Scotland is on the frontline of a life or death battle to save the UK’s most threatened animals, plants, and ecosystems.
From rich lowland farmland through upland moors, past sweeps of rocky cliffs and uninhabited islands and onto the UK’s highest mountains, the country contains a precious patchwork of habitats.
While we are blessed with this diversity, we are also charged with its care: and, as elsewhere, Scotland has many challenges to face.
Scotland’s wildlife faces a host of pressures which it shares with organisms across the UK – but geography, culture and climate change throw up their own suite of problems.
Intensification of farming practices has put immense strain on many plants and animals, as has deforestation, the impact of predator control on moorlands reserved for the monocultures demanded by the grouse shooting industry and overgrazing by sheep and deer. All impact our ecosystems deeply.
On top of this, climate change is altering habitats from the sea to the mountains. The distribution of maritime species is being affected by changes in water temperature and cold water reefs are being put in peril – this is even before fishing pressure is considered.
On our mountains, alpine ecosystems are facing increasing pressure from rising temperatures and invasive species which are heading north as others retreat.
However, we wouldn’t be able to describe this as a battle if there wasn’t a fight – and Scotland is fighting back, crucially through a network of charities and voluntary groups who are all acting, some on the most restricted, local basis and others country-wide, to stitch together a response which will at least give our environment a chance of recovery and regeneration.
And where change is inevitable, action can allow management so that catastrophes are avoided.
The challenges and the responses were outlined in the recently published State Of Nature 2016 report, which was brought together by a coalition of 50 leading wildlife experts and charities.
The headline figure from the report was that one in 11 species in Scotland faces extinction. Alarming stuff: but it also highlighted the efforts being made to reverse this trend.
That’s why we’ve decided to take a look at 11 species and habitats facing pressure in Scotland – and the efforts our conservation charities are taking to halt losses.
It’s easy to feel helpless amidst the welter of grim news – but all is not lost and you can help, which is why we’ve included ideas for action you could take.
Because when you’ve got a lot to lose, you have a lot to fight for.
1. Scotland’s seabird cities
Scotland’s coastline is home to some of the most spectacular and important seabird assemblages in the world. For example, 80% of the world’s manx shearwaters breed here, and 60% of the planet’s great skuas, or bonxies. Seabirds are facing a threat from two directions: over-fishing and climate change are causing food shortages at sea and on land, birds are falling prey to invasive species such as rats and mink. The RSPB has been dealing with the latter by embarking on rat eradication programmes – which have been successful on the likes of 1,300 hectare Canna.
2. Harbour porpoise
Scotland’s smallest and most familiar cetacean is also one of its most threatened. Numbers of harbour porpoises have declined, with scientists attributing this to their ability to catch food, breed and communicate. It was announced this week that a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has been created in the Inner Hebrides and Minches – the largest conservation area for the species in Europe. WWF Scotland director Lang Banks welcomed the move and said he was hopeful more such sites would be established in future.
3. Blanket bogs
Scotland’s blanket bogs provide a range of important functions, not least of which is their ability to store climate-change causing carbon. They also provide crucial habitat for a range of species, from sphagnum mosses to golden plovers. However, they’ve been hit by a toxic cocktail of grazing, drainage, peat cutting, burning and afforestation which have put this precious habitat under huge pressure. The British Trust For Ornithology and RSPB Scotland have undertaken a number of blanket bog restoration projects, though the results so far have been mixed. Their future remains in the balance – but doing nothing is not an option.
4. Atlantic oak and hazel woods
This kind of woodland is exceptionally rich in wildlife diversity – especially in bryophytes and lichens. It is also now very restricted in Scotland and in real need of protection. The John Muir Trust has been very active at one site, which seems to sum up the pressures this kind of habitat is under: the Ardvar woodlands in Sutherland. A particular problem it is now trying to tackle is overgrazing by large numbers of red deer. It is looking at a combination of replanting and fencing to save the site.
5. Marsh fritillary
This species of butterfly has been declining throughout Europe and is now extinct over huge parts of its former British range, making the population in mainland Argyll and surrounding islands especially important. Its fortunes are linked to traditional agriculture as they require light grazing by cattle to maintain their habitat. Changes to farmland practices have been devastating for them and many other species. Butterfly Conservation Scotland has been successful in working with farmers and landowners to provide site-by-site guidance in helping this species and others.
6. Great yellow bumblebee
The disappearance of more than 98% of the UK’s flower-rich meadows in the last century resulted in massive declines in some bumblebee species. Two have become extinct since the 1930s, and some once-widespread species are now restricted to pockets of suitable habitat, such as the open grasslands around the coasts of Scotland. One of these species is the great yellow bumblebee, which the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is working to help in its Thurso. The preservation of flower-rich machair grassland is crucial – but it is vulnerable to inappropriate grazing and erosion. The charity is working with crofters to explore ways in which this habitat can be protected and improved, while remaining a useful agricultural resource.
7. Upland summer mayfly
One major threat to Scotland’s freshwater ecosystems is climate change, which is driving a rise in water temperatures. Some species are finding themselves pushed to diminishing areas of habitat. Water temperatures continue to rise and this will have an impact on freshwater invertebrate populations. It may not look like much, but the upland summer mayfly is a typical example of a species now coming under this pressure, and the Buglife charity is studying its populations not just to conserve the species, but because it acts as a bellweather into the state of a parlous ecosystem.
8. Marsh saxifrage
This attractive, yellow flowering plant was once found in many areas of Britain. However, habitat loss and over-grazing means it is now confined to around 20 sites. Most of these are in the north Pennine region of England but there are also a handful of sites in Moray, the Pentland Hills and in the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland. It is a species of interest to several charities which hope that the plant can thrive if habitat is protected.
9. Scottish wildcat
The Scottish Wildcat is the only remaining native wild cat in the British Isles. Confined to the Highlands, it has been designated a European Protected Species and estimates of its numbers range from around 35 to less than 100. In the past it was heavily persecuted by gamekeepers and farmers, it has suffered from habitat loss and it is now chiefly threatened by interbreeding from domestic cats. As well as habitat protection, captive breeding and release offers hope for the species and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park, near Kingussie recently announced it had produced two new litters of the cats.
10. Golden eagle
This massive bird of prey is synonymous with wild places in Scotland – but although it has increased following decades of persecution and poisoning, there are still only several hundred pairs, the vast majority in the Highlands. Moves are being made to help it expand in the Scottish borders, where there are currently only four pairs. The South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project, supported by some landowners, RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage is spearheading this.
11. Our marine heritage
Climate and pollution pose a huge threat to Scotland’s marine environment, with the former particularly affecting the country’s wildlife-rich west coast cold water reefs. One of the most successful projects has been the establishment of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast), which established Scotland’s first no-take zone in Lamlash Bay on Arran, allowing the surrounding seabed to re-seed. The results have been spectacular and Coast has received international praise for its efforts.