence that this is the case.
  • With reference to consumers, trends over the past few years show that consumers are interested in value for money not price per se. In addition, there is no evidence for a sustained consumer willingness to place environmental standards high on their list of value for money measures.

The vision suggested is somewhat vague. The idea of locally-based food-processing is attractive but is unlikely to be achieved to a significant extent and there is no mention of the economic environment that could ensure its success. In terms of specific comments:

  • In terms of public support for agriculture, there will be a progressive move down the route of unsubsidised agricultural production, but it will take fully the 25 years that this vision covers. However, the consequences of that will be the two-tier type of farming that the paper envisages. It is inevitable that those farmers who are going to compete in an unsubsidised market will be big, highly efficient and geared to providing competitive, high-quality, value for money products. The remainder will be niche players, on a local basis, or hobby farmers.
  • With regard to wildlife habitat, the idea that farmers will receive most of their financial support from the State for managing 15% of their land is difficult to understand in economic terms, unless the total amount of subsidy is very small. If the latter assumption is the case it conflicts with the remainder of the vision of subsidy for environmental farming.
  • In terms of organic farming, it should be noted that organic farming in the UK is not a sustainable development. Reductions in yield which result from organic farming on any scale would increase the UK’s environmental footprint elsewhere in the world, making demands on other peoples’ land resources. In addition, the economic viability of the approach is dependent on maintaining a market premium to offset the higher costs of production and lower yields. If the scale of UK organic farming was substantially increased, prices would fall, making organic farms economically unsustainable.
  • With regard to quality production, in all modern developed economies the largest 20% of farms produce 80% of the agricultural product. Likewise some 80% of the retailing is in the hands of a few major supermarkets, which demand scale in produce supply. Thus the notion that the group of small farmers envisaged in these paragraphs will set the ‘backbone’ for quality food is unrealistic. With luck they may be able to create a local market niche through farmers markets or small local retailers, but their impact on the mass market is likely to be limited. All UK market surveys show that the consumers’ perceptions of quality relate to cleanliness, convenience, range of choice, value for money etc – the features that are associated with the large multiple retailers.

The objectives are comprehensive and address the key issues. The actions suggested all look quite familiar and in general are promoted by the Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department, via the Scottish Agricultural College and other organisations including SNH. Furthermore, they form part of most courses in rural topics (including agriculture, rural resource management etc) taught in the further education and higher education sectors to Scottish farmers and employees of rural businesses both past and present. Thus most farmers who have been to college or attended advisory, open days in-service training courses will be familiar with most of these.

What is lacking in the documents is any hard economic assessment of the implication of these proposals for the taxpayer, the nation, and farm and rural business incomes - specifically, the effect of reduced yields, coupled with reduced inputs, on farm business incomes. There appears to be a fundamental conflict in approach between the underlying message of free market operation (‘no subsidies for production’) and the regulated cross-compliance suggested here. Large efficient farmers who are directing their efforts at the ‘real’ market may well be prepared to do without subsidy for the freedom of action a free market would offer. This would again lead to a two-tier agricultural approach.

Fresh Waters

Key Influences
With regard to climate change, mention could be made of the backing-up effects of higher sea levels on rivers and estuaries. The ever increasing demands for recreation are also likely to be one of the most serious factors affecting the freshwater environment.

The vision is again optimistic. As far as irrigation is concerned the need will certainly increase but this is likely to be overshadowed by the demand for water in new housing developments. The need to control water use more effectively will be vitally important. Mention could also be made of the possible future demand for water supply to England, as changing weather patterns may well result in significant changes in water needs and distribution in the U.K, as a whole.

Key Influences
In terms of business development, there is no doubt that a knowledge-based economy should make it possible and easier for companies to locate outwith the main cities. However, it has also been shown that businesses tend to cluster, setting up their offices in the cities, where there are existing businesses.

With regard to developing ‘self-contained’ sustainable settlements, where work opportunities, production of goods and retailing are all on a local basis are likely to be countered by ease of communication, transport and travel, together with the globalisation of the economy. For the kinds of settlements envisaged to develop would require a reversal of the economic development trends of the last 300 years.

Key Stakeholders
A possible additional stakeholder would be the National Trust for Scotland.
Additional Information
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject:


  • Towards a Development Strategy for Rural Scotland (March 1998)
    Foresight for Agriculture, Horticulture & Forestry report on Forestry and Wood Products (January 1999)
  • Non-Food Crops (May 1999)
  • A Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture (September 2000)Conservation
  • National Parks for Scotland (November 1998)
  • People and Nature: A new Approach to SSSI Designations in Scotland (November 1998)
  • National Scenic Areas Review (April 1999)
  • EU policy on Biodiversity (May 1999)
  • National Parks (Scotland) Bill (March 2000)
  • A Proposal for a Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park (February 2001)
  • Proposal for a Cairngorms National Park (April 2001)
  • The Nature of Scotland: A Policy Statement (May 2001)
  • The Sixth Environmental Action Programme (May 2001)


  • New and Renewable Energy (May 1999)
  • House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry into wave and tidal energy (February 2001)Economy
  • Developing Scotland’s Clusters (June 1999)
  • A Framework for Economic Development in Scotland (March 2000)Environmental Planning
  • Study of Environmental Planning (October 1999)
  • Royal Commission Study of Environmental Planning (July 2000)Freshwater
  • Conservation of Salmon and Sea Trout (August 2000)
  • Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries (August 2000)Fisheries
  • The Future of the Common Fisheries Policy (June 2001).


  • Developing Scotland’s Clusters (June 1999)
  • A Framework for Economic Development in Scotland (March 2000)

Environmental Planning

  • Study of Environmental Planning (October 1999)
  • Royal Commission Study of Environmental Planning (July 2000)


  • Conservation of Salmon and Sea Trout (August 2000)
  • Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries (August 2000)


  • The Future of the Common Fisheries Policy (June 2001).


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