Transcript of an address given by Scottish Wildlife Trust Chief Executive Jonny Hughes at National Members’ Day on 20 September 2014.
In recent years, the Trust has developed the concept of the three pillar approach to nature conservation, Pillar One being the protection and recovery of individual species, and Pillar Two being the protection and restoration of special sites for nature, including our own wildlife reserves. The third pillar – namely ecosystem based conservation – is the least well-developed of the three, though we are already making great strides through our Living Landscape projects to change this.
Before we look to what the future might hold, I’d like to reflect for a second on the tremendous achievements we – collectively as a Trust – have made over the past half century.
Back in the early 1960s, there were only a handful of pairs of ospreys in Scotland, struggling because of organochlorine pesticide contamination in the food chain and through the perverse actions of determined egg thieves. The Trust – working with other environmental bodies, including the RSPB – campaigned for tighter controls of harmful pesticides (something we are still doing today), and provided direct protection of nests threatened by egg thieves. The result today: well over 200 pairs of ospreys breeding in the UK – a very tangible wildlife success story we can all be very proud of.
The otter was another victim of persecution and pesticide pollution during the early years of the Trust, yet now the otter is a common sight in rural – and even urban – Scotland. The otter has recovered due to legislation which banned harmful pesticides and improved water quality – and also through legal protection to guard against killing and disturbance of breeding and resting sites.
Would these protections have happened without conservation charities such as the Trust raising awareness with Government and wider society? Having worked as a professional in this area for many years, I can assure you the answer is a resounding no.
Legislators and policy makers only move when public opinion moves them, and the Trust has been an extraordinary voice for wildlife, and for all those who love and respect nature. Those in the corridors of power listen when the Trust speaks because we speak with authority, with common sense and from a sound evidence base.
But we don’t just advocate and campaign, we also do!
Another more recent species success story is that of the red squirrel. Through coordinated action with our partners in Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Land and Estates and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, we have halted the decline of the red squirrel in the face of expanding populations of grey squirrels carrying the deadly squirrelpox virus. And I’d make a plea here – I sincerely hope that the Scottish Government will continue to support this vital work to save one our most iconic and well loved species into the future.
One final species success story. The Trust not only led the campaign for the return of the beaver, we also then went on to lead the Scottish Beaver Trial, which saw the homecoming of that most engineering-minded of ‘ecosystem engineers’, back to its rightful place in the Scottish landscape.
I’d like to give particular thanks to Team Beaver for all their efforts, including our friends and colleagues in our partner organisations – the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Forestry Commission Scotland – for working so effectively with us to achieve one of the most inspiring projects in the history of professional nature conservation on these islands.
Onto the second pillar – sites and special protected places. Again, the Trust played a huge part in the movement which resulted in the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest across Scotland and, much more recently, the establishment of 30 new Marine Protected Areas in Scotland’s seas which will benefit species such as that giant of the oceans, the basking shark, a species the Trust has long championed the cause of.
But again, we didn’t just campaign and champion the protection of important habitats. Over the decades we sought to build up a portfolio of our own sites – currently standing at 120 – more than any other charity in Scotland. These are magical places where nature comes first, and always will.
Our wildlife reserves are home to hundreds of species such as the delicate, rare liverwort, Plagiochila atlantica, which has its global stronghold in Scotland’s Atlantic rainforests, and the Scottish wood ant (a personal favourite), which reaches its northerly limit in the birch-hazel woodlands in the Coigach – Assynt region of north-west Scotland. Perhaps one of the Trust’s proudest achievements as we celebrate half a century is the enduring legacy of our wildlife reserves.
So, what next? Working in that third pillar, the ecosystem pillar, means taking nature out of the ghetto; it means working at big, bold landscape-scales with other landowners – as we are already doing in the Coigach – Assynt Living Landscape project.
I don’t care whether we call this re-wilding, landscape restoration, futurescapes or whatever works. What’s important is that in 50 years, nature is thriving once again on a grand scale in Scotland, driven by its own will. These Living Landscapes must benefit the people living next to, and within them. The ‘Living’ in Living Landscapes is very much about the human as part of nature. In restoring nature at the landscape scale, we should also seek to restore our lost connection to wildlife and wild places, with a particular focus on tackling what has been called ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in younger people.
Of course, nature is not something confined to big rural landscapes. Under the right conditions, wildlife can thrive in the heart of our towns and cities. In the next 50 years, I’m confident the Trust will lead a transformation in Scotland’s urban environment – one which will help bring a range of benefits from flood amelioration, air pollution reduction and provision of exciting greenspaces for city people.
Wouldn’t it be great to see the first urban National Park designated in Edinburgh or Glasgow before we celebrate our 60th birthday?
Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in the coming decades is learning the art of building really effective partnerships with non-usual suspects – particularly those directly responsible for the decline of wildlife. When I had the honour of addressing the global conservation community at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in South Korea in 2012, I said that attempts to reverse biodiversity loss will fail unless we make the corporate sector part of the solution, rather than continuing to be part of the problem.
The Trust followed up this commitment by bringing businesses, governments, academics and NGOs from 33 countries together at the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh last year. The event was a resounding success but only a first step towards getting businesses to make better decisions for the natural environment: decisions which will ultimately be good for their profitability as, in the end, we all depend on nature for our livelihoods.
And that’s the message I’ll end on. By destroying nature we destroy ourselves – something very real in countries like China – who are facing an ecological and human welfare crisis due to uncontrolled water, soil and air pollution, habitat destruction and chronic water shortages. We’ve escaped such catastrophic ecosystem collapse in Scotland but in the face of climate change we should not assume we are out of the woods yet.
Our first 50 years were all about halting further destruction of Scotland wildlife; the next 50 years must, for all our sakes, be about the restoration of Scotland’s wildlife.