Monday, March 19, 2007

Bye bye, bonnie Scotland

For over a year now, I've had the great pleasure of being based in Scotland. The country is famed for its natural beauty. Only this weekend, I was exploring the windswept beauties of the East Neuk of Fife, admiring eider ducks and curlews and oystercatchers.

However, a depressing picture is emerging of a land in seemingly terminal ecological decline. And it's entirely avoidable!

In a new report, the Scottish Environmental LINK umbrella group shows that Scotland will fail to reach the target of halting the loss of species and habitats by 2010 - as promised 15 years ago at the Rio Earth summit. In fact, up to 60% of species could be in decline. With climate change added to the mix of environmental destruction, the future looks bleak for our biodiversity - and, by association, ourselves, as these negative trends may lead to full scale ecological collapse.

The problems are solvable. What's needed is the political will to invest relatively tiny amounts of money in shoring up and extending habitats to help consolidate ecosystems and buffer them against the effects of climate change. Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said about £43 million would be enough. This is small change for government, and I have seen for myself how much conservationists can achieve given adequate funding. Agriculture, too, must change, with the present, finite and competitive stewardship schemes becoming generalised and replacing the subsidies which currently fund habitat destruction. The changes would not only benefit wildlife; they will also give us a more mixed, varied and beautiful countryside.

There is a lot of public concern for our wildlife. The RSPB has over one million members, and the Wildlife Trusts have doubled in size since 2000. But this public concern is not matched by government action. A report commissioned by the IUCN last year showed that the EU as a whole is underfunding its own conservation programmes by over two billion Euros per annum. To put this figure into perspective: the replacement Trident programme touted by our wretched government is set to cost between £20 billion and £80 billion!

This, of course, is proof that we are not even beginning to get to grips with our environmental crises. There is a criminal lack of commitment on behalf of the powers that be. And yet we know that investment in the environment works. Rare species like the corncrake and the capercaillie have increased in numbers following sustained and comprehensive conservation programmes. In the rare places where landholders, such as the Forestry Commission, have made a real effort to restore biodiversity, the resilience of wildlife has been demonstrated. Give it a chance and it will come back. But as things stand, government is not giving wildlife the chance it deserves.

So the uphill task is left to small, impoverished groups of visionaries: groups like Trees for Life, which is trying to restore the Caledonian pine forests, or the Carrifran project in the Scottish lowlands. Without such private passion, Scotland and Britain at large would be wastelands. But such groups can have only a limited impact. Government alone can save us; and for the moment, it's barely paying attention.


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