Nearly half of Scotland’s species are in decline, but the situation can be turned around with immediate action to preserve natural habitats, a report reveals.

The news around the state of nature is chilling. Study after study, global or national, delivers a portrait of biodiversity loss. The 2019 State Of Nature Scotland report, for instance, found 49 per cent of our species have seen declines in abundance since 1970.

But, according to a new Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) report published ahead of the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference, which tales place in Montreal, Canada, from December 7 to 19 to agree a plan for nature, it is within our power to halt some of this decline.

The report, titled A World Richer For Nature, calls for a “decade of action” and urges Scotland to take bold measures to ensure that “by 2030, our best places for nature, amounting to at least 30% of land and sea, are properly protected and well managed”.

RSPB Scotland director Anne McCall said: “Nature is in crisis around the globe. We need COP15 to deliver a strong, ambitious deal for nature’s recovery. However, there’s plenty of things the Scottish Government can do now to tackle the nature crisis at home. The stated ambition to do this has never been higher, but this needs to manifest in real action.”

The World Wildlife Fund’s recent Living Planet report calculated an average 69% decrease globally in relative abundance of monitored wildlife populations between 1970 and 2018, with the worst decline across Latin America and the Caribbean; the least in Europe and Central Asia.

The report said: “Although Europe and Central Asia saw the smallest recorded regional decline, it should be recognised that many species were already in a depleted state when data started being compiled.”

In other words, a great deal of Scotland’s nature was lost long ago – and this is reflected in the fact that, in the global ranking of Biodiversity Intactness Index, Scotland comes, with 56%, 28th from the bottom of 240 countries. Not so bad as England, 7th from bottom, but startlingly worse than other nearby countries: France (65%), Norway ( 75%).

Scotland’s forest coverage, for instance, is a fraction of its former high of 80%, at now only 18%, though up from a low of 6%. Species lost over the centuries include wolf, lynx, bear and elk. The beaver, which became extinct north of the Border in the 16th century, is currently being reintroduced.

READ MORE: Both sides of rewilding debate are wrong, says author

Some of our more recently declining species are famous. There are now only about 115 to 315 Scottish wildcat remaining in the wild. The wild Atlantic salmon has been in steep decline, with 35,693 caught in Scotland last year, the lowest number since records began in 1952.

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Meanwhile, populations of curlew, a once widespread farmland bird, declined by 59% between 1995-2018. Other farmland birds have also declined, such as lapwings (56%) and rooks (34%).

Seabird populations, already declining, have been dramatically hit by avian flu over the past year. By September this year, for instance, more than 2,600 Great Skuas had died: 8% of the world population. Even our iconic puffins are endangered.


The RSPB is also calling for “an ambitious Seabird Strategy as we face the aftermath of the catastrophic impact bird flu had on seabirds this year”.

In the 2019 UK Marine Strategy assessment, 11 of the 15 indicators used to determine the health of our seas failed to achieve Good Environmental Status.

Insects have also been affected. The Bugs Matter Citizen Science survey, which gathered data on insects “splatted” on vehicle number plates, found, between 2004 and 2021, 28% fewer insects were recorded in Scotland.

Butterfly Conservation’s Red List of threatened butterflies published earlier this year showed more than one in three Scottish butterfly species is under threat, with, new to the list this year, the Scotch argus and the dark green fritillary.

Climate change and the decline in mountain snow cover is also hitting montane species – not just the mountain hare, whose numbers in 2018 were found to be just 1% of its 1950s population, but also arctic-alpine plants such as the snow pearlwort and drooping saxifrage.

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Dr Christopher Ellis, of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, an expert in climate-change impacts, said: “ While climate change is a threat to many of our habitats and species, there are solutions. We’re working to understand how species depend on very small variations in climate... When we restore our native habitats into the landscape, we can do so in a way that ensures suitable microclimates will exist into the future, providing refugia for species that would be otherwise threatened by climate change.”

However, research has shown that, globally, climate-change is not, yet, the chief cause of biodiversity loss. A recent study by Dr Pedro Jaureguiberry looked into what factors were impacting global biodiversity and found that, on land, the biggest factor was land-use change – chiefly conversion of natural forests and grasslands to intensive agriculture. This was closely followed by direct exploitation through hunting, fishing and trade. Pollution came next, with climate-change in fourth place. The biggest factor in the marine environment was exploitation – overfishing.

The RSPB’s call to “bring forward a Natural Environment Bill with binding targets to effectively protect 30% of Scotland’s land and sea for nature by 2030” comes at a time when just 18% of our land is designated for nature. Meanwhile, 37% of Scottish seas are designated as protected areas, with 28% falling within the Marine Protected Area Network. But, the report notes, “many are not effectively managed for nature.”

The report contains a long list of other wildlife-protecting ideas including a call for a shift to a “nature positive economy” and strengthening of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. As the world comes together for COP15, its warning message is that we cannot afford to lost more years – we must act for nature now.


READ MORE: Rewilders of our seas – bringing back oysters and seagrass


Biodiversity hope projects

Pine hoverfly reintroduction

The pine hoverfly, an insect important for pollination and waste removal, is so endangered it had not been seen in Scotland in recent years in its adult form. But a reintroduction project this year in the Cairngorms has changed that. This March 3,000 endangered pine hoverfly larvae were released into three forest habitats in the Cairngorms National Park. Surveys this autumn found larvae in previously unoccupied tree stump - showing that at least some had completed a full breeding cycle.

Mar Lodge regeneration

When, 17 years ago, the National Trust for Scotlands's Mar Lodge began its zero tolerance approach to deer, the idea received a great deal of backlash. Now, however, the site is seeing landscape-scale natural regeneration of native woodland (mostly Caledonian pinewood) for first time in 200 years, with around 2,000 hectares of naturally regenerating native woodland recorded in 2021. Since 2011 it has seen a 436% increase in the number of Scots pine seedlings. This year White-tailed Eagle returned to breed for the first time in living memory.

READ MORE: Mar Lodge: Efforts to combat climate change as winter species hit

White-tailed eagle reintroduction

Following intense persecution through the 19th century, white-tailed eagles were driven to national extinction in the early years of the 20th century. Following reintroduction successes in both East and West Scotland, the species now has a growing native breeding population once more.

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Lamlash no-take zone

Since 2008, following a campaign by the Community of Arran Seabed Trust, there has been a fishing "no-take zone”, where fishing is not allowed around Lamlash bay. A 2020 study led by the University of York found that lobster were now over four times more abundant than in the adjacent areas and that king scallop density was four times higher than in 2013.