50 for the Future – Catchment scale management

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Head of SRUC's Hill & Mountain Research Centre, Professor Davy McCracken, explains why it is important to ensure that land and water are managed together at the river catchment scale.


Number 44: Manage land and water together at the river catchment scale throughout Scotland to secure measurable improvements in ecosystem health


Our rich and diverse environment is not only important for our own leisure and recreation but is also increasingly recognised as making an essential contribution to society's health and well-being. As a nation, we also trade on the high quality of Scotland's environment in order to attract tourists and sell products from our farming, forestry and fishery industries.

So maintaining and, where necessary, improving the health of our environment is of fundamental importance to achieving a healthy and sustainable Scotland.

But while much of our environment is of relatively good quality, there are still a number of environmental challenges to be addressed. 

For example, ongoing climate change is having an increasingly adverse economic impact on all levels of society, as evidenced by the recent flooding in our towns and villages and storm damage to our farmland and forests.

Improving water quality, managing flood risk, protecting our soils and reversing biodiversity declines are other key areas where improvements are required. 

We cannot divorce what happens in the water environment from what happens on land. Both are inextricably linked.

For all those challenges we will be looking for changes in land and water management to help deliver the improvements. And of course, we cannot divorce what happens in the water environment from what happens on land. Both are inextricably linked.

Therefore making a real difference to the health of both environments means putting measures in place at a scale much larger than an individual farm or forest. The Scottish Wildlife Trust and many others recognise that managing land and water together at a river catchment scale is therefore the most logical and ecologically sensible way to:

  • Dramatically reduce nitrogen loading and diffuse pollution from agriculture, preventing pesticides and other chemicals being washed into our rivers and streams

  • Restore degraded blanket bogs in the uplands to secure their value for wildlife, carbon storage and water quality

  • Establish a national ecological network in which nature restoration projects of all shapes and sizes contribute collectively to healthy resilient ecosystems across Scotland

Eutrophication of nutrients and pesticides from agricultural land can have huge impacts on bodies of water. © Rebecca Audsley, SRUC

The current situation

The need for such integrated management across our farming and forestry landscapes has been enshrined in Scotland's Land Use Strategy since 2011. This Strategy promotes the sustainable use of land and water, recognises the need for the integration of land use policies, and urges the adoption of such a holistic approach to planning and decision-making. 

Catchment scale management is also being actively put into practice by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency through a range of measures within what are known as Diffuse Pollution Priority Catchments. 

Although creating buffer strips, hedgerows, farm woodlands and wetlands in these catchments are targeted at helping to reduce diffuse pollution, if established at the right scale in the right places they should also help to increase biodiversity. Similarly, reducing the runoff of soil nutrients and agricultural waste will benefit aquatic habitats and species, and will help improve the quality of drinking and bathing waters.

Healthy peatlands keep carbon locked up, and continue to absorb and store more. Degraded bogs emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, which contribute to climate change. Under the Peatland Action Programme, extensive areas of peatland across Scotland are currently being restored. This will not only improve their capacity for storing carbon but will also allow them to be managed to conserve their wildlife.

Ecological networks are nature's highways – connecting directly or ecologically, habitats and green and blue spaces – which allows species to move more easily across the landscape, decreasing the likelihood of species extinctions, increasing genetic exchange and thereby improving ecosystem health and resilience in the face of climate change. The Scottish Wildlife Trust is pushing hard for the implementation of a National Ecological Network in Scotland.

Under the Peatland Action Programme, extensive areas of peatland are currently being restored. © Rebecca Audsley, SRUC

What more needs to be done?

So we seem not only to already have a number of tools in the box but are also to be using a lot of them. So what's the problem? Why is the Scottish Wildlife Trust calling for more to be done?

Firstly, the scale of the challenges to be tacked is huge. So although millions of pounds are being spent on peatland restoration, this is just scratching the surface. Much more investment will be needed if we are to help restore all our degraded peatlands effectively. In addition, the level of funds available to support agri-environment measures have historically been very low here in Scotland – thereby limiting the amount of additional habitats that can actually be created at the scale of any one catchment.

Secondly, and just as importantly, we have a Land Use Strategy that sets out why we need more integrated catchment management. And the Strategy itself also makes clear where it sits within the wider policy framework. However, it is not at all clear how the Land Use Strategy and its principles will actually be integrated across these policies in practice. 

The Land Use Strategy could and should be the means by which the Scottish Government's Economic Strategy is achieved with respect to land and water. But currently few, if any, other Scottish Government polices appear to be taking the Land Use Strategy into account.

There therefore needs to be political will to fix the fundamental disconnect between the Land Use Strategy and the wide range of policies it needs to connect with. Without it, we will never achieve a real policy push and recognition across all sectors of Scottish Government of the need for an integrated catchment management approach to planning and decision-making.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Davy McCracken is Head of Scotland's Rural College's Hill & Mountain Research Centre and a member of Trust's Conservation Committee

Help protect Scotland’s wildlife

Our work to save Scotland’s wildlife is made possible thanks to the generosity of our members and supporters.

Join today from just £3 a month to help protect the species you love.

Join today


In this week's 50 for the Future article, Professor Davy McCracken explains why it is important to ensure that land and water are managed together at the river catchment scale.

Stay up to date with the Scottish Wildlife Trust by subscribing to our mailing list Subscribe now

Back to top