Dog Days

Returning to blogging after a summer break (extended by unexpected good weather), I’m struck by the popularity of canine metaphors applied to the work of government-funded environmental bodies. Routinely, these are described in media reports as ‘watchdogs’1. More memorably, Natural England has recently been criticised as no more than a ‘nodding dog in the Government’s rear window2. This implies that such bodies are failing in their duty to hold Government to account; but is such derision fair? How is their authority and accountability rightly defined and managed? This blog seeks to shed some light on these questions in Scotland.

Before you yawn and ‘swipe left’, let’s be clear that there’s widespread ignorance of how public bodies are constituted and funded, their established ways of working and where each one fits in to a wider canvas of endeavour. This ignorance isn’t helped by the apparently chaotic, inconsistent and bureaucratic frameworks which are in place. Let’s try to set the record straight in simple terms.

In order to operate within the rule of law, any organisation must be set up as a ‘legal person’. Without this it cannot make contracts, employ staff and so on. In fact, of course, organisations public or private have no tangible existence in themselves, but impact on our real lives through the use of real physical assets and the actions of real people acting on their behalf. The ‘legal person’ is a convenient fiction (or a collective hallucination, if you like). So, for example, the whole of central government is treated as one single legal person (ie all government ministers and civil servants are, in strictly legal terms, one and the same thing). This is awkward for some functions, especially those which require a measure of independence, for example to regulate the actions of bodies including government itself. For this and similar reasons, numerous public bodies are set up at ‘arm’s length’, as separate legal entities3.

Take, for example, Scottish Natural Heritage, which employed me prior to my retirement in 2016. Established by Act of Parliament with defined functions4, the ‘legal person’ is the SNH Board, comprising a Chair and Board members appointed by Ministers. All the staff, including the Chief Executive, are servants of this Board. Funding for SNH is supplied almost entirely by grant aid from the Scottish Government. The way these funds may properly be used is defined, in some detail, in a ‘framework document’5. The terms of this originate from general guidance issued by HM Treasury.

There are a few public bodies which are, indeed, set up to hold Government to account. An example would be Audit Scotland. Its independence is protected, to some extent, by making it responsible to, and funded via, the Scottish Parliament6. This maintains a distance from possible ministerial influence. Ministers have sometimes been prone to protest that their sponsored public bodies are ‘independent’ or ‘arms-length’ (on occasion seeking to avoid taking personal responsibility for controversial decisions or shortcomings – these tactics are rarely successful, the media usually holding politicians to account despite such protestations). On other occasions, arm’s length public bodies have been held to be unaccountable (usually by parties who dislike decisions made to signal some wider public interest). So accountability is a controversial issue.

Staying with SNH as an example, where does accountability (or power, if you prefer) rest? The legal person is the Board, represented by its Chair and Members. But they are appointed by Ministers – so hardly independent. Ministers also hold the ultimate purse strings and have formal powers of direction (although these are very rarely used). If a senior government official has a concern to discuss, most frequently they will lift the phone to SNH’s Chief Executive, who has separate defined (and personal) responsibility as ‘accountable officer’ covering, for example, the propriety of expenditure7. Day-to-day dealings with Scottish Government are most frequently with a ‘sponsor team’ of officials in the most relevant SG Division. These relationships have become closer over the years, as the political profile of environmental concerns has grown and especially as budgets have progressively been cut since 2010. Scottish government officials are now fewer in number and so depend more on SNH for expert advice and assistance.

Independence, in these circumstances, is something of a pipedream. Revisiting the earlier canine metaphors, the roles of master and dog are clear enough – but it’s hard to see how the latter could hold the former to account. Equally, the ‘nodding dog’ jibe, whilst entertaining, feels shallow; more of a working dog perhaps.

Some commentators highlight contrasts between SNH (and its English and Welsh equivalents) and one of its predecessors, the Nature Conservancy Council, lamenting the demise of the latter when it was dismantled in 19918. I was employed by NCC in Scotland for the last 12 years of its existence; a great experience and a privilege to be directly involved in the many dramas of the 1980s. To some extent, these dramas broke out simply because NCC (working across England, Scotland and Wales) was just too far outside the orbit of the Scottish Office and its satellite bodies. So I don’t believe NCC could ever have been kept going into the changed circumstances of the new century. Working in the days before devolution, the NCC I joined in 1979 had antiquated procedures (no email, mobile phones, videoconferencing or computer screens, now found on every desk) and little sense of the public expectations now loaded on present-day public bodies. Its earnest but genteel ambience of academic enquiry was increasingly at odds with the growing profile of environmental concern. The case made for SNH, less naïve with a broader remit, greater capacity and direct Scottish engagement had its attractions9. While some qualities may have suffered in the transition, others were gained. SNH became so much more capable as a result, but still a ‘watchdog’ only in the limited sense of providing a body of informed expertise.

Current anxieties surrounding the effectiveness of watchdogs are reinforced by the looming prospect of Brexit. At present, one important way the Scottish Government can be held to account is the possibility of European Commission ‘infraction proceedings’ (against the UK government) leading potentially to a hearing in the European Court. Some government decisions are challenged in this way, while others respect the body of case law built up across the EU. The UK government has promised to set up a replacement10, while the Scottish government has published a preliminary review of the wide range of environmental concerns which must be addressed11. To maintain credible independence but with clear accountability, any such ‘watchdog’ would best be appointed and funded along similar lines to Audit Scotland, accountable first and foremost to Scotland’s Parliament.

Setting a baseline

There’s been persistent media comment this year highlighting the scale of loss of wildlife, especially mammals, birds and insects, together with some hyperbolic headlines1. But where does this sense of drama take us? Most reports headline percentage losses over time. Beyond confirming the broad trend of loss, what do these numbers signify?

Humans have destroyed 83% of wild mammals (Guardian 21 May 2018)

…42% of terrestrial animal and plant species….have declined in population size in the last decade…(UN IPBES May 2018 )

Britain has lost half its wildlife (Guardian 26 March 2018 )

Following decades of decline until the 1990s, Scotland’s stock of natural capital has stabilised and is now at its highest level since 2000 (Scottish Natural Heritage April 2018 )

10 species at risk of extinction amid fears Scotland is missing wildlife targets (Sunday Herald 3 June 2018 )

These diverse headlines serve to confuse and all really are quite arbitrary, illustrative at best. They come from studies comparing population levels over time and so comparisons depend especially on when the original measurements happen to have been initiated. It’s not surprising that these tend to be pretty short-term, because there’s hardly any such measurement recorded earlier than the mid-twentieth century. Most are much more recent.

I’m arguing that we need to set these rather random statistics in a wider context. We should be concerned especially about losses of wildlife that result from human actions (or inaction); human impacts on nature began hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. While these impacts have accelerated in recent decades, we would have to go back a long way to find a clear starting point.

For Scotland, there’s little argument that the most recent ice age effectively wiped the slate clean to around 12,000 years ago. Slowly, the first tundra vegetation was replaced on lower ground mainly by woodland and wetland habitats giving homes to a wide variety of plants and animals. A few small groups of people roamed these landscapes, but their impact to begin with was insignificant. It’s possible that their hunting and fishing reduced the numbers of some large mammals and birds, but direct evidence for this in Scotland is lacking.

The first evidence of substantial landscape change followed the arrival of the first farming families, between 6,000 and 5,000 years ago. The pollen record from sediment cores shows changes in tree cover and increase in open ground from this time. These changes will have had many knock-on effects on animals and plants, favouring those using open ground at the expense especially of woodland species. So part of the loss we are now seeing will be for species which had prospered from earlier human impacts. We lack any measure of the extent or quality of the main habitats that long ago, and so it’s hard to say very much about the associated wildlife population levels. But, if our concern is to put right adverse human impacts on nature in Scotland, then this period (around 6,000 years ago) must represent our effective baseline. We should at least think through how our present-day wildlife might compare.

I’m not trying to make an argument that this ‘status quo ante’ should, or could, ever be restored, but I do argue that such a long term perspective helps us to think through our best response and action to restore loss. There’s a campaign (Nature Needs Half) which helps us to cut through the confusion. Its message is simple and direct; to ensure that nature has enough space to thrive. This then directs us to think about wildlife at a landscape scale, rather than only the remaining intact fragments.

For Scotland, woodlands and wetlands along with their characteristic animals and plants have suffered especially grievously. Setting aside the myth of an ancient Great Wood of Caledon unbroken from coast to coast, the best available evidence suggests these woodlands at their peak can have covered no more than half of Scotland2. But that is a lot more than present-day cover of less than a fifth. And most present-day woodland takes the form of dense plantation rather than the more open native woodlands; a few mainly isolated scraps of these are all that remain.

The extent of wetlands – swampland, marshes and low lying bogs – perhaps once covered around a quarter of Scotland, before being reduced rapidly from the 1700s onwards following drainage for farmland. Beyond well-documented large scale developments such as the Carse of Stirling, thousands of small local schemes dried out wet hollows and straightened waterways. These losses have been rather overlooked3, leaving wetland plants, wildfowl and animals clinging on to fragments of suitable habitat along ditches and remaining wet hollows.

A third large area of Scotland remains too high, or too exposed to Atlantic gales, to sustain woodland. While high mountain plateaux may include our least modified wildlife habitats, much moorland and upland bogs continue to be damaged for example through excessive grazing by sheep & deer. We can be confident there’s more moorland and heath than in prehistoric times, since a large area of this open ground would carry woodland if grazing was reduced, so one can argue that some moorland wildlife abundance has been artificially high4.

The biggest cause of loss of woodland and wetland has been conversion to farmland5, over many centuries. While it’s wrong to dismiss present day intensive farmland as an ecological desert, the wildlife now found there must be able to tolerate open ground and regular disturbance.

Take, as one example, the corncrake. Present-day numbers (and geographical extent) are a fraction of those recorded as recently as the late 1800s; but those corncrakes depended on extensive hay meadows and cereal crops managed without machinery. In the pre-farming landscapes, corncrakes were probably restricted to wet grasslands in the valleys of our main river systems. Now they are restricted to small-scale mixed farming in the Highlands and Islands. Skylark, lapwing and many other valued open ground farmland birds probably benefited in the same way from open fields replacing woodland. The wild plants now found around farmland tend to be pioneer species (often regarded as weeds), contrasting with many woodland plants and insects requiring shade or rotting timber to thrive. In the same way, a wetland bird such as the bittern, requiring extensive reed beds, no longer breeds in Scotland. But these were recorded regularly on the menu for medieval banquets.

Another human impact has been numerous introductions of animals and plants which would not otherwise be seen in Scotland. These bring varied, often negative, consequences. Grey squirrels from North America compete with native red squirrels; burrowing rabbits brought from southern Europe by the Romans undermine flood banks but feed native stoats, foxes and buzzards; Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed from central Asia infest our riverbanks and so on.

Efforts to make sense of all this are no small task. A National Ecosystem Assessment in 2011 informed a 2016 State of Nature report compiling evidence of recent change covering thousands of terrestrial and freshwater species from 1970 to 2013. There has also been an effort to compile a ‘biodiversity intactness index’ which at least seeks to work from a baseline set 500 years ago (although most figures similarly relate to the last 50 years or so). But even 500 years ago Scotland’s native woodlands had largely been cleared. We must not overlook the longer timescales of change.

A recent review in New Scientist6 recognises the complications, despite which we can be sure that wildlife is in serious decline due to human impacts. Losses have been grievous but apocalyptic language is hard to justify; there is so much still of value that can be put right. I believe our actions must be framed by cool appraisal of evidence with our understanding of what has changed and why, fashioning storylines which explain, for different parts of Scotland, what has happened and how things can be better. The headline is that we need more woodland (but not intensive plantation) and especially more wetland wherever opportunities arise.

Something must be done!

Creating and maintaining a sustainable, wildlife-rich world requires active, concerned citizens and a political system capable of rising to the challenge.1

Nature is everywhere around us, but the evidence shows how this is slowly being squeezed out by the way we live. Where can we make the space Nature needs? Official figures show that 90% of Scotland is either farm or forest (73% and 17% respectively), so the way we manage this land inevitably has a huge impact on the wildlife we value. The remarkable fall in numbers of wild animals and plants over many recent years is well-known and not news; periodic reviews refresh our understanding, leading to renewed media comment and debate.

Take one recent example, which summarises the latest new findings from the UK and Europe before concluding that the Government must be held to account for measures to correct these losses2. But the only measures highlighted are some very general ideas set out in the Government’s draft 25-year environment plan3. And the measures proposed in the plan are specifically for England. A linked consultation on the future of farming, currently under way, is also mainly focused on farming in England4. Leaving aside for now the whereabouts of a corresponding plan for Scotland, it really isn’t clear from any of this how our wildlife losses can actually be reversed. While the language of the 25 year plan can attract general support, ‘putting the plan into practice’ involves perhaps setting up yet another public body and conducting periodic progress reviews along with the inevitable further dialogue. All worthy, but how exactly such measures turn around long-term trends of wildlife loss isn’t clear. So simply looking for action by ‘the Government’ feels underpowered and inadequate.

Governments depend on the consent of the governed, so must have both a mandate held with confidence (especially where action will be controversial) and a will to act. Uncertainty around these two requirements often stifles necessary action. Another recent commentary5 is critical of so-called ‘Official Scotland‘, citing perceptions of patronage, bureaucratic defensiveness and professional protectionism all underpinned by a compliant media, resulting in ‘flattering self-evaluation by the powerful, unchallenged by a dispassionate assessment of the evidence‘. Harsh words perhaps, but I have observed examples suggesting all these tendencies in my own experience. Equally, I don’t believe this tells the whole story. In a further Scottish commentary6 the author argues for gentleness, in place of ‘…anger, dislocation and frustration…too much of public life seems to be a search for the guilty, condemning others, playing the person not the ball, and being driven by immediate comment and criticism with little to no reflection…’, concluding ‘…gentleness isn’t an added luxury, but a central component of how we should aspire and aim to deal with each other…’. In practice, “…for too long…we have had a politics and culture which hasn’t nurtured understanding and respected opposing views…”.

Supporting this spirit, Collaborative Scotland has promoted ‘respectful dialogue7. Their principles are a good place to start, but simply agreeing to differ doesn’t get us much further forward. We can say there are four broad groups of actors in any debate around matters of public concern: government organisations (a wide range of public bodies), what we might call civic (non-governmental) bodies including charities, private (normally commercial) organisations and fourthly individual citizens. Any measures commanding consensus across all these groups would be most welcome, but this is a rare occurrence. Our core challenge is to achieve sufficient breadth of engagement to broker agreement that leads to commitment of real resources (of cash and people) in ways which can succeed. I argue we must frame our case for Nature in these terms, always seeking to reflect experience and to base our actions on understanding drawn from the evidence.

Taken together, these questions of understanding and consent, in whose name any measures can implemented, begin to define the terms of ‘public value‘ and the gains to be made through sound stewardship of Scotland’s natural assets. There’s a question of what leadership within this framework might look like (but that’s a topic for another day). For now, let’s agree there’s a collective responsibility and recognition of the many varied contributions required to sustain this greater good for all.

 

Looking out for swifts

Swifts are quintessential birds of high summer here in central Scotland, arriving to breed during May, departing again in August leaving only echoes of their screaming, acrobatic flight along with our memories of warm days. At this time of the year, I begin to anticipate their return and look out for them.

Thanks to the development of miniature tracking devices, we now know that they spend the rest of their year on the wing, more than 99% of their time, 24/7, reaching south as far as central Africa before returning to their exact point of departure (allowing the trackers to be recovered)1.  It is hard to begin to grasp how our world looks from a swift’s point of view, “…intelligent in ways that are different from ours…”2. They clearly know where they are and where, and when, to go.  They can find their food, for example swifts have been observed patrolling advancing storm fronts, scooping up insects caught in the updrafts. The trackers confirm that they habitually fly high at dawn and dusk, taking over an hour of sustained effort climbing to 8,000ft and beyond before gliding down.  Nobody is (yet) quite sure why, perhaps simply an opportunity to sleep on the wing?

Swift numbers have gradually declined over at least the last 20 years, perhaps by about half3. Even when nesting, swifts range many miles in search of food so, as a result, reliable annual counts are difficult. So how can we best ‘look out’ for them (in a different sense)?

Long-term, swifts have benefited from expanding human habitation, our buildings, bridges and other structures providing nesting opportunities additional to natural crags and crevices4. But other changes are less positive. Recent studies provide evidence of massive and widespread losses of the flying insects which provide their food5, and the fuel for their long journeys.  Climate change, air pollution, light pollution (affecting navigation) and other threats affect their migration routes.

Swifts benefit from co-ordinated international action. In 2014, the UN Convention on Migratory Species adopted an African–Eurasian Migratory Landbirds Action Plan6with the aim of improving the conservation status of swifts along with other long-distance landbird migrants, especially those that overwinter south of the Sahara. Wordy (and worthy) perhaps, but a framework for cooperation is in place and active7.

Here in Scotland we enjoy, and cherish, an iconic wide-ranging bird, the status of which is not obviously linked to land management. But the decline in insect populations is a consequence of more intensive land management, which squeezes out non-crop species. We must make space for nature – land management measures are needed to sustain the insect populations across our farmland so as to benefit our swifts, among others, and allow us to look forward to their return for many summers to come.

Constructive Tension?

This deceptively comforting phrase has been lodged in my head throughout my career.  I first came across it when reading the 1972 report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs ‘Land Resource Use in Scotland’.  It’s used several times in the report but especially at Para 426: “…In respect of land uses in rural areas we believe that the four “heavyweight” official institutions each representing a major aspect of countryside land use—the Department of Agriculture, the Forestry Commission, the Nature Conservancy and the Countryside Commission-should continue to flourish, and we hope that a situation of ‘constructive tension’ would exist between them…”.

Wild plants and animals range throughout Scotland, not just in special areas. The largest land uses are farming and forestry, so it is no surprise that the way land is managed has major implications for the health and wellbeing of these species. Getting general recognition of these implications, with concerted, collective action to address them has been, and remains, a huge task.  A lot of progress has been made over the years, but much still remains to be done.  In the meantime, grievous losses of species and their habitats have continued – evidenced, for example, by the Scottish Government indicators 1.

I set out with a belief that joined-up land management, responsive to all the diverse pressures on people and wildlife, is the right approach. Through many twists and turns, I still hold that this is so. Successful conservation of nature is a team effort, not a solo event.

The need for care, to halt and repair the damage inflicted on the planet by human beings, is well-understood and backed up with plenty of evidence. But our collective capacity successfully to deliver care is much more in question. Making the case for the conservation of our natural assets is necessary, but not sufficient in itself. We also need to understand how this can best be achieved, how to make best use of our collective experience and resources, and to act accordingly. So there’s a focus on people, on institutions and how joint effort works in practice.

Over the last century, perhaps the standard response to biodiversity loss has been to designate land for habitats and species deserving protection. There have, as a result, been some successes but also many failures. All designations face a continuing challenge to define appropriate management. Over the same period a huge increase in the human population and living standards has created growing pressure, and now we can see systemic impacts on atmospheric chemistry and especially climate. Wild places have been in retreat, while cities have grown in terms of area and reach, leaving some scope (and enthusiasm) for ‘rewilding’. The idea attracts diverse interpretations, enthusing some while riling others.

A growth in international collaboration has taken place under the broad umbrella of globalisation. But now, in the 21st Century, we are seeing a backlash, an urge to ‘take back control’. This fantasy of control has highlighted the poor performance, sometimes outright failure, of many management interventions. There are underlying questions of power relationships and political economy. Our experience tells us that framing these in win-lose, zero sum terms is wrong. But the terms of a collaborative partnership approach struggle to gain a hearing.

There’s a need, and opportunity, for spaces to explore these challenges, tease out what works and to establish some underlying principles.

A starter for 10 – the puzzle of Fraser Darling

On my bookshelf lies my parents’ Readers Union copy of Frank Fraser Darling’s ‘Island Years’, this edition from 1952, although I think it was first published in 1940.  Reading this as a child, my imagination transported me to Hebridean islands I didn’t visit in person until many years later.  In 1969, I heard some of FFD’s BBC Reith Lectures ‘Wilderness and Plenty’ and was inspired to a life in environmental conservation. By that time he was long gone from Scotland, established as a conservation figure of international renown.  In 1970 he was knighted, retiring to Scotland where he died in 1979, aged 76.

As a young researcher in the 1970s I discovered the ‘West Highland Survey – an essay in human ecology’, commissioned in 1943 by wartime Secretary of State Tom Johnston, conducted between 1944 and 1949 but not published until 1955. Its main conclusion, that: ‘…the Highlands are largely a devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation….’ 1, remains controversial to this day. I heard vague rumours of disputes which were said to have led to FFD’s departure, first for the USA and later to Africa and other parts of the world.  What really happened, and why were the findings of the WHS set aside for so many years?

Some clues may be found in the work of several authors but nowhere have I found a completely satisfying account. I have been told that FFD was done down by civil servants who found his perspectives were not to their liking.  After a working life dealing with their successors I find this too simplistic to be convincing. There must surely be a deeper, and more compelling, narrative allowing for more constructive interpretations. What might this be?

I turned first to the work of John Morton Boyd, my first senior boss at NCC and a close collaborator with FFD.  His 1986 book ‘Fraser Darling’s Islands’ includes a whole chapter on the West Highland Survey: “…there is little doubt that the ideology employed by Frank in the Survey resulted in the work being non-conformist in the agricultural lobby and disregarded as a serious basis for policy and planning in the Highlands and Islands…”2. There are hints of other disputes, around the establishment of the Nature Conservancy and the management of red deer.

The historian Chris Smout (2011) bluntly describes: “…a man of charisma and little tact…”3, which chimes with some of the evidence.  But FFD’s later achievements outwith Scotland rather contradict any implication that he was simply a maverick.  Another historian, Jim Hunter, makes a more sympathetic pitch (1995, 2014), suggesting that the Survey’s conclusion is difficult from ‘both sides’4 . This frames the dispute as a bilateral argument between ‘highlanders’ and ‘environmentalists’ (excluding, for example, public officials). The former, Hunter argues, feel slighted while the latter seem unwilling to accept a vision of rehabilitation which includes human beings.

Puzzled by these varied points of view, I consulted the public record, official files held by the National Records of Scotland.  These are voluminous, for example detailing routine correspondence between the Survey and its sponsors in Government. Here I came across a letter from FFD to the Department of Agriculture dated June 1950 which includes: “…the government has so carefully sealed off the WHS….because no Government wants to start a 100 year job; the Highlander won’t like it because he takes it as a personal slight…..and your Department won’t like it because you can’t do very much about it….”5. Quest over?  Not really, because the files reveal so much else of what was going on at the time.  For example, coincident with the WHS was an interdepartmental group charged: “…to prepare a statement of what had been and what remains to be done for Highland development…”6– the Anderson Committee, which reported in 1945 and led to a White Paper on Highland Development in 1950. Nowhere in these papers could I find a single reference to the WHS despite its original sponsor and public funding. So perhaps the issue was that the WHS, for all its long-term significance, was ploughing a lonely furrow, so to speak, making no effort to engage with other work addressing similar challenges?

Much was made at the time of the delay between completion of WHS fieldwork in 1949 and eventual publication in 1955; there are some implied official reservations about giving the Survey’s findings the ‘oxygen’ of publicity.  But equally, there’s plenty of evidence of delay in simply completing a write-up. The correspondence shows FFD was clearly distracted – by his involvement in setting up the Nature Conservancy and especially by his lengthy absences in the USA from late 1950 onwards – but equally these experiences fed back into his adoption of terminology such as ‘human ecology’ in the subtitle and informed his final verdict of a ‘devastated terrain’.

So my puzzle remains incomplete. Constructive tension?  More of the latter than the former, I fear.