The festive season is fast approaching and thoughts turn inevitably to Christmas wish lists and the gifts we’d like to buy for our loved ones. Children everywhere are penning, texting and maybe even tweeting their most wanted lists to Santa, as anxious parents examine their bank accounts and decide what might make it down the chimney.
Politicians don’t often join the Christmas pageant and don a red suit but they, perhaps more than most of us, have the potential to give the gifts that keep on giving. Just like hard-pressed families, their pockets aren’t endless though and in these financially difficult times, they too have tough choices to make which they know might end in tantrums on Christmas morning. Which brings me to the key question-how will the Scottish Government use the farming budget secured from the taxpayer in the years ahead?
By Christmas, Richard Lochhead, our Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, has to decide what to spend some of his farming budget on over the next seven years. That budget is a whopping £4 billion and what he buys with it will affect every man, woman and child in Scotland and beyond. The vast majority of that money (about 90%) is given to farmers as general support to maintain farm production (ie to keep them farming). The cheques usually land on the doormat in December so Mr Lochhead can expect some happy farmers* as they sit down to the Christmas turkey. The much smaller share is used to fund what’s known as Scotland’s Rural Development Programme (SRDP) and includes payments for wildlife friendly farming, forestry, business and community development, and the diversification of farm businesses, amongst other things. It’s not exactly a logical division of resources. It owes a lot to history, and the share of ‘voice’ afforded different sectors, rather than being a plan for the modern era. In fact, to continue the festive analogy it’s a lot like giving one of your kids an X-Box and the other one an Etch-a-Sketch for Christmas. Bound to be tears before bedtime!
To balance things up a bit and, more importantly, to help meet some really key environmental targets that the Scottish Government has set itself, Mr Lochhead can decide to transfer 15% of funds from the general support pot into the next Rural Development Programme – a transfer worth around £76 million each year. If that money were then used to boost existing funds for environmentally friendly farming and land management, Mr Lochhead could give the most long-lasting gifts of all. An investment in a countryside rich in wildlife, clean water and a stable climate that would benefit us and our children down the generations. With such a transfer of funds, the money would still go to farmers and rural areas – and vital food production would continue – but it would leave a lasting environmental legacy and add value and substance to the claims of our food producers about the quality of Scottish produce, and the countryside that produces it. It would provide a competitive edge that would benefit many in the Scottish economy.
Sustainable wildlife friendly farming, that produces high quality produce is the top thing on my Christmas wish list and Richard Lochhead is just the man to make my wish come true.
If you want more funding for wildlife friendly farming, send an e-mail to Mr Lochhead here.
*The RSPB is also a land manager and farmer and receives both types of farm support – general support and rural development funding. The money we receive is spent on the land management and farm staff on our nature reserves across the UK, which in Scotland provide homes for some of our most amazing wildlife and landscapes, and produce prize winning store cattle (pictured above).
This year we are sandwiched between two great sporting events in Britain; The London Olympics of 2012 and the Glasgow Commonwealth games in 2014.
The memories that stay with me from sporting events like the Olympics and previous Commonwealth events are the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd, the look on the athletes’ faces when they cross the finish line. It’s an exhausted expression which tells its own story of the limits of human physical and mental strength. It’s an epic about pride, achievement, journey, a sense of occasion, making dreams come true and a battle against any obstacle that gets in your way.
Kittiwake by Andy Hay
I’m probably never going to finish a marathon or run the hundred metres in under 10 seconds, but I do feel that same sense of pride and achievement when I think about what RSPB Scotland and its supporters have accomplished in the marine environment. Together we have campaigned for over a decade to ensure that the vast wealth of species we have in our seas are properly protected.
We have achieved so much with the introduction of the Marine (Scotland) Act which allows the Scottish Government to set up Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for nationally important groups of species and for the first time protect the amazing variety of plants and animals in our seas. However, we’ve been running this particular marathon for a long time now - and we’ve hit ‘the wall’.
What we want is protection for the areas at sea where seabirds feed. And frankly that’s what the birds themselves desperately need-this is not a paper exercise, but a matter of long term survival.The only way that it can happen is if our Government in Scotland sets up MPAs for ‘our’ seabirds, something it has so far refused to do.
The Government says seabirds have enough protection through European designations. The statistics tell me differently - Arctic skua down 80%, black-legged kittiwake down 68%, Arctic tern down 72% since 1986. These long-term declines tell us that Scotland’s seabirds are not coping well with changes in their environment and need better protection. RSPB scientists tell us that some seabird colonies could disappear within a decade.
Marwick Head 1970s
Marwick Head 2013
In a radio interview recently one of my colleagues was asked about seabird declines and why people should care. I could write a book about why people should care about the environment and I needn’t mention economics once, but seabirds are valuable in a number of ways. In Orkney alone they bring in £1.3 million a year to the local economy and the Government's own advisors in Scottish Natural Heritage report that marine wildlife tourism is worth £63 million a year to Scotland. That’s all very well if money is what makes your world go round, but seabirds are a vital part of our marine ecosystem. As apex predators their role in maintaining ecological equilibrium cannot be underestimated. If we don’t take a holistic approach to marine conservation and create an ‘ecologically coherent network of MPAs’ (which is what the law says the Government must achieve), it will be of great detriment to our environment, our economy and our way of life in Scotland. Seabirds are an inspiration to many young biologists, artists, poets and musicians. Can we really be the generation that apathetically watches our seabird colonies fall silent? Colonies which I remember as raucous,smelly, hives of industry-massed ’cities’ are now hamlets, and all but deserted.
Although we are may have hit ‘the wall’, this marathon is far from over. Scotland is one of the most important places in the world for seabirds and they deserve better. They need MPAs to act like SSSIs do on land, protecting areas that are nationally important. Why should our seas and our marine birds be given less protection than those found in Scotland's forests or farmlands?
When faced with a wall the only option is to keep going, but we can’t do it on our own, we need the energetic, enthusiastic crowd behind us. We need you, our supporters, friends and comrades to help cheer us.
The Government has the power to create MPAs for seabirds today. They’ve even gone so far as to say that if there is enough public support for MPAs for seabirds they will listen. The Scottish Government’s consultation on MPAs is open until 13 November. If you care about the future of our marine environment then this is your best and maybe your last chance to have your voice heard.
You can take part in out e-action here – http://bit.ly/13WmaWx or, better still write a letter. You can find a briefing here – http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/MPA_LW_briefing_tcm9-356400.pdf.
Let's have a proper debate about restoring our native wildlife
Scotland is a big place. It covers 78,000 square kilometres and much of it is extensive farmland, remote forest or deer grazed mountains and peatlands. It is not wilderness of course – for the hand of man and evidence of his grazing animals can be seen if you look, even in the remotest areas.
People have had a big impact on the Scottish landscape – felling forests, draining wetlands and bogs and burning vegetation to favour domestic animals, or planting large areas with non-native trees that can grow in wet, nutrient-poor soils.
Another thing our forebears were adept at doing was removing animals that threatened them, or their livestock. So, the last brown bears disappeared in or around the 10th Century, the lynx was quietly done away with by the early Middle Ages, and the wolf followed in 1769. .
Smaller less ‘fierce’ species also suffered as people protected their chickens or other livestock. Pine martens, which must once have been very widespread, were pushed to the remotest, least populated areas. Otters were destroyed especially along rivers where they could take salmon or other migratory fish. Both are now recovering their range and numbers, which is a welcome thing.
golden eagle by Peter Cairns.
As for birds, we know that golden eagles once occurred all across Scotland and much of England and Wales. By the 1890s, though, they were confined to the Outer Isles and the distant parts of the Highlands, numbering less than 200 pairs. Similarly, the hen harrier was reduced to a few pairs on Orkney and the peatlands and moorlands on the Outer Isles – eradicated from the mainland by systematic killing by gamekeepers. Both have now recovered some of their former range and numbers following legal protection and concerted conservation campaigns, but we have a way to go, especially for hen harriers on grouse moors; and the situation for them in England is particularly troubling.
The white-tailed sea eagle was driven to extinction by sheep farmers, sporting interests, and latterly by skin and egg collectors. The last Scottish bird was shot on Shetland in 1918.
The story of bringing them back is a fascinating 35 year struggle, with visionary people determined to make a difference. It was great news that the latest phase of this long running project could recently report the success of the rearing of a fledged chick in Fife.Just as the people of Norway helped Scotland bring back the sea eagle, so Scotland has helped the Irish Republic re-introduce golden eagles. Re-introductions require willing partners (countries) from which to source the animals, as well as the right conditions and a warm welcome for the re-introduction programme to succeed.
The first white-tailed eagle chick to fledge in the east of Scotland for nearly 200 years. Photo by Ian Francis.
More recently our friends in the Scottish Wildlife Trust have trialled the re-introduction of beavers in Argyll, and some landowners have also introduced beavers, albeit ‘under the radar’ and without due process – never the ideal method - in the Tay river system. There is at least one on our Loch of Kinnordy reserve-but I have not seen it. I can’t imagine this re-introduction being reversed, despite its less than ideal basis. So beavers are, one way or another, probably here to stay – I am pleased about that. On the continent beavers are spreading westwards and rural communities as well as people in towns are becoming used to having them around. They can cause problems, sometimes eating their way through maize grown near watercourses –but it can be managed, and lets get that into perspective.
Because we, on the island of Britain, are surrounded by sea, beavers can’t spread back to Scotland – or England, or Wales - without our help. Nor can several other species formerly found in our countryside, like wolves – now regularly seen in parts of France, Germany and even appearing in the Low Countries or the lynx which has successfully been re-introduced to several parts of mainland Europe, and is re-appearing naturally in others. In Fenno-scandia and the Baltic states the Lynx is not uncommon, but is seldom seen. Italy, a country of 60 million people, has widespread wolves, and a surviving bear population in the Apennine hills and mountains. Some are found less than 75 kilometres from Rome.
Eurasian lynx by Peter Cairns.
You can probably guess where this is heading. I think we should be bolder in restoring the lost wildlife that should inhabit our country. Obviously we should stop further extinctions, whether that be of the wildcat, capercaillie or red squirrel, or the hundreds of other endangered species we have.
A restored habitat – whether that be a blanket peatland, native pinewood or an ancient atlantic oakwood, is not functionally complete if it does not support the many species that make it special. It is like having banks without money in the vaults. A woodland to me is not nearly as beautiful without the song of birds or the footprints or scats of the mammals that hide in its depths – or the mosses, lichens and fungi that are there if you know where to look. Studies are beginning to demonstrate that predators can have a much more profound effect on habitats than previously thought, affecting the behaviour of herbivores and thus encouraging the development of woodland ‘patchworks’ that benefit a whole host of biodiversity. In Scandinavia it seems that sea eaqles might have an important role in reducing the impact of invasive American mink, introduced by people.
So we should have a proper debate about species – the wildlife found in our country, or which was once found in our country - and start to restore it. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has some good ground rules to guide decision making– in essence if the reason why an animal became lost has not been identified and addressed, it is not a good idea to proceed. If it will get back of its own accord then let’s encourage that rather than interfere. That may rule out brown bears – but I don’t think it rules out the lynx or, perhaps, one day even the wolf being given serious consideration? Could we live with large predators like this in our countryside again? A system to manage, monitor and compensate for any proven losses of domesticated livestock would need to be in place-as they are in several of our EU partner countries. But Scotland’s burgeoning deer populations suggest there is plenty of suitable wild prey. People in Britain do seem to accept the rather impoversished fauna our forbears have bequeathed to us rather too quickly in my view. I would love to think lynx lurked unseen in the remoter lands of Scotland taking some roe deer now and then, and just occasionally giving a glimpse of itself to a lone walker or wildlife watcher....