I came to Scotland in 1973. Armed with degrees from Edinburgh and Stirling Universities, I started work for the Nature Conservancy Council in 1979, retiring from Scottish Natural Heritage in 2016. But my personal timeline of interest extends both before and beyond these years. Government action to protect nature really emerged during the 1940s, both during and soon after the War.
Since 1970, the number of wild animals has more than halved worldwide (that’s number of individuals, not species 1). Closer to home, the Scottish Government Performance Framework2 suggests continuing decline in the quality of Scotland’s natural assets. What lessons should we draw from this long experience?
Government action has often been routed through public bodies given legislative powers and financial resources. The Nature Conservancy was first established in 1949, reorganised to form the Nature Conservancy Council from 1973. The Countryside (Scotland) Act of 1967 established the Countryside Commission for Scotland. The merger of the CCS and NCC in Scotland, to form Scottish Natural Heritage, was announced in 1989 and implemented from 1992. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency started work in 1996, merged from the previous River Purification Boards.
The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland of the 1970s has evolved into the present Scottish Government Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate, distributing half a billion pounds every year to Scotland’s farmers. The first so-called agri-environment support schemes were introduced in the 1980s, now incorporated in the EU-supported Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP). Meanwhile the Forestry Commission (first established in 1919) has been devolved to Scotland [and is, in 2018, subject to further reorganisation via legislation recently agreed in the Scottish Parliament]. The small Red Deer Commission was merged into SNH from 2010. Two National Parks established by the Scottish Parliament created two more public bodies tasked to protect natural heritage.
Successive efforts have been made to establish a Scottish framework to bring these bodies into alignment to resolve conflicts in rural land management, creating an additional alphabet soup of abbreviations. December 1973 saw the first meeting of the Standing Committee on Rural Land Use (SCRLU), set up in response to recommendations from the 1972 Commons Select Committee report ‘Land Resource Use in Scotland’. April 1985 saw the first meeting of a successor, the Departmental Group on the Countryside. Following devolution in 1999, an interdepartmental initiative called On the Ground began late in 2005, evolving into SEARS (Scotland’s Environmental and Rural Service) in 2007 and then (briefly) ENFOR (Environment and Forestry) and (from 2014) RAFE (Rural, Agriculture, Food and Environment) initiatives.
Over the same period, numerous controversies have flared up and died down again. Implementation of site safeguard and species conservation measures have highlighted conflicting strands of public policy. Efforts to devise and implement a joined-up approach have generally trailed, rather than led, these disputes.
There are many strands running through all this. The value of ‘natural capital’ is now recognised within the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy3, unthinkable during the 1980s when battles were fought to establish sympathetic farming and forestry regimes. Styles of leadership and management have changed over the years, while the arrival of a devolved Parliament was a step-change in the political environment. Greatly increased access to explanation and supporting evidence has been reinforced by information technology. There is far greater recognition of diverse interests within both urban and rural communities across Scotland. But in many ways public services are under pressure, facing reduced budgets, raised expectations and fading consensus on where the ‘public interest’ really lies. Constructive, well thought-through and generally accepted ways forward remain elusive.