Chair of NatureScot Mike Cantlay talks to Andrew Collier about the crisis facing our native species and how a 'national endeavour' is now required to halt and reverse biodiversity loss


Nature in Scotland is in crisis. Climate change and other pressures mean that some 11 per cent of our species are potentially at risk of extinction.

In addition, there has been a 24 per cent decrease in species abundance since 1994.

Things aren’t getting any better, and an urgent and strong response is now required.

The way we use and manage the land in Scotland is responsible for more than 30 per cent of our carbon emissions. These are frightening statistics and the root causes need to be addressed urgently. 

Much of the responsibility for doing so falls to NatureScot, Scotland’s nature agency.

Mike Cantlay, the organisation’s chair, believes we are at a tipping point. 
“The challenges facing organisations like ours are profound”, he says. “For a whole variety of different reasons, 2022 is going to be a really pivotal year.”

He talks of a “national endeavour” being needed in order to meet the challenges we face as a nation and the opportunities we can create from them. “We need to reverse nature loss and biodiversity, and that requires changes to the way we use land and sea.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) believes that the average country will end up giving some 30 per cent of its attention to nature based solutions in order to address the climate emergency.

“If you look in Scotland today, more than 40 per cent of the greenhouse gas inventory is concerned with land use. It’s a massive figure.”

At present, Mr Cantlay adds, the Scottish Government has committed about half a billion pounds to projects such as peatland and tree restoration. “We really need to look at how we are going to deliver on these nature based solutions.

“The role that planting trees in particular will play in addressing the climate emergency is well appreciated. Peatland restoration is perhaps less so, but it presents amazing opportunities.”

He says we should also be hugely concerned about species degradation and loss.

Most countries are facing the same issues, but the forthcoming COP15 conference – different to the recent COP26 in Glasgow and focusing on global biodiversity – to be held in China in 2022 will look at this.

“In a way, it will be nature’s COP26, setting the world on a path to nature recovery. It will hopefully be the moment when the concept of biodiversity becomes more widely understood.”


Cantlay says Scotland's National Parks – Loch Lomond is pictured left – provide a model for how successful community engagement with nature can work


During next year the Scottish Government will also be launching its own biodiversity strategy. “That will be in the autumn and will be a key piece of work.  It will be about how we pull together the actions to restore nature over the course of the next few 
years. We will be supporting the government, working closely with other partners in developing that strategy. It will frame our action. In parallel, work to increase protection out at sea will accelerate

“Following that strategy will be the Natural Environment Bill, which will put in place key legislative changes and statutory targets to restore and protect nature.”

One of the issues at present is that the projects and nature restoration works taking place are quite fragmented. “It’s a project here and an initiative there. 

“This bill will mark the moment when we start to look at Scotland from a much wider, holistic perspective, taking in whole landscape and seascape change, so it isn’t just a farm here or a beach there. We need to look at it in terms of being a far broader concept because nature works in networks. We need to look at the whole to pull the disparate elements together. That’s what we have to do in 2022.”

Nature needs to be part of the solution. “We just don’t have time to undertake some of the projects we would like to - the challenge is so great that we have to prioritise.

“But you will see a whole range of things coming forward. They could be involving agriculture and issues surrounding soil, or hedgerows, or progressing tree planting. They will all integrate into a national strategy to deal with the issues we face.”

There can be a challenge, he adds, when the public understands the problems but assumes someone else is dealing with them. “That’s why I think we will genuinely have to put in place a national endeavour. It will mean everyone in the country having a role.

“People will need to have an awareness of what we are doing and of their individual part in it. It can’t be any other way. Nature is as important in an urban environment as it is in the country. 

“When you look at things like pollination, the role of communities is going to absolutely be key.”

He believes that Scotland’s existing two national parks, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and the Cairngorms, provide a model for how this engagement could work as they do reach out to the people living and working there.

“We need to look at this concept on a national basis, involving some of the wider communities as well as sectors that are directly involved such as agriculture, forestry and the marine.”

The Scottish Government is looking to NatureScot and other organisations to determine prioritisation and to determine how some of the challenges are unlocked.

But Mr Cantlay adds that politicians at the highest level do want to be involved.

“The key sign of that is that we have a new Minister [Lorna Slater from the Green Party] with responsibility for biodiversity in her actual job title. If I’d suggested someone having that portfolio to the Scottish Government five years ago, I think I would have been politely told to rethink that.

“The scale of the challenge and the scale of the opportunity were not so well appreciated then. The government has been on a journey and I think it prioritises the importance not just of nature, but of diversity.

“I think having a Minister round the table driving the agenda is going to be really important in the context of looking for dramatic change by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2045. We just don’t have the time to make mistakes.”


Degraded peatlands an ‘enormous issue’


Protecting and restoring Scotland’s nature may be vital in terms of the environment and sustainability, but it is also extremely important economically. 

Some 195,000 people are currently employed in the sector, amounting to more than 7 per cent of the country’s workforce. Remarkably, the number of jobs has grown at more than five times the overall rate of employment increase over the last half decade or so.


Dried out peat at a Peatland Action site in the Cairngorms National Park  


“Nature is now a key part of the economy”, says Mike Cantlay. “The half billion pounds committed to peatland restoration, tree planting and so on will be spent in some of the most remote parts of Scotland – the places where the concept of just transition might otherwise have been harder. That’s another really good reason why the government is seeing this sector as being ever more significant.”

He sees peatland restoration as being the most pressing issue. “The amount of carbon that has been lost is huge and it is the most enormous issue and challenge as well as being an opportunity.

“It’s been estimated that the amount of carbon we lose through degraded peat is roughly equivalent on an annual basis to the emissions of the old coal fired power station at Longannet that we’ve now demolished.”

This carbon will continue to be emitted until the situation is finally sorted and the degradation stops, Mr Cantlay adds. 

“Of course, once we have done that, there will be the opportunity to improve and to actually start to sequester carbon.”

He also stresses the profound importance of nature networks and the way we use land and sea. “We have to transform this if we are to hit net zero by 2045. It’s a priority for us and we’re working with stakeholders to make this happen.

“We need to move from piecemeal pockets of nature preservation by connecting these up through creating networks, including all of our farmed land so that eventually whole landscapes support nature and our prosperity.

“No country is going to succeed in delivering the nature based solutions we seek to address the climate emergency if we don’t tackle nature loss and treat seriously the biodiversity elements that are so prominent and are going to be so important. And there are real economic opportunities as well.”