Glacial features to boggy land – Scotland’s hero habitats

Andy Dorin ,
10 Oct 2019

Andy Dorin is Scottish Natural Heritage’s Head of Protected Areas and Surveillance. Here he discusses how Scotland’s world-class habitats and more mundane ones are doing good things for people and wildlife and the important role land owners and managers play.

When asked to write a guest SLE blog to celebrate World Habitats Day, which took place on 7 October, I conjured up pictures of the lush temperate rainforest habitats of the West Coast dripping with lichens, kelp forests bobbing off rocky shores, and the musty smell and red hue of misty Caledonian pine forests. A good start - but only partly right as it turns out that each year, the United Nations designate the first Monday of October as World Habitat Day to support the organisation’s mission towards positively transforming our cities and towns. 

Mental and physical wellbeing
SNH is very involved in greening our cities and towns, helping build what we call “green infrastructure”. This is very much about people as there is more and more evidence that this doesn’t just make more attractive places to live, but actually tangibly improves people’s mental and physical health: encouraging them to walk and cycle, improving air quality, attracting investment and bringing many other benefits.

But that is mainly someone else’s job, while mine is to lead the team responsible for over 1800 protected areas for Nature across Scotland. These include 1400+ Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the European Natura sites (many of which are designated for their habitats). These sites vary hugely in size: the smallest, a glacial feature is Clochodrick Stone, only a few metres across; the largest is the Cairngorms, a massive 29,227 ha. They cover natural habitats from the seashore to our highest mountain top. It’s a huge privilege as they include some of the most wonderful areas in Scotland – even though I don’t escape from the office as much as I would like.  

Role of landowners
With over 1800 sites there is also no way we can visit all the sites every year or even more than every few years, so we are very dependent on landowners and managers as partners to help us look after these sites. For the main, that means continuing with the management that made these sites so good for nature in the first place. While management agreements and agri-environment schemes are available when needed, looking after sites every day is inevitably very much up to the person on the ground. Whether this is mending fences to keep stock out (or in!), avoiding poaching and water pollution, or managing deer grazing, to give just three examples. 

Whether you own or manage a protected area, or simply are interested in what sites are in your locality, our Sitelink website has lots of resources to help you and can take you to maps and relevant documents. You can also find out whether a site has been assessed as in good condition for the features it is designated for. 

Legislation can often make things appear bureaucratic and any SSSI owner should be aware of the network’s regulatory framework. But we really are committed to making things as straight forward as possible. The key to good relations is always dialogue. SNH Area staff are always willing to talk through your own changing management requirements. Don’t forget, we will always be happy to also discuss ways in which you can alter aspects of your management to improve the site.  

Five threats to nature
An International Report (the so-called IBESS report) recently received prominence by setting out on the parlous state of nature across the globe. It identified five direct global threats to nature:

  • unsympathetic changes in land use 
  • over-exploitation of natural resources
  • pollution of water, air and land
  • invasive, non-native species
  • climate change – a driver in its own right, but also important because it makes the other problems worse. 

While some of the more global challenges, such as burning of the Amazon forest may not be Scottish problems, these key five threats are still applicable in Scotland and we continue to face biodiversity loss nationally. Protected areas are part of the answer to these problems. As well as giving nature safe refuge, natural habitats are important cleansers of air and water, sequesters of carbon, and minimisers of flooding and erosion. Indeed, they may be key to the challenge of net zero farming by 2045. 

Unsung heroes 
That said, protected areas aren’t the whole solution. That unsung boggy area, wet ditch or patch of nettles are all someone’s or something’s home! Scotland’s nature depends on these unsung habitats as much as those recognised by designation. If the former decline, populations become smaller, fragmented and genetically isolated.  That is why we are encouraging farmers and other land managers to work with us to help develop local ecological networks between protected areas. And these natural areas have the potential to bring very practical benefits too. For example, expanding woodland along upland tributaries is essential if our rivers are to remain viable for salmon, and natural habitats can store carbon in soils and standing crop, contributing positively to an estate’s carbon budget. 

So there is plenty to celebrate every year on World Habitats Day. Scotland has iconic world-class habitats and more mundane ones too, both doing good things for people and wildlife. Scotland has a network of protected areas that represents a partnership between land managers and SNH, contributing to positive land use. Plus new opportunities to make more space for nature bringing practical benefits for both wildlife and the land.

Pictured: Garbh Coire from Macdui courtesy of SNH.