50 for the Future – Create a National Ecological Network

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, Susan Davies, the Trust’s Director of Conservation, describes what is meant by a National Ecological Network and why it is so important for Scotland’s environment.


Number 36: Create a National Ecological Network so that wildlife can move freely through the landscape


The concept of a national ecological network is not a new one. The Scottish Wildlife Trust held the first ever national conference on a National Ecological Network in 2013, drawing together a number of national and international experts to set out the principles and an approach to achieve the NEN. The Scottish Government then acknowledged in its third National Planning Framework that there was a need to take a strategic approach to environmental management and enhancement through the creation of a national ecological network. Practical progress has, however, been lamentably slow, especially in relation to the actions set out in Scotland’s Biodiversity a Route Map to 2020 – Big Step 5 to develop a NEN. Some of the timescales set out in the latest Scottish Land Use Strategy are also pedestrian and don’t instil a great deal of confidence that this initiative will be progressed with any degree of urgency.

So what is a National Ecological Network and why do we need it? Think about your local area. What do you see from your window, when you go on a walk or travel around Scotland? Is it fragmented, isolated blocks of habitats in the landscape or habitats that are well connected by stepping stones and corridors that help wildlife and people move – so called ‘green’ corridors? Perhaps it’s a bit of a mixed bag of both?

Many of our semi-natural habitats and wildlife are under stress from a variety of pressures – climate change, habitat fragmentation, air and land based pollution, intensification of land-use, invasive species and wildlife disease, and marine exploitation. These pressures reduce the resilience and capacity of these habitats to deliver a wide range of benefits – flood regulation, food and wood supplies, drinking water, carbon stores (reducing the effect of climate change) and recreation and tourism. By connecting up these habitats in our land, sea and townscapes we will improve their condition and resilience to further pressures and help our wildlife to move around. This is a theory – based on island biogeography – that has been around since the 18th Century.

Wildflowers growing along roadsides can act as corridors for wildlife © Paul Hobson

A National Ecological Network should be built around four key principles:

  • Landscape connectivity – linear strips of native vegetation along roadsides, around field margins and along river and ditch banks.
  • Habitat connectivity – through stepping stones that allow species to move between larger patches of habitats.
  • Ecological connectivity – that support the life-cycles of plants and animals both temporally and spatially by providing shelter, food and breeding and resting sites.
  • Evolutionary connectivity – that allows genetic exchange and evolutionary modification within wildlife populations.

Going forward the Scottish Wildlife Trust has a clear set of asks including:

  • Creation of a catchment-scale opportunity map for the whole of Scotland;
  • Agricultural spend that is targeted at connecting habitats;
  • Effective regional partnerships that deliver the multiple benefits of the NEN on land and at sea;
  • New housing developments that incorporate elements of green infrastructure; and
  • Urban green infrastructure through parks, green roofs, tree-lined streets and sustainable urban drainage systems.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust is demonstrating how the NEN can work on the ground through its Living Landscape initiatives in rural and urban areas: Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape – a predominantly rural focused landscape initiative in the far north-west of Scotland; and the Cumbernauld and Edinburgh Living Landscapes – urban landscape initiatives in the Central Belt and Edinburgh City. These provide a good model for broadening out the NEN to other parts of Scotland. To meet the 2020 biodiversity targets to halt the loss of biodiversity and deterioration of ecosystem services, Scotland will need to go further than conserving species and protecting sites across a fragmented landscape.  In essence action from the window box to landscape scale is required.

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

Susan Davies is Director of Conservation at the Scottish Wildlife Trust

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Susan Davies describes what is meant by a National Ecological Network and why it is so important for Scotland's environment.

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