WILDLIFE in Scotland has weaker protection against damaging developments than wildlife in England and Wales, according to emails released by the government’s conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage.

The regime for safeguarding vital wetlands under the international Ramsar Convention is “stricter” south of the border says SNH, prompting fears that Scotland’s wildlife could “lose out in a race to the bottom”.

The convention, adopted in 1971, is meant to protect rare animals, plants and insects in rivers, lochs, coastal areas and peatlands. There are 51 sites designated under it in Scotland, including major firths, coastal zones and peat bogs.

But internal correspondence released under freedom of information law reveals that the way the convention has been interpreted by the Scottish Government gives wildlife at the sites less protection than that given by the Westminster Government.

An email on 16 January 2018 from SNH’s Operations Manager for North Highland and the Northern Isles, Dave Mackay, said: “The situation regarding Ramsar sites in England is clearer/stricter than in Scotland.”

In England the sites are given tough, international safeguards against damaging activities, but in Scotland their protection is covered by weaker nature conservation designations. This means that whole groups of species, such as bugs and butterflies, can be left unprotected.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland is so alarmed by the revelation that it has written to Scottish ministers demanding urgent clarification. “Scotland's Ramsar sites are some of the most diverse and productive wetland habitats in the world,” said the Society’s Senior Conservation Planner, Kate Bellew.

“In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are strict tests which have to be met before any development can go ahead on these sites, and compensatory habitat must be provided,” she added.

“It's astonishing that these requirements do not seem to apply to Scotland. There is a real danger that Scotland could fail to uphold it's international environmental obligations.”

Bellew was particularly worried that some of Scotland’s most precious wildlife sites could be given a lower level of protection than sites in the rest of the UK. “We must not see Scotland’s wildlife lose out in a race to the bottom,” she warned.

The SNH emails were obtained by Not Coul, a local group opposing a controversial golf development at Coul Links near Embo in East Sutherland. SNH has objected to the development.

The emails show SNH realising that two key features at Coul Links – insects and certain types of plants – were not covered by its designation as a Ramsar site. In January SNH officials were attempting belatedly to add them.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust pointed out that Scotland took pride as a leader in applying the environmental protections that stem from international treaties such as the Ramsar Convention.

SNH did not respond to a request to comment. The Scottish Government pointed out that all Ramsar sites in Scotland were “co-designated” as Special Protection Areas for birds, Special Areas of Conservation or Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

What is the Ramsar Convention?

It is one of the world’s oldest environmental agreements. Named after the Iranian city in which it was adopted in 1971, it aims to protect wetlands across the globe from development and degradation.

Wetlands include all lakes, rivers, reservoirs, estuaries, tidal and coastal areas, peatlands, marshes and much else.

Wetlands are said to be some of the world’s most diverse and productive environments.

The convention entered into force in the United Kingdom in May 1976. Among the 51 designated sites in Scotland, are the Firth of Forth, the Firth of Tay, the Dornoch Firth, the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands, Loch Lomond, Loch Maree and Rannoch Moo