SCOTLAND'S ancient and native woodlands are "constantly and increasingly under threat" and should be given greater legal protection, it has been urged.

Heads of Planning Scotland, the representative organisation for senior planning officers, hit out at an "anything goes" approach to land use. 

Meanwhile, the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance said the "failure to preserve the integrity of Scotland’s ancient woodlands could be taken as a violation of the environmental and cultural rights of present and future generations".

The warnings came in submissions to the Scottish Parliament following a petition lodged by the campaign group Help Trees Help Us. 

It is calling for Scotland’s remaining fragments of ancient, native and semi-native woodlands to receive “full legal protection”.

Such woods offer unique, biodiverse habitats and are considered irreplaceable.

The Scottish Government says ancient woodland is defined as land that has been continually wooded since at least 1750.

It argues that while there is no specific legislation to protect ancient woodlands, there are "a number of measures to ensure that they are protected".

But campaigners want ministers to take further action before the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, and insist existing legislation is not fit for purpose.

Their petition, which has attracted 1,788 signatures and was lodged in Holyrood last year, has now been backed by submissions from organisations and experts.

The Woodland Trust said ancient woodland "does not have enough protection from development in the current planning system, or protection from other threats such as overgrazing, and this irreplaceable habitat continues to get fragmented and chipped away at".

It added: "It is estimated that in Scotland we have around 1 per cent of land area covered by ancient woodland. 

"It should be entirely possible and reasonable to afford the best protection possible to the remaining areas. 

"Ancient woodland is irreplaceable so once it’s gone, it’s gone."

The conservation charity said that as of July 1, 2020, there were 274 ancient woodlands currently under threat from development in Scotland.

Calling for better protection, it said: "We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rescue these remaining fragments of our natural heritage. And we need all the help we can get."

Elsewhere, a submission from Heads of Planning Scotland said the petition "has merit as ancient, native and semi-native woodlands are a finite resource and are constantly and increasingly under threat from development and land management pressures".

It added: "This is a land use issue, not simply a developmental issue, and as long as there is an ‘anything goes’ approach to that, then short of (properly enforced) statutory protection these assets will remain at risk and continue to be degraded."

NatureScot, formerly known as Scottish Natural Heritage, said natural woodlands are well protected against felling and removal, but poorly protected against "persistent damage leading to loss of area, condition and richness" and "novel threats especially related to climate change".

The John Muir Trust said Scotland remains one of the most heavily deforested countries in Europe, with woodland cover well below the current European average of 37 per cent.

Audrey Baird, a campaigner with Help Trees Help Us who is named on the petition, said: "Until the Government demonstrates ancient woodland and other irreplaceable habitats are in fact our most valuable and vital assets by legislating to protect them, backing that up with effective deterrents and funding restorative conservation work, these priceless wonders will continue to be abused and exploited."

In a submission, the Scottish Government outlined a range of existing measures, including Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest designations, felling restrictions, enforcement powers and planning policies.

A spokeswoman said: "We do not recognise the claims being made here.

"In fact the Forestry and Land Management Act 2018 introduced additional protection for native woodlands in Scotland, over and above what exists in the rest of the UK.

"The Scottish Government is committed to protecting and enhancing Scotland’s environment and natural capital and our statement of intent on biodiversity, published in December 2020, sets out our ambition including a commitment to protecting 30% of our land for nature by 2030.

"Scotland’s forestry strategy commits to maintaining and enhancing Scotland’s forest and woodland resources for the benefit of current and future generations.

"Upholding the international principles of sustainable forest management and promoting the UKFS [UK Forestry Standard] as the benchmark of good forestry practice helps to prevent inappropriate woodland losses, particularly of ancient woodland.

"In November last year we published the National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) Position Statement, which makes clear that our approach to planning in NPF4 will support Scotland’s role in responding to the twin global crises of biodiversity loss and climate change.

"A draft of NPF4 will undergo Scottish Parliament scrutiny and extensive public consultation this autumn."