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.