The contentious issue of effectively managing Scotland's iconic wildlife populations to secure the rural economy has also brought issues of sustainability and effective land management to the fore for NatureScot.

Many Scots have rediscovered their love of nature and exercising outdoors as a welcome release from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. At a time when social distancing has kept us apart, it is in many ways a unifying experience.

There do exist, however, areas of our natural heritage that can cause some division, such as how we best manage our iconic wildlife.

This is where NatureScot works hard to broker pathways between parties with often very different views, such as conservation organisations and traditional estates. Their mission aim is firmly focused on the fact sustainably managing wildlife and land is vital if we’re to enhance biodiversity and achieve net zero goals.

This means action to reduce the impacts of deer populations, especially in relation to the protection and long-term nurturing of woodland and peatland.

“What the report produced by the Deer Working Group – an independent group set up by the Scottish Government – underlines for me is the importance of continued and sustainable management,” says NatureScot Chief Executive Francesca Osowska.

“Deer are an iconic species in Scotland, but also an important source of revenue for land managers. As well as important considerations around herbivore impacts, including damage to woodland and peatland, we’ve got better information on the public safety risks associated with deer vehicle collisions.

“There is fine balance to be found in all of these things, of course, and we certainly listen to a wide variety of interests.”

NatureScot has a key role to play in articulating a clear vision to the public about sustainable management and why it’s necessary.

“Deer management contributes significantly to the Scottish economy, with about £140.8 million worth of expenditure and an estimated 700 jobs – in rural and fragile communities these are really important.

“With no natural predators, we need to control deer – that is a fact of life in Scotland – while also considering the climate emergency and the targets of net zero in terms of woodland creation and expansion.

“This liaison work has already delivered progress with 48 deer management groups across Scotland.

“It’s not been without challenges in some areas but, by and large, the engagement has been successful.

"We’ve seen groups which were established for deer management purposes move into broader work, including woodland creation, and thinking about carbon as an important element of the process.

“We need to build on this as Scotland moves into arguably a more assertive regime to meet climate change plan updates.”

“Healthy peatlands are crucial in the fight against climate change, and we need to take  positive action to secure this.

“But, in doing so, we need to be really clear we want to involve communities.”

Francesca notes living in harmony with nature and wildlife is a goal that cannot be taken for granted.

As a nation where people have intervened on the land for centuries, there are going to be complex issues between species and establishing our own roles and responsibilities in this dynamic.

“That’s why we must manage the needs of the human population but also protect our most vulnerable species and habitats.

“I do see anecdotal signs people are beginning to understand this more but we have a responsibility to explain why intervention is sometimes required.”

Some species control is done under licence and Francesca believes the regime is robust.

“It’s one of our regulatory responsibilities and it’s absolutely imperative when people are undertaking wildlife control they’re doing it in a fit and proper and humane manner.

“That’s a really important part of our role.”

She offers the example of licences for nest removal or control of garden birds. On the face of it this sounds a difficult proposition but one of the main reasons it’s necessary is because birds can nest in places that endanger them or the lives of humans, such as in home boiler systems.

“On occasions we are asked to issue a licence for a nest to be removed, for example if it is in a boiler vent which could lead to a build-up of carbon monoxide or in a kitchen area where it is a public hygiene threat.

“We also issue licences to prevent bird strikes on aircraft at airports and to prevent serious damage to farmers’ crops to help protect their livelihoods.

“Being able to provide a degree of understanding and rationale is an incredibly important part of public understanding.

“When it comes to deer we need to tell the story in terms of climate change and the need to enhance flora and fauna biodiversity and why intervention is necessary.”

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Economic realities of shooting can’t be ignored

ANOTHER controversial topic NatureScot faces is the management of grouse shooting estates, which has previously involved the culling of mountain hares and moor burning.

“In some parts of Scotland, grouse shooting is a key part of rural life and an economic driver,” says Francesca. “As we come out of the pandemic, we can’t ignore the economic realities here.

“I’ve been to many estates that want to do the right things and manage their land in a progressive way. They understand the holistic challenges of land management.

"They want to enhance their carbon stores, whether that’s through planting, peatland restoration or nutrient-rich soils. They want to have increased nature and biodiversity across their estates.

“Many of them are part of the Wildlife Estates Scotland, which looks at accreditation depending on the quality of biodiversity.”

HeraldScotland:

In fact, based on a programme taking place in 19 European countries, this scheme has Scotland sitting second top in the league table of accredited land behind only Spain.

“In terms of grouse shooting, it’s about ensuring there is the right level of oversight and regulation so there is confidence that management is sustainable, where estates are able to say, look this is what we want to do, why we want to do it and can provide the necessary information to demonstrate this,” says Francesca, “and we will work to ensure we’re getting all the checks and balances in the right place.

“Mountain hares are now a fully protected species, as of 1 March, so a licence is required to control them which is only granted for certain purpose - largely damage to new woodland.”

 One further major step could be a ban on burning on peatland with all muirburn licenced. “We need the legislative base for that but we are beginning to have conversations about the type of licensing regime. It’s going to be a busy year!”

It will also be a busy year for organisational transformation to help overcome future logistical challenges. Embracing digital, for example, should help NatureScot share information with partner bodies more quickly and efficiently.

“Collaboration is very important because otherwise you’re coming at the same problem from different angles without really sharing new ideas. The shared approach to wildlife management helps everyone.

"There’s certainly a lot of people to talk to!”

In essence, there’s an evolution at work on a number of fronts for NatureScot.

“The first is in terms of the licensing,” says Francesca, “and the second is in terms of the brokering and convening, as so many of the areas we work on are not without controversy.

"This means building on really strong relationships to find the right balance between a regulatory approach, economic value, particularly in rural areas, and supporting climate and biodiversity objectives.

“There’s a third evolution in our engagement with the general public. We’re making gains in the ‘nature is good’ message and people are getting that.

"We’re seeing a wider understanding of the fact that to enjoy nature across Scotland, and to reach net zero, sometimes hard decisions have to be taken.

“For NatureScot, being able to have the discussion with the general public and seek that understanding is invaluable.”

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Restoring peatland is vital to cutting carbon

NATURESCOT has helped in the recovery of more than 25,000 hectares of peatland in Scotland and is investing significantly in peatland restoration through PeatlandAction and the Agri-Environment and Climate scheme.

By reducing drainage and slowing water flow, as well as covering areas of exposed peat, carbon can be locked in and potentially harmful CO2 emissions reduced.

A total of 70% of all Scotland’s drinking water is sourced from peatlands, and where they are in good condition, they also assist with the filtration process – meaning that the water needs only minimal treatment.

HeraldScotland:

However because of historic drainage and burning, which was used to strip peat of its vegetation, as much as 600,000 hectares are in poor condition.

At Dryhope in the Borders the Peatland ACTION project has been working with the Phillipshaugh Estate to improve blanket bogs in the river Tweed catchment.

Restoring the water-holding qualities of the peat to prevent flash flooding will reduce the risk of fish ova being swept away, which would cause a decline in salmon and trout within the Tweed and its tributaries.

On the Hope’s Estate in East Lothian, the project has helped to dam fast-running ditches in order to ‘rewet’ the peat and hold more moisture on the bog and similar measures are being carried out across 1,500 ha of peatbog in the Cairngorms, where erosion had been taking place.

This work is proving effective in restoring degraded peatlands and in 2020 the Scottish Government announced funding of £250 million over ten years for further restoration.

This article was brought to you in association with NatureScot.