Soon to be known as NatureScot, Scottish Natural Heritage is aiming to inspire the nation to focus on the natural world, writes Dominic Ryan

JOHN Muir, the grizzle-bearded Scot who founded America’s national parks, wrote: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”

He was writing in 1901 but could easily have been describing Scots emerging from COVID-19 lockdown in the past few weeks. The wonderful wildness of our own natural environment is suddenly being rediscovered and its importance to our wellbeing recalibrated.

It is apposite, therefore, that although planned more than a year ago, on August 24 Scottish Natural Heritage will rename itself NatureScot: a metamorphosis that will see the organisation sharpen the nation’s focus on nature.

Chief executive Francesca Osowska jokes the initial challenge will be ensuring we get the “no space, cap S” right. Beyond the camelCase and visual rebranding, however, there are important reasons for this evolution.

HeraldScotland:

NatureScot CEO Francesca Osowska believes the name change offers clarity on the organisation’s aims

“With the name Scottish Natural Heritage people haven’t understood what we do,” says Francesca, who took on the CEO role in October 2017.

“We’ve done a lot of research in terms of public opinion surveys, which shows the word heritage is what people latch onto, not natural. So they think our remit is buildings and ancient monuments: they’re important but that’s not what we’re about.”

The misunderstanding isn’t helpful but, more fundamentally, says Francesca, last year proved catalytic in terms of highlighting the importance of the notion of nature to a range of public policy issues.

“Scotland was the first nation to declare a climate emergency,” she points out, “and this was followed swiftly by a global assessment of biodiversity loss.

Taking those two things together – climate change and nature degradation are intrinsically linked – this really brought home to to us and many working in the sector the importance of putting nature at the heart of decision making and of investing in nature-based solutions.

“We support the natural world but we can also help mitigate and adapt to climate change, as well as contribute to a range of associated policy issues, such as health, wellbeing, access to justice et cetera. Fast-forward to today and, as we come out of the pandemic, there’s a lot of talk of economic recovery. It really feels this is an absolute opportune and critical time for nature to be at the forefront of decision making ... and, therefore, for nature to be at the forefront of our name and brand as well.”

Does the evidence suggest Scots are ready to buy into this?

“Absolutely! We undertook an independent survey of people living in Scotland during the first part of lockdown, when we were only out once a day for exercise. We wanted to gauge their engagement with nature because what we’d heard anecdotally was people were really valuing their time outdoors.

“They were beginning to notice nature on their doorstep. So we undertook the survey to see if that anecdotal evidence was borne out.”

The study found 34% of Scots were getting a daily dose of nature compared to 22% prior to lockdown; 71% were heading outside at least once a week, up from 59%; 89% of outdoor visitors took regular local walks (an increase from 77%) and around 20% were running or cycling (up from 5%).

“When we asked what was driving this, 70% cited the benefits they felt to their health,” says Francesca. “Engagement with nature was also a way of managing stress, with more than 60% reporting it was helping them de-stress, relax and unwind.”

This positivity was supported by the numbers wanting to continue such behaviour post-pandemic and so to support this the organisation launched the Make Space For Nature campaign. This focuses on simple things that can be done to help nature, protect our biodiversity and ensure a nature-rich future: everything from creating butterfly borders to swapping and sharing plant cuttings to adding bird feeders and ponds.

“What this is doing is capitalising on our enjoyment of nature, not just for enjoyment’s sake, but because we are feeling personal health benefits,” notes Francesca.

“So we’ve been encouraging people to continue to do this, whether it’s through a daily walk or having a mindful minute to listen to birdsong.

“The more we can get people engaged, the more likely it is they’ll relate to nature and appreciate the positive benefits of nature, to areas not only in their own lives but in wider decision making.”

Decision making is, of course, a key element of NatureScot’s remit in its role as adviser to the Scottish Government. Right now, as the country looks to nurturing the Green Recovery – the Scottish government has just published its response to the advisory group on economic recovery – Francesca admits to being pleased the plan has highlighted natural capital and its importance in terms of economic resilience, social resilience and environmental resilience.

She adds: “From our perspective all of these agendas are intertwined. As lockdown lifts, we can work together to put green recovery at the heart of protecting and creating jobs. The Scottish Government’s announcement of an extra £2 billion investment in nature is one of the most cost-effective ways to help ensure our wellbeing economy.”

The fruits of this economic husbandry, she believes, will be that by 2030 Scotland is recognised as a world leader in looking after and enhancing nature in the same way it’s already lauded for its leadership in tackling climate change.

“We’ve heard the First Minister talk about a wellbeing economy and environmental and societal resilience are part of that. Hopefully, people will see NatureScot front and centre of leading the green recovery and promoting a society that values wellbeing.

“It’s been a challenging and difficult time for many during the pandemic but our rebranding has come at a great time in terms of people’s rethinking of what’s important and how nature applies to them.”

Of course, in a post-COVID-19 world, a planet-sized problem remains: climate change. However, Francesca feels equally optimistic about our ability to rise to its immense challenges. “It’s not an accident Scotland’s targets are ahead of the UK,” she points out. “It’s because of the richness of our natural resources, our natural capital. It’s the fact we have the ability and political commitment to invest in nature-based solutions, which will lock up carbon and prevent climate heating in the future.

“The Scottish Government has also recognised the importance of biodiversity issues within the climate change framework. “Another reason for optimism is the work the Scottish Government has been doing on recovery from COVID-19 and recognising that, yes, it needs to be an economic recovery but actually it needs to address the longstanding issues of climate change and biodiversity loss as well. They have been absolutely clear about that.

“When we’ve been discussing some of the projects we want to pursue in relation to nature-based solutions, we’re looking at multiple benefits: jobs in rural areas, addressing climate effects and enriching nature. As a package in terms of green recovery that’s incredibly strong.” Francesca acknowledges that, although no-one wants to live through the pandemic again, there are elements we do want to hang on to.

“I think from our perspective it’s been really interesting to see some of the behavioural changes, including that all-important engagement with nature. Now it’s about trying to ensure people remain committed to that change. It’s a challenge ... but it’s also a great opportunity.”