The Nature of Scotland: A Policy Statement
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Executive Environment Group consultation on The Nature of Scotland: A Policy Statement. 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 conservation and the environment.
Overall, the Policy Statement is an excellent approach to a crucially important topic. Scotland's scenery
and wildlife are invaluable resources, which must be carefully conserved, even if looked at from a purely economic perspective. In particular, the Society welcomes the firm statement that Scottish Ministers should accept a specific duty to have regard to the conservation of biological diversity in the exercise of their duties. The Statement also represents an encouraging change of attitude in taking on board the fact that sustainable management of the natural heritage is essential for the whole population of Scotland and not just for specialist interests or particular sectors, and clearly recognises the problem of reconciling this goal with the legitimate interests of those whose livelihood depends on exploiting natural resources.
This policy review sets out an ambitious programme, but it is none the worse for that. Its main weakness, however, is that it tends to consist partly of a presentation of what has been achieved so far (much of which does deserve recognition) and partly a catalogue of good intentions and exhortations. In places, it could also be said to paint rather too rosy a picture of what has already been achieved. For example, while it may be true that protection of environmental quality, "is a key objective of planning policy across Scotland", this hides the ongoing struggle to persuade planning departments and Council committees in many places to pay due attention to environment or biodiversity when considering development proposals which involve jobs or the economy. Therefore, while overall the policy outline is fine, there is a great deal to be done to make it a practical programme and regular revision of the Policy, based on careful appraisal of its results, will be essential.
The specific issues identified in the policy statement are addressed below:
The main forms of land and water use in Scotland are agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It is important, therefore, that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is not viewed as being merely for the promotion of food production, but is seen, like forestry, to have at least dual aims, of producing food and of creating an environment in which we wish to live. The CAP has been partially reformed over the last few years, and the Society welcomes the advent of the Rural Development Regulation and the efforts of the Executive to influence CAP reform in the direction of ensuring that support for livestock in Less Favoured Areas should in future be paid on an area basis rather than per head of livestock.
Nevertheless, a number of farmland birds are still in serious decline, and in many parts of the uplands the signs of overgrazing by sheep and deer are very evident. The Society, therefore, supports the proposals on agricultural policy and agri-environment schemes and believes further use of the Rural Development Regulation, and revision of the CAP, should be undertaken.
The freshwater environment
The Society welcomes the focus on the freshwater environment. However, the document makes no mention of the need to conserve and protect low-lying non-acidic marshes and wetlands. These, through drainage and pollution, have become a much diminished habitat and their survival should be a matter of particular concern.
The marine environment
The marine environment is comprehensively treated and the willingness to consider proposals for Marine National Parks is to be welcomed. The ability of Local Authorities to judge the scientific and conservation issues when considering planning applications for new aquaculture activities, however, is questionable and the framework within which Local Authorities can operate needs to be tightly defined if they are not to be concerned solely with economic issues.
The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) also needs considerable revision. At the present time, the CFP is more focused on fisheries production, and needs to incorporate a conservation ethic, as well as a much more localised aspect to fisheries management. If the 12-mile limit is taken as the border of Scotland, around 42% of Scotland is covered by sea. Reform of the CFP will, therefore, be essential if the aims of 'The Nature of Scotland: a Policy Statement' are to be realised in the marine environment.
Policy Proposals on SSSIs
In general, the Society endorses the proposals for change in the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) system. The move away from large compensation payments towards provision of incentives for positive management is most welcome, as are the provisions to secure more effective protection for SSSls. Scotland has a varied and important natural heritage, and we need to be able to do everything we can to maintain that importance.
The RSE also supports the recent Royal Society report into the future of SSSIs, and in particular the importance of involving the scientific community in all aspects of protecting the UK's biodiversity, particularly in reviewing marine biodiversity. In addition, far less attention has been paid to groups of organisms such as fungi, soil micro-organisms and small invertebrates, even though these groups can have a profound influence on the ecosystems in which they occur.
The Society welcomes the statement that the criteria for designation of SSSIs are not to be changed. With regard to the proposal to devise supplementary Scottish guidelines for the selection of SSSIs, the GB guidelines already include, where appropriate, specific reference to the Scottish situation. If there were supplementary Scottish guidelines, care would be needed to ensure the two sets of guidelines 'mesh' with each other, and that the GB guidelines were not weakened.
The proposal to involve the local community as key stakeholders in consultation before designation is also welcome. In the past, ignoring local views and failing to convince local communities of the merit of designation has sometimes led to conflict. However, care will be needed to streamline procedures as far as possible and avoid the consultation process becoming overly lengthy.
The Society also supports the proposal to produce a draft management statement before designation. However, if there is a management contract with a landowner, consideration should be given as to how the contract should carry over from one ownership to another; for example on the sale of the land, or on the death of the landowner. One possibility would be the concept of a conservation contract being included as one of the burdens on the land. Given the legal nature of the SSSI documentation, it will be important that, in moving towards a new system, the protection of the land when it changes hands is not compromised.
The broadened franchise for challenging designation is to be welcomed but the definition of a competent scientific challenge needs to be spelled out much more thoroughly in terms of judging whether any challenge envisaged is ‘competent’ and who is to nominate, and set up, the ‘independent scientific panel’. The RSE would be willing to offer its assistance in this matter if required.
Positive management of SSSIs
Given the pre-designation consultation machinery outlined in the proposal, a tight and widely agreed Management Plan for new SSSIs should be drawn up. However, for existing SSSIs, a number of which may be becoming degraded, similar stakeholder consultation is not specified in the proposal. Changes to more positive management will require to be made with sensitivity, often because the landowner will see this as an additional cost burden. The availability of ‘conservation contract’ support from Scottish Natural Heritage is therefore welcomed as a means of augmenting and complementing the Rural Stewardship Scheme (RSS) and other agri-environment schemes.
Consultation with SNH
The Society supports the move to remove an overly long list of potentially damaging operations (PDO’s) from SSSI notifications, which cannot be undertaken without consulting SNH. However, their simplification makes it particularly important that Management Plans are always carefully thought out, and that Environmental Impact Assessments are always fully and effectively undertaken. The arrangements for the right to appeal against a decision by SNH to refuse permission for an operation, however, were somewhat vague, and specific guidelines should be provided on who will constitute the appeals body, and what their remit will be in regard to balancing conservation against economic interests.
The abandonment of the scheme to reward landowners for not undertaking PDO’s is also welcomed. In relation to the built heritage, owners of listed building have been able to do very little to their properties, and have not been compensated for this fact. However, up to now people have been compensated for not changing land or water use; in other words, compensated for not destroying the natural heritage. It has been an anomaly that the built heritage has had such different rules from the natural heritage. This legislation will, therefore, move the natural heritage nearer to legislative arrangements for built heritage.
The Society welcomes the reserve powers through Land Management Orders, although it is to be hoped that with the new positive management arrangements such Orders will seldom be required.
The Society gives its full support to the proposals for wildlife crime law reform, with greater powers for effective deterrence, detection and punishment of wildlife crime. Especially welcome in this context is the proposal to give the Courts the discretion to impose custodial sentences where appropriate, which should introduce a more effective deterrent than the present level of fines. However, the term of up to 6 months may prove to be too short given the major financial rewards for egg and fledgling crimes relating to birds of prey.
The Society supports the proposal to introduce the offence of "recklessness" acts of destruction and disturbance, in addition to intentional acts, together with proposals to improve the protection of Capercaillie, given the Scottish populations continuing downward trend. Legislation in relation to snares is also welcome, although the requirement of an inspection of snares every 24 hours may not be sufficient. The paper is right to indicate that animals could die of starvation or slow strangulation in periods longer than that, but even in periods shorter than 24 hours there could also be problems of dehydration or hypothermia.
The Society also welcomes the changes in relation to offences regarding plants, and the importance of being able to use DNA analyses in the investigation and detection of wildlife crime. It should, however, be noted that Fungi and Algae are not plants, under current botanical nomenclature, and the scheduling should recognise this.
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: 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); Study of Environmental Planning (October 1999); National Parks (Scotland) Bill (March 2000); Royal Commission Study of Environmental Planning (July 2000); Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries (August 2000); A Proposal for a Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park (February 2001); Proposal for a Cairngorms National Park (April 2001) and the Sixth Environmental Action Programme (May 2001).