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Scottish Natural Heritage has just published a state-of-the-union-style address surveying Scotland's countryside and seas. Here Colin Wells sifts the stats to find the good - and bad - news about the health of the nation's natural history.

SNH's new flagship publication, Natural Heritage Trends, is a statistical cornucopia of all things environmental, the range of which belies the staggering scale of the remit which Scottish Natural Heritage - with fewer than 600 staff - is expected to cover.

It includes everything from hard rock geology to marine nature reserves; ancient woodlands to agri-environment schemes; light pollution to access and recreation - in fact just about everything outside your front door.

Amidst the mass of data, headline statistics include the fact that 40% of native land mammals are thought to be in decline and 60% of farmland birds have ranges that are shrinking.

On the positive side, numbers of wintering wildfowl and wading birds have increased dramatically. Otters, meanwhile, have recolonised much of their former range thanks to improving water quality in their riverine habitat, while SNH is pressing ahead with its plans for a limited reintroduction of the long-extinct beaver.

Turning to habitats, that speciality of the Highland landscape - heather moorland, witnessed a 23% decline in the post-war period, mainly due to agricultural reclamation and planting by commercial conifer forestry. This has continued in the past decade with a further loss of 5%.

However, numbers of hedges, which similarly suffered during agricultural expansion in the same period, appear to be stable, or even recovering, with signs that some 'relict' or partly grubbed-up hedges are showing re-growth, possibly as a result of agricultural recession.

But it is in the North Sea that the ugliest statistics are prominent. The report indicates that it's not just the haddock and cod at your local chipper that's been receiving a battering. Of the twelve species of commercially exploited fish species for which reliable data are available, the populations of nine are now below safe biological limits.

Back on dry land, the eclectic nature of the survey is illustrated by an intriguing section highlighting the steep decline in rural 'tranquillity' - the ambient quality of country life defined by a lack of intrusive artificial lighting, the roar of traffic and other disturbance such as quarrying.

Based on a sample strip running along the A96 from Aberdeen to Inverness it has been shown that areas without night-time 'skyglow' have been reduced by three-quarters since the 1960s, and heavily urbanised areas have doubled in extent.

On a literally gloomy note, the report confirms what many of us have long suspected - Scotland is getting wetter and windier. Days with bright winter sunshine have declined since the 1970s - especially in western Scotland - while the wettest decade on record occurred in the 1990s. Days with gales are also on the increase and it's expected that by the first third of the century annual precipitation will be up 3-7%

However, those of us living in Aberdeenshire may be in for a rare surprise - it could be the only part of the country that bucks the trend and actually gets drier.

Although the scope of the study is impressive, it has to be said that on closer examination some of the data appears to be suspect. For example, it's stated that between 1990 and 1998 fen, marsh and swamp habitats increased in area by a startling 19%.

Although this might seem logical, what with all that extra rain we've been getting, the actual extent and distribution of these habitats has actually never been mapped with any accuracy in Scotland, making any estimate of changing status somewhat arbitrary.

Another section of the review confidently states that climate change has increased the amount of erosion of Scottish blanket bogs and implies that atmospheric pollution has damaged their vegetation.

In fact, no good evidence currently exists to prove these assertions, and they remain largely anecdotal in nature. Unfortunately, such examples of glib conjecture masquerading as scientific fact damage the authority of this good-looking and very accessible book.

Such caveats apart, it's fair to say that Natural Heritage Trends paints a broadly convincing and coherent picture of the state of Scotland's 'natural heritage' at the dawn of the 21st century.

It suggests a terrestrial environment whose natural resources are faring much better than those of its surrounding seas. Heightened public awareness, backed up by vigorous EU conservation initiatives mean that for most land habitats and species biodiversity, the future looks brighter than at any time since the seventeenth century.

In fact, it's not just the conservation of many semi-natural ecosystems, but their expansion that can be confidently predicted over the next few decades, thanks to deliberately targeted management.

Balancing this optimistic prognosis, however, it seems inevitable some of the good work will be undone by climate change, which will distort and fragment present day plant and animal communities.

One depressing message which also comes across very strongly in the report is that the problems in the marine environment currently appear the most intractable. Possibly because of its lower public 'visibility', conservation in the seas seems decades behind that of the land.

Despite its sometimes oversimplified messages, Natural Heritage Trends provides an invaluable snapshot of the current state of Scotland's natural history and landscape features. And if the report's own statistics are to be believed, the 46% of Scottish adults who now take part in outdoor recreation should find it directly relevant to their quality of life.

Colin Wells
11/4/2002

 

 


Natural Heritage Trends: Scotland 2001 by Scottish Natural Heritage in Perth is priced at 20.

For more information visit the website at www.snh.org.uk


 









 

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