Environmental Governance post-Brexit: response to Scottish Government consultation

Today I submitted a response to the Scottish Government consultation on Environmental Principles and Governance1, seeking to secure effective environmental protection post-Brexit. The text of my response follows, although you might need to look at the consultation paper to make most sense of it.  As usual, responses were invited to a series of specific (if rather open) questions addressing each of its main sections, which perhaps makes for a rather disjointed read. But I hope my preference for a new body with sufficient powers and resources is clear enough.

1. Do you agree with the introduction of a duty to have regard to the four EU environmental principles in the formation of policy, including proposals for legislation, by Scottish Ministers?

Yes – These principles underpin environmental policy across the EU and beyond.  A post-Brexit Scotland should commit to matching, or exceeding, these standards.

2. Do you agree that the duty should not extend to other functions exercised by Scottish Ministers and public authorities in Scotland?

No – The duty cannot operate successfully in isolation. The consultation paper invites the answer yes, but the text fails to explain how the environmental duty bears on other duties. Compliance should not be optional. I agree there are complex interactions, but now is the time to address these.  The aim should be to simplify the multiple (sometimes cross-cutting) obligations and responsibilities of Scottish Ministers and public bodies, so as to reduce the scope for confusion and dispute. The consultation paper implies (paras 33 and 34) that there may be circumstances in which the environmental principles would be put to one side.  At face value, that simply devalues any apparent commitment to them.

3. Do you agree that a new duty should be focused on the four EU environmental principles?

No – The principles are devalued in isolation, so alignment of these principles with other responsibilities is essential.  For example, how and when will the December 2018 human rights proposals (including the creation of rights with respect to the environment) be taken forward?  Is there a commitment to seek appropriate legislation before the next Scottish Parliamentary elections?

Alignment of new environmental governance with the Aarhus convention is important.  There is a case to restate the Aarhus principles of access to environmental information alongside these principles.

There’s a growing need to establish a framework for reaching a considered view on how the wider public interest is best expressed in decision making, showing how the environmental principles are realised in practice.

4. Do you agree there should be an associated requirement for a policy statement which would guide the interpretation and application of a duty, were one to be created?

Yes – The duty to have regard to the environmental principles must be clearly understood and enforceable, so clear guidance on their interpretation should be published, covering the scope of discretion which can be exercised, and the basis on which the principles are to be balanced with other factors, such as human rights.

5. What do you think will be the impact of the loss of engagement with the EU on monitoring, measuring and reporting?

It is important to maintain alignment with monitoring, measuring and reporting protocols across the EU and beyond. Without this, there is a potentially serious loss of understanding of how a post-Brexit Scotland, and UK, perform in tackling environmental degradation. Many environmental challenges are unavoidably cross-boundary in nature, for example air quality or annual bird migration. I agree with the Round Table assessment summarised at para 55 of the consultation paper, including:

• Our future ability to use EU systems to facilitate reporting and contribute to developing methodologies.

• The ability to aggregate data at European level and assess UK progress on a comparative basis.

• Access to wider expertise, systems, and data and knowledge holdings.

• Potential loss of requirements for data to be published..

6. What key issues would you wish a review of reporting and monitoring requirements to cover?

I agree with the Roundtable’s suggestion that a review of environmental reporting and monitoring could help to rationalise current programmes. Transparency and common standards are essential.

7. Do you think any significant governance issues will arise as a result of the loss of EU scrutiny and assessment of performance?

Yes – Post-Brexit, there is an essential requirement for informed, evidence-based and demonstrably independent scrutiny of the performance of Scottish Ministers and public authorities. A coherent replacement covering scrutiny, compliance and enforcement is required. The track record of the UK’s approach to the devolved administrations is unsatisfactory, so I agree with the Round Table statement2 that: “…having a Scottish body with a thorough understanding of Scottish law, procedures and systems would be more focused on the issues that are most significant in a Scottish context. Scotland is of a scale at which we can envisage a separate body being justifiable and effective.” However, I also agree with the Round Table that UK arrangements to allow collaboration, comparisons, efficient use of expertise and promotion of best practice would be advantageous – if there is an appetite for appropriate cooperation at the UK level.

8. How should we meet the requirements for effective scrutiny of government performance in environmental policy and delivery in Scotland?

A new body is required which has sufficient resources and powers to provide oversight and to hold government to account. This body has a valuable role as arbiter of the wider public interest in respect of environmental protection. Simply amending the role of a current body, or appointing a ‘Commissioner’, does not seem to meet the need, implying a low-cost and hence under-powered approach. I agree with the Round Table assessment that: “to be effective and achieve public confidence, any such body must have independence from government and the regulatory bodies, must have the expertise and capacity to do its work, must have a guarantee of the resources necessary for its role and must have the powers required to fulfil its tasks“.  See: https://mowle.net/2018/09/05/dog-days/  for my recent exploration of the terms of ‘independence’ for such a body.  None of the existing bodies are well-placed, for reasons of position or expertise, to meet this requirement.

9. Which policy areas should be included within the scope of any scrutiny arrangements?

I agree with a scope including the policy areas summarised at para 72 of the consultation paper, namely:

• nature conservation and biodiversity;

• air pollution emissions and transboundary pollution issues;

• environmental impact, access to environmental information and environmental justice;

• marine environment;

• radioactive substances;

• waste and circular economy;

• water environment and flooding;

• chemicals, biocides and pesticides

• climate change mitigation and adaptation obligations;

• soils and contaminated land..

10. What do you think will be the impact in Scotland of the loss of EU complaint mechanisms?

I agree with the Round Table assessment of key issues summarised at para 80 of the consultation paper, including:

• Who can bring a case with respect to harm to the environment.

• The loss of the Commission’s role as an essential means of ensuring Member States take their duties seriously – it acts

as an incentive for Member States to deal with concerns and complaints before they reach the Commission.

• The loss of the Commission’s role in resolving concerns and problems without formal procedures.

11. Will a new function be required to replace the current role of the European Commission in receiving complaints from individuals and organisations about compliance with environmental law?

Yes – Post-Brexit, there will be a loss of coherence in the recourse available to complainants.

12. What do you think the impact will be in Scotland of the loss of EU enforcement powers?

I agree with the Round Table assessment of key issues summarised at para 91 of the consultation paper, including:

• The loss of the Commission’s power to refer a member state to court for failure to properly implement EU environmental law.

• The fact that judicial review proceedings are traditionally used to consider powers, process and procedure rather than substantive environmental outcomes. The nature of many EU measures is to impose obligations on Member States to

achieve specific outcomes (e.g. a target for air or water quality or for recycling rates).

• The CJEU’s powers to impose fines on Member States which do not comply with its rulings..

13. What do you think should be done to address the loss of EU enforcement powers? Please explain why you think any changes are needed?

A new body is required to exercise these powers along with the scrutiny role (question 8 above).  This scrutiny and enforcement body has a valuable role to play as arbiter of the wider public interest in respect of environmental protection. Similarly, this body must have sufficient resources and powers to provide oversight and to hold government to account. Again, simply amending the role of a current body, or appointing a ‘Commissioner’, does not seem to meet the need, implying a low-cost and hence under-powered approach. I agree with the Round Table assessment that: “to be effective and achieve public confidence, any such body must have independence from government and the regulatory bodies, must have the expertise and capacity to do its work, must have a guarantee of the resources necessary for its role and must have the powers required to fulfil its tasks“.  See: https://mowle.net/2018/09/05/dog-days/ for my recent exploration of the terms of ‘independence’ for such a body.  None of the existing bodies are well-placed, for reasons of position or expertise, to meet this requirement, analogous to that of Audit Scotland, hence responsible directly to the Scottish Parliament and funded via the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body.

Following the Plan

When working alone, it’s often simple and straightforward to keep track of the things to be done, and how, in your head. As soon as there’s a team effort involved, things are not so simple. Does everyone share the same understanding of the what, and the how? Almost certainly not! It seems sensible to set the task out in a plan. Setting out aims, roles, resources, methods, the expected sequence of events, review points and so on just seems like common sense – doesn’t it? This blog is a reflection on where such logic led me, and many fellow travellers, over the years. Spoiler alert – it has not gone smoothly…..

I recently came across an essay, by Mark Toogood, discussing Frank Fraser Darling’s West Highland Survey1. A passing comment in this notes that: “…both (Tom) Johnston and Darling (as well as most senior actors in state ecology in Britain) held integrated planning models in high regard…”. I’ve no reason to doubt this, but I now wonder what Johnston and Darling, individually or together, thought this to mean. Another giant of their generation, Max Nicholson (who helped found the Nature Conservancy and led the organisation as Director General from 1952 to 1966) argued vociferously for a National (economic) Plan from the 1930s onwards. Nicholson joined the Civil Service in 1940 and is said to have accompanied Winston Churchill to the Yalta and Potsdam conferences which set the scene for post-war reconstruction. He was then Private Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, from 1945 to 1952. The end of the War was the trigger for rapid social and political change, creating not only the welfare state, free secondary education, nationalisation of railways, coal mining and electricity generation, but also a new approach to farming support, National Parks (but not in Scotland), the Nature Conservancy and a development planning system. Expectations and optimism seem to have been high.

Nicholson’s 1967 polemic ‘The System – the misgovernment of modern Britain2, laments the subsequent failings of successive post-war governments, arguing: ‘The key to co-ordination and to getting the best results with the highest morale is a clearly thought-out plan, based on a complete and sound appreciation of the assembled facts, fully and simply explained to all whose efforts are essential to its fulfilment.’ (p420) .

Contemporaneous with the West Highland Survey, an interdepartmental committee of the Scottish Office reviewed ‘Highland Development’3, leading later to a White Paper4 recommending establishment of the Highland Panel. The 1964 Highland Panel report ‘Land Use in the Highlands and Islands’5 highlights the Island of Mull as a locality requiring urgent attention. The Labour government elected later that year established the Highlands and Islands Development Board.  The Board prepared “comprehensive development plans” for Strath of Kildonan and for the Island of Mull6. These documents begin to realise the limitations of proposals which are unable to reconcile the views of different stakeholders. HIDB went on to sponsor a ‘Mull Development Committee’, which sat uneasily with the various public bodies, elected representatives and other powerful interests and was eventually disbanded.

As a student in the mid 1970s I studied ecology and ‘rural planning’, going on to research land management in the Island of Mull7 . I investigated Mull as an ecological and economic system, framing an exploration of the interactions between land, people and the panoply of public bodies influencing land management. It became clear that no single plan document could realistically provide a foundation for co-ordination along the lines envisaged by Nicholson, even in such a limited geographical area. Encouraged by sceptical critiques8, I began to think of the word ‘plan’ more as a verb, rather than a noun.

As a junior official joining the Nature Conservancy Council in 1979, I found that plans were not much in evidence across the organisation. But public bodies through the 1980s and 1990s were increasingly challenged to demonstrate their effectiveness. Unexpectedly, for several years from 1995 I found myself Head of Corporate Planning for the recently formed Scottish Natural Heritage. Especially following the 1997 General Election landslide bringing Labour to power, we were pressed to adopt a managerial, delivery target-driven approach to our work, and plans were seen as key evidence of our credibility. In SNH, we had a three-year Corporate Plan and an annual work plan setting out the main work streams and budget allocations, broken down into directorate, team and individual job plans, reporting regularly on progress back up the line to senior management team and Board. The plan material was the foundation for reporting of progress and achievements in the Annual Report and Accounts. These plans, for people and resources, were perhaps the kind of thing Nicholson had in mind. Other public bodies had their own corresponding arrangements, but efforts to co-ordinate these never attracted sufficient priority; joint working was always an uphill struggle.

Meanwhile on the global stage, UN conferences in Helsinki (1972) and especially Rio (1992) led to the international Convention on Biological Diversity9. UK CBD commitments included the preparation of Species Action Plans (SAPs), Habitat Action Plans (HAPs) and Local Biodiversity Action Plans (LBAPs). An initial list of 577 priority species and 49 priority habitats signalled preparation of hundreds of SAPs and dozens of HAPs by the new Millennium. Their progress was to be monitored and reviewed; a massive commitment of expert effort. The priority lists were increased to 1149 species and 65 habitats, meanwhile public body budgets and staffing grew year-on-year increasing capacity for such work. Contrasting with corporate planning as above, this was a managerial approach comprising plans for wild species and habitats; but the absence of plan documents for the longer priority lists is a hint that practical limits had been breached10.

From 2010, incremental growth in public body budgets was abruptly reversed. Austerity policies drove year-on-year budget reductions and corresponding shrinkage in staffing. Even before these developments, the limitations of a plan-based managerial approach had become evident. Plan documentation usually lags behind events, and is often incomplete. The dream of accessible, easily digestible, yet comprehensive information was never realised. The idea of a plan (along the lines proposed by Nicholson) also implies a fantasy of control; the UK Government project management methodology adopted in the 1990s is called PRINCE – PRojects IN Controlled Environments11.  For a modest project within a single organisation such control over events might just about be credible, but not for real-world initiatives involving multiple interests and especially across organisations. Delivery of a pre-determined plan is never realistic, so practice must accommodate unexpected developments and reconcile diverse interests – whatever the theory might say.

Such a managerial plan-based approach is especially deficient when applied to natural systems. A contemporary strand of thinking promotes the idea of ‘rewilding’; this is defined in diverse ways, but at centre is the idea of letting go – the antithesis of managerialism. For example, Benedict Macdonald’s excellent new book ‘Rebirding12 highlights the shortcomings of prescriptive habitat management plans 13, preferring to ‘…let nature write the targets…’. A recent blog by Mark Fisher14 highlights the contradictions and absurdity emerging when such plans are put into practice.

Making plans for nature may indeed be a step too far, but I’m still left believing that some proportionate style of planning must facilitate people working together. For all our efforts and experience, we simply haven’t yet established what good practice should look like. Yet collective effort without co-ordination risks confusion and wasted effort. The UK’s biodiversity challenges cut across multiple interests and organisations, challenging the logic of methodical plan preparation and implementation. So, after the plan – what next?

Woodlands for 21st Century Scotland – response to Scottish Government forestry strategy consultation

Today I submitted a response to the Scottish Government consultation on Forestry Strategy1. The text of my response follows, although you might need to look at the consultation paper to make most sense of it.  Responses were invited to a series of specific (if rather open) questions addressing each of its main sections, which perhaps makes for a rather disjointed read. But I hope my plea for more ambition, better collaboration and sustained partnership effort is clear enough.

Q1. Do you agree with our long-term vision for forestry in Scotland?

The vision lacks ambition.  Scotland needs more trees – many more trees. We should strive to put right the grievous damage inflicted over many centuries.  I agree that Scotland needs more diverse, multi-purpose woodlands, looking beyond a narrow focus on timber production to embrace recreation, carbon capture, catchment protection, landscape enhancement and all contributing to restoration of our plant and animal biodiversity.

The vision aspires to forest expansion, but alas has no sense of scale.  Although we cannot be sure, our best available evidence is that prehistoric Scotland once enjoyed woodland cover of more than 50% of land area. This fell to less than 5% around 1900. Through the 20th Century, led by the Forestry Commission, this has increased fourfold, a substantial achievement.  Now we need a 21st Century ambition, perhaps aiming to reach 30% over the next half century, which would restore around half of the prehistoric woodland extent.

Q2. Does the strategy identify the right objectives for forestry in Scotland over the next 10 years?

Aligning the objectives with the Scottish Government’s National Outcomes and associated UN Sustainable Development Goals makes sense up to a point, but the resulting objectives adopt lacklustre language. They are too vague to inspire ambition and do not do enough to show how the 10-year horizon can set the scene for realising the long-term vision.

For example, adopting a vision to reach 30% forest cover implies an extra 850,000ha of woodland over 50 years, as well as maintaining and regenerating existing woodlands. Such ambition to increase Scotland’s woodland cover by 17,000ha per annum obviously has many implications, especially for other land uses. I believe these implications can successfully be managed, but the consultation paper is sadly deficient in failing to address them. The ten-year objectives must establish the framework within which success can be achieved.

Close co-operation and collaboration is most essential with farming, recreation, conservation and especially local community interests. The consultation paper recognises that pursuing forestry in isolation, or in opposition with these other interests, would be a recipe for failure. Yet it does not say nearly enough about how a joined-up approach can be made a reality.

Q3. Do you agree with our assessment of the major issues likely to have the greatest impact on the achievement of our objectives?

The major issues are listed, but the assessment in the accompanying text fails to spell out a response to these capable of realising the ambition.

Section 4.2, in particular, gives no assessment of the barriers to expansion or how these can be tackled. As Section 2 makes clear, the strategic importance of forestry needs to engage a wider community far beyond professional foresters. The silo mentality criticised in the paper is reinforced when foresters talk mainly to each other. A step-change in style is required, and this Strategy is the opportunity to spell this out and map out the first steps towards its achievement.

Q4. Do the ten priorities identified in table 2 capture the areas where action is most needed to deliver our objectives and vision?

These are broadly the right areas, but fail to set out what success looks like, in terms of progress towards the long term vision.

Q5. Can you provide any examples of delivery mechanisms that have previously been effective in delivering similar objectives and priorities?

Examples include Cairngorms Connect2, the Borders Forest Trust3 and similar initiatives. At a regional scale, indicative forestry strategies4 have important lessons. But experience of failure is also important, drawing out and applying lessons learnt. For example, the SRDP experience and implementation of the recommendations of the Mackinnon Report5. This shows that close working between land use agencies and departments has been sporadic, and that grant applications tend to be treated in isolation rather than as contributions to an overall pattern and direction of landscape improvement.

Q6. For any delivery mechanism examples given in answer to question 5, please explain why they worked well?

These operate at a landscape scale, engaging a range of land management and community interests to achieve a joined-up approach.

Q7. Do you think the proposed progress indicators are the right ones?

These are too narrow, they need to address the terms of the strategic vision and set out milestones towards its achievement.

Q8. Do you have any suggestions for other indicators we could use to measure progress (especially ones which draw on existing data)?

There is a lot of material to draw on in the Environmental Report pp79-906.

Q9. For any indicators suggested in answer to question Q8, please explain why you think they would be appropriate.

There’s a implied focus in the Consultation Paper on tree planting, when regeneration is very important in many areas and essential to meet woodland expansion ambitions. But land management to secure regeneration especially requires a range of measures engaging with other land management interests.

Q10. Would you add or change anything in the Equality Impact Assessment (which includes our assessment of the potential impact of the strategy on inequalities caused by socioeconomic disadvantage – Fairer Scotland Duty)?

Nothing to add

Q11. Would you add or change anything in the Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment

Nothing to add

Q12. What are your views on the evidence set out in the Environmental Report that has been used to inform the assessment process?

This is a fair summary of a wide range of available evidence, although it rests heavily on the priorities set out in Table 2 of the consultation paper. If these are amended, then additional evidence and analysis will be advantageous, especially to clarify the nature of barriers to woodland expansion.

Q13. Should any additional evidence sources be used in the Environmental Report? Please provide details.

Where relevant and available – the Environmental Report is wide-ranging but there may well be additional sources of evidence and these should be used as appropriate.

Q14. What are your views on the predicted environmental effects as set out in the Environmental Report?

Priority 4 should make more of the environmental effects of wild deer and other herbivores (including domestic livestock) – for example drawing on the sources listed on pp80-82.

The assessment of Priority 5 is too narrow, since the benefits of community engagement are not limited to population and human health.

Q15. Do you agree with the conclusions and recommendations set out in the Environmental Report?

These are too broad, and would benefit from drawing out more specific priority areas which can inform actions, commitments and milestones.

Q16. Please provide any other further comments you have on the Environmental Report.

The indicators at Table 10 are too thin, and need to be strengthened to reflect improvements along the lines recommended in response to questions 2, 3 and 4.

Q17. Do you have any other comments you would like to make about the draft strategy for forestry in Scotland?

A lot of good stuff here, but could do so much better. Let’s have a much sharper, inspirational and inclusive vision for Scottish Forestry in the 21st Century!

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.