COVERING just a fraction of the country, they are home to some of our most precious wildlife and provide a living link with the distant past.

Now campaigners are calling for Scotland’s remaining fragments of ancient and native woodlands to receive “full legal protection”.

A petition lodged at the Scottish Parliament wants ministers to take action before the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow next year.

Campaign group Help Trees Help Us insist existing legislation is not fit for purpose.

Jackie Baillie, deputy leader of Scottish Labour and MSP for Dumbarton, backed their call.

She said: “I fully support the efforts of local people in my constituency, and across Scotland, who are fighting to give ancient woodlands full legal protection. We need to conserve our woodland heritage to be enjoyed by future generations.

“The campaign and accompanying petition have been carefully thought out and the proposal would hugely benefit important woodland areas in communities across Scotland.

“I urge my colleagues from across the Scottish Parliament to support this petition and for the Scottish Government to act.”

Campaigners were spurred into action after discovering a mountain bike track had been constructed through an ancient bluebell wood during lockdown.

They found “no effective legislation exists to protect Scotland’s ancient and native woodlands, rare habitats, woodland floors, native bluebells and other wild plants, nesting birds or other wildlife when landowner permission is granted for developments such as mountain bike trails”.

Audrey Baird, who is named on the petition, said full legal protection could force landowners to take steps to protect ancient woodlands.

The 52-year-old NHS worker said: “Everybody thinks ancient woodland is protected, but it is not a statutory designation.

“So unless these ancient woodlands have these other designations, then they are unprotected.”

She added: “At a time when we are all being told that we are in a climate and species extinction emergency, surely we need to protect our mature trees and our most precious, irreplaceable habitats.”

Ancient woodland is defined as land that has been continually wooded since at least 1750.

Such woods usually have richer wildlife and their plants and animals may preserve elements of the natural composition of the original Atlantic forests.

Although there is no legislation specifically protecting them, Scottish planning policy identifies ancient woodland as an important and irreplaceable national resource that should be protected and enhanced. Official policy also includes a strong presumption against removal.

The Native Woodland Survey of Scotland, carried out between 2006 and 2013, suggested native woodlands cover just four per cent of the country.

It said woods that are on ancient woodland sites and are both “native and highly semi-natural in composition” are the most important category for nature conservation. These make up 20.6% of native woods and just 4.6% of all woodlands in Scotland.

The petition by Help Trees Help Us calls on Holyrood to “urge the Scottish Government to deliver world-leading legislation giving Scotland’s remaining fragments of ancient, native and semi-native woodlands and woodland floors full legal protection before COP 26 (UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow in November 2021”.

As of yesterday, it had almost 900 signatures.

John Finnie MSP, the Scottish Greens’ rural communities spokesman, said he previously wrote to ministers asking about measures to protect Scotland’s ancient woodlands, but is yet to receive a response.

He said: “Much work is needed to adequately protect and enhance Scotland’s forests, work that must be taken forward urgently if we are serious about tackling the climate crisis.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Scotland already has a strong suite of protective measures in place to ensure the protection of our natural environment, such as Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

“Further protections exist through the Scottish Planning Policy, which identifies ancient woodland as an important and irreplaceable national resource that should be protected and enhanced, and through felling regulations under the Forestry and Land Management Act 2018.”