Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Wildlife conservation: complacency and certainty

This blog originated as a presentation at the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Biodiversity conference one year ago in October 2017: Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity. Originally, Professor Pat Monaghan and I examined complacency and uncertainty in wildlife conservation today. But as we wrote it, we realised the uncertainty was in fact a certainty….

Scotland’s image in the rest of the world is very much formulated on its wild landscape and abundant and ubiquitous wildlife. Yet this image sits uncomfortably with a number of assessments on the health of wildlife and ecosystems in Scotland: Scotland’s National Ecosystem Assessment (2014), Scotland’s position on the Biodiversity Intactness Index (Science 2016), or the State of Nature assessment (2016). In all these measures our native wildlife is neither abundant nor ubiquitous. Furthermore, Scotland has what is considered world leading legislation for wildlife.  Yet this legislative framework is not delivering nature conservation. And this is in the context of increasing uncertainty- the physical uncertainty of climate change and the political uncertainty of Brexit. What needs to change if we are to restore and maintain our wild landscapes, and their wildlife?

What’s happening today?

The State of Nature report (2016) illustrated that in Scotland

Over the long term, 54% of vascular plant species declined & 46% increased.  Same over the short term.
39% of butterfly species declined & 61% increased over the long term. Over the short term, 26% of species declined & 74% increased.
Over the long term, 44% of bird species declined & 56% increased. Over the short term, 54% declined & 46% increased.
Of nearly 6,000 species known to occur in Scotland that have been assessed using modern Red List criteria, 520 (9%) are at risk of extinction from GB.

46,000 species live in Scotland: only 2.3% of them (1,079 species) were assessed for this report. Of that 2.3% assessed against IUCN criteria, 9% are at risk of extinction. The real rate of extinction is unknown.
What is more, this risk isn’t evenly spread: some species groups are declining faster than others.

Let’s look at butterflies for example, for which we have an excellent data set in the UK: the 2000 Atlas of Butterflies in the UK was produced by 20,000 recorders who gathered 15,000,000 records. These data illustrated that over the previous 40 years 71% of butterflies had declined. More recently, in 2011, 72% of butterfly species had decreased in abundance over the previous 10 years and 76% decreased in distribution or abundance.

Elsewhere in the extinction debate, data are reflecting that 54% of birds have declined and 28% of plants have declined. There are 33% fewer butterflies than 10 years ago. However, of those species monitored, invertebrates are bearing the brunt of the extinction crisis.

Does this matter? Are all species equal and are all species valuable? When are species valueless? What about the invaluable? Does ‘value’ even matter?

One such example are the fungi. Fungi, the fifth kingdom, is a mix of poorly understood, little appreciated, often misinterpreted organisms with a very wide range of morphologically, anatomies, sexual and asexual activities and life-styles brought together by a unique but common use of food sources. They are indeed fundamental to the well-being of the planet especially in their ability to decay complex substances and take part in innumerable symbiotic interactions with other organisms both plant and animal, especially mycorrhizas which ensure the health and well-being of our forests, the lungs of earth. Their activities have been enhanced for the production of both essential and luxury foods and drinks and many pharmaceuticals and other medical applications. (Roy Watling, 2017 pers. Comm.)


Yet even just their role in woodlands, as mycelia providing access to nutrients for trees, should not be underestimated. Around 90% of land plants rely on a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi for survival. One mycorrhizal fungus is the chanterelle, often found in birch woods. This particular mushroom cannot be cultivated and birch trees use it to gather nutrients. Can we place a value on that? In 2017, a kilo of chanterelles cost roughly £35.00 per kilo; how much of the value of a piece of birch or beech does a chanterelle contribute? In 2013, one cubic metre of birch and beech was valued at £1120- £1341 (Scottish Wood Ltd): it’s impossible to tell what percentage of that value is owed to mycorrhizal fungi, except for the fact that without these fungi, trees cannot grow. And then, how much is the thrill of finding a chanterelle worth? It is invaluable.
If we try and value species, does that benefit nature conservation? It is one element underpinning the ecosystem approach to nature conservation. There is an argument that the ecosystem approach runs the risk of commodifing habitats and species. For example, Kleijn et al (2015) have calculated the value of wild bee pollination at $3,000 per hectare of insect-pollinated agricultural land. They also show that of 20,000 known bee species, c.2% pollinated 80 % of crops. Does this mean that the remaining 98% of bees are valueless? No.
Instead other research has shown that apparent duplication of function within ecosystems is essential to ecosystem health. This apparent duplication enables other species to take over ecosystem roles when more abundant species decline. This can safeguard ecosystem functions and ecosystem health.

What about edge of range species? How important are they? Should we allow edge of range species to go extinct? If we take the example of the red billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), this bird has been studied since 1981 by Scottish Chough Study group from Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities and SCRI. The red billed chough has a wide temperate distribution and is on the edge of its northern range in Scotland. It is also used as a key indicator of health of pastoral agricultural systems. Today, it is threatened by climate and land-use change in UK: of these threats, land use is probably more important. Land use changes on Islay for example, including the loss of cattle and an increase in barley growing have happened alongside the declines in chough populations. The issues the bird populations suffer from include blindness, resulting from inbreeding, parasites, food shortages from land use and climate change. This has resulted in emergency supplementary feeding programmes.
This provides good scientific basis available to form appropriate policy on land use. However, policy makers are slow to take action. While SNH have now funded population viability analysis at Aberdeen University, what is clearly needed are scientifically informed decisions and a comprehensive land use strategy.

Another example is climate change and tree diseases, which are knocking out entire species eg elm and now perhaps ash. These alkaline barked trees are home to some of our rarest and most diverse bryophyte populations. With Scotland being home to 60% of the European Bryophyte flora and 5% of the global flora, the impact of these habitat losses is significant. Should we perhaps accept therefore that sycamore, while it brings some ecological issues, represents nonetheless a habitat in which some of these bryophyte communities could survive?

So what are we doing?
Scotland has what could be considered world leading legislation for wildlife through our Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and our Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act (2011). There is yet further potential to lead in nature conservation through the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy (2004), its Challenge 2020 roadmap (2013) and the Scottish Land Use Strategy (2011) and the Pollinator Strategy (2017). Yet this legislative framework is not delivering nature conservation. And this is in the context of increasing uncertainty- the physical uncertainty of climate change and the political uncertainty in Brexit.

What needs to change and what lessons can we learn and implement from elsewhere in the world?
We need to value the invaluable. And we need to value species diversity in a global context. We perhaps need to value non-native species where they fill vacant ecological niches but we still need to identify future ecologically damaging non-native species. We need to halt ongoing extinctions and declines in order to conserve and restore ecologically robust ecosystems. And to do all this, we absolutely need to implement effective and robust policy.
Even the World Economic Forum has realised we need to do more and change our approach.

A key mechanism to start to achieve this is galvanising public and building the political will to act. We need to build up ambition and investment in our environment to protect Scotland’s habitats and wildlife for generations yet unborn. Scotland’s Environment Strategy may pave the way for some progress – but only if it is able to address the real issues facing nature conservation and only if it, alongside Scotland’s existing legislation, is implemented.

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Forget about designer handbags – designer weeds are the future

How resilient are we? The world is changing dramatically – not just politically but socially and environmentally too.

Resilience to change is becoming increasingly important, especially in environmental terms. We need to build the resilience of our environment, and our ecosystems, so that we can cope with ongoing changes in climate.

The thing is that until we find a solution, communities across the world, both human and natural, are going to continue to suffer the impact of extreme events as they happen, often with unpredictable consequences. We’re losing the ability of our environment to absorb shocks and insulate us from flood events, drought events, soil erosion and oceanic warming.

This isn’t an abstract fear: forest fires in France, cleaving of the Larsen C ice shelf, bleaching of the Great Barrier reef corals, declines in seabird populations in Scotland: they are all linked directly to climate change.

An obvious solution is to ensure we have diverse ecosystems. A diverse system is a robust system. Simplified systems and monocultures are all too susceptible to outbreaks of disease and severe climatic fluctuations. Yet species and habitat loss continues across the world to the extent that global biodiversity is no longer within safe limits and continued loss will threaten the planet’s ability to support humans and wildlife (Science, July 2016). Even in the UK, The National Ecosystem Assessments across the UK and the State of Nature reports, reflect the loss of species diversity and habitat simplification. Just as we should be protecting our species and habitat diversity, the opposite is happening.

A timely piece of work then for the new Diversify project, where the crop diversity work at the James Hutton Institute, provided a welcome space last Friday to discuss these issues and how agriculture might help.

Research shows that diverse crop mixtures increase resilience to disease and increase productivity at the same time. In addition there may be a benefit in reducing inputs, such as pesticides and fertiliser, the research on this is less clear to date. But that seems to be reflecting a lack of data rather than anything else.

What’s more, recent greenhouse trials have shown that increasing crop diversity reduces number of weeds and niche space available to weeds. So if increasing diversity in crop mixtures increases crop productivity and reduces the number of common weeds, could we develop crop and native plant mixtures to suppress common weeds, increase crop productivity and conserve native plants all at the same time?

If diversity can promote diversity – could diversity increase resilience by protecting key ecological relationships? And if it could, what role and value is there for native biodiversity?

What, for example, is the role of rare arable plants? Arable plants make up one of the fastest disappearing plant communities across the UK. Weeds that were once common in fields, corn flowers and corn marigolds for example, are now something that catch the eye because we see them so rarely. Could these plants, by taking up some of the habitat niche, limit the space for more common, and arguably less welcome, weeds? It seems unlikely, although the research would be useful. What they can do, however, is provide a nectar and pollen source for beneficial insects – both pollinators and predators, that increase crop productivity. We could, therefore, design, or encourage, native plant communities that provide the benefits to invertebrates and ecological resilience while, at the same time, increasing crop productivity? It seems counter intuitive but the evidence is not pointing away from that.

Research is showing that weed diversity benefits crop biomass. It is heartening is that this is being actively explored and the solution of increasing diversity to build resilience is becoming clearer. With the link to increased productivity as well as more resilient ecosystems, we are building a natural capital argument for agricultural subsidies that support nature not only to ensure nature remains in it full glory for future generations but also because farmers get healthier and more productive crops, while building a more resilient environment.

Is that not a win win? More useful than a designer handbag?

Testing times, testing biodiversity

Last week, there was a debate in the Scottish Parliament on biodiversity. It started with the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform saying:
Given that the natural environment is worth more than £20 billion per annum to our economy and supports more than 60,000 direct jobs, I welcome the opportunity to lead this brief parliamentary debate on something that we too often take for granted. We should celebrate our biodiversity, but we should also be alert and we should be acting to address challenges and issues.
This is exactly the sort of leadership that I’ve been hoping to see from the Cabinet Secretary. I was delighted.
How did we get here?
In November 2016, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee wrote to the Cabinet Secretary following their roundtable discussion on biodiversity. They raised the question of the lack of clarity in action which is frustrating the step change we all need to see in conserving Scotland’s nature. Since then, there was a detailed written response from the Cabinet Secretary, the debate last Thursday and what looked suspiciously like cross party commitment to deliver for biodiversity.
So where are we going?
Over the last 6 years, the NGOs, specialist societies and academic institutions have worked with volunteers and staff to assess what is happening with biodiversity in Scotland and throughout the UK. This work has been published in the series of report on the State of Nature. Two reports later, this system is now identifying trends:
• One in 10 bird species faces extinction
• 13% of plant species face extinction
• Seabird numbers over the last 30 years have declined by 40%
• 14% of our ancient woodland has been lost over the past four decades.
• More than 30 per cent of native woodland is in poor condition.

Now is the time, as we heard in Thursday’s parliamentary debate: The time for talking up targets is over. It is time for action from all of us. Maurice Golden, MSP (Conservative) 9 March 2017.
With 9% of Scotland’s species at risk of extinction, the State of Nature report shows us all is not well. We are all witnesses to the decline in species diversity across Scotland: you need to know where to go to see a woodland full of native bluebells, or where to experience that wonderful scent of fragrant orchids, or where to watch otters fishing.
But it is not just about declining species. The State of Nature also measures our Biodiversity Intactness Index. Scotland is ranked in the lowest fifth of countries on the biodiversity intactness index: our ecosystems have fallen below the point at which they can reliably meet society’s needs.
So – it’s about biodiversity at all scales…. Let me introduce a biodiversity metaphor:


In April 2015, scientists sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth from frozen samples released from the tundra.
If you are building a woolly mammoth do you start with making something big and grey? Is that how you rebuild a woolly mammoth? No, you need to start from its DNA and work upwards. It’s the same with conserving and rebuilding ecosystems: start with the small stuff and build them into something much bigger. We need to conserve species and join habitats into ecologically functional networks. Networks that live and breathe and are not just big.
To coin a phrase, we need More, bigger, better, joined (The Lawton report 2010).

worth more than a penny…

Let’s put it another way: how do you conserve the Scottish primrose: build a fence around each tiny individual? Or work together to conserve its habitat. Work with land managers to conserve its habitat of course. We need to work at multiple scale and in partnership. To achieve success, we need to work together. We need to draw on effort, expertise and focus from the NGOs and academic institutes and on funding, collaboration and control (on destructive activities) from government. By control, I mean of course, we need government to control the destructive land management practices that are leading to habitat loss and fragmentation and to hand control to land managers over how they manage the land to achieve healthy ecosystems and healthy land for future generations.
That’s how we will conserve biodiversity: our species and our habitats.
And how do we do that?
The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives, because there is a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants… Sir David Attenborough
I have to say that going on the speeches in last week’s debate, our politicians are in front. The debate clearly showed that the Scottish Parliament is up for action. They have asked Scottish Natural Heritage to lead on delivering Scotland’s biodiversity targets. The Cabinet Secretary says they have increased resources towards meeting that leadership role. And she has asked the NGOs for a collective view on what a National Ecological networks should comprise.

We need to build up ambition and investment in our environment to protect Scotland’s habitats and wildlife for generations yet unborn. David Stewart, MSP (Labour). 9 March 2017
I believe we should all shoulder responsibility for improving and maintaining Scotland’s biodiversity. That means getting together and finding practical and workable solutions to problems, being willing to work in partnership…and ….putting aside sectoral differences. Roseanna Cunningham MSP (SNP), Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. 9 March 2017

If we are serious about saving the rhinoceros, restoring a woolly mammoth or even just conserving the Scottish primrose, now is the time to act.

North coast grassland with Mountain avens