CONCERNS have been raised over the ability of a Scottish Government-funded nature protection agency to protect and preserve Scotland's wildlife and precious countryside following concerns over "drastic" budget cuts.

Operational funding for NatureScot which totalled £45.6m last year saw a £3m cut from 2020/21.

The Scottish Government has advised nature agency of "significant pressures" on operations funding and are "currently targeting savings with further spending controls likely to be introduced".

It has emerged there are already already plans to slash its capital budget by 40% in the coming years.

NatureScot, which received £2.5 million in capital funding last year, will see that steadily slashed to just £1.5 million a year by 2025/26 under the Scottish Government capital spending review.

It has led to concerns from some conservationists about NatureScot's ability to do its vital conservation work and deal with community windfarm disputes.

The Herald understands that NatureScot has already flagged that its 8,800 hectare target for peatland restoration represents a "serious challenge" this year having seen a "substantial slippage" of 30% in 2021/22.

The nature agency has begun a five-year action plan to help turn around the "nature crisis" and achieve net-zero carbon emissions in Scotland.

It aims to help stop the decline in Scotland's biodiversity by 2030 at the latest.

Last year, official analysis by Scotland's nature agency shows that Scotland has failed to meet 11 of 20 agreed UN targets to protect the environment while one in five animals and plants deemed important to the nation by ministers are under threat.

The statutory Scottish Biodiversity List revealed threats to many of the 2105 land animal, plant and marine species deemed of principal importance by the Scottish Government.

A NatureScot analysis found that 441 (21%) were classed as threatened, and 222 (11%) as near threatened.

Conservationists now fear that the have said one of the last defenders of the Scottish landscape and wildlife will be "increasingly toothless" with its slashed capital funding.

Among the species at real risk of extinction is the capercaillie with only 542 of the birds estimated to be left in Scotland, according to new data. The population has dropped around 50% since the last survey six years ago and is now at a critically low level, the latest national survey has found.

The Herald: Capercaillie by Robin Orrow - part of the East Anglian Federation of Photographic Societies' exhibition at Wingfield Barns Picture: ROBIN ORROW

NatureScot, formerly known as Scottish Natural Heritage, the public body responsible for the protection of the nation's landscape and wildlife, advises the Scottish Government on all aspects of nature, wildlife management and landscape across Scotland, helps it meet its responsibilities under European environmental laws and acts as an offical agent in the delivery of conservation designations.

Documents show there are plans to cut NatureScot’s capital spend from £2.5 million in 2021/22 to £1.8 million this year. It will remain at that level till 2025/26, when it is due to receive just £1.5 million.

No Ring of Steel (NORoS),a residents action group formed to protest against the a wind farm in the Highlands has raised concerns about the trend of what it saw as "drastic" funding cuts to NatureScot.

They fear the it will hit its ability to preserve the countryside and properly examine major windfarm applications.

It pointed to the agency deciding it was no longer opposing an extension to a wind farm near the villages of Rosehall and Lairg in Sutherland as the land is no longer seen as wildnerness because there are already turbines there.

The Herald: Most of the planned wind farms affected by the change are in Scotland

Ashley Smith, spokesman for NORoS, said: “Communities depend on NatureScot to fight on our behalf.

“But if is having its funding cut that means it will be increasingly incapable of defending Scotland’s countryside. “What is the point of having these organisations if they are going to be ignored by decision-makers and subjected to significant financial cuts?

“The Scottish Government is not listening to or financing the very experts it employs to provide advice.

“NatureScot exists to cater for, improve and promote Scotland’s natural heritage, and to inspire, enthuse and influence others.

“The funding it receives contribute hugely to our nation’s prosperity and wellbeing.

"We've already seen NatureScot step back from windfarm applications in our area recently and, with further funding cuts on the way, the concern is an organisation with less money coming in will have less ability to do its job."

The Scottish Government, which sees peatland as a “critical” part of Scotland’s response to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, missed its annual restoration target for the fourth successive year in 2021-22.

Around 8,000 hectares of degraded peat were restored by government schemes - just 40% of the 20,000 hectares that the Scottish Government said it would restore in 2021-22 in its 2018 climate change plan.

NatureScot monitoring documents show that there is a high risk of failing to meet its targets again this year.

"Achieving the target of 8,800ha for peatland restoration represents a major challenge given the current levels of demand and design capacity," a NatureScot analysis for April to June said.

"Some of the main reasons for slippage against last year’s target is the over-ambition from applicants and underestimation of time it takes to build a pipeline of projects coming forward.

"Considering these issues, our current estimate is that there is a high risk of not realising the 8,800ha target. We are learning lessons from the substantial slippage of 30% last year predominantly due to over-ambition, Covid, supply chain and weather issues.

"Actions in hand include increased workforce capacity providing more resilience, reduced impact of Covid, as well as applicants being more familiar with the Peatland Code and Permitted Development Rights processes."

It has been estimated there are 1.7 million hectares of peatland in Scotland, much of which is eroding.

Restoring degraded peatlands is an important part of Scotland’s plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2045.

When in good condition, peatlands act as a long-term carbon store, absorbing the gas from the air, contributing to the prevention of global warming.

A NatureScot spokesman said: "We are awaiting confirmation from the Scottish Government on our future grant in aid."

A Scottish Government spokesman said “NatureScot’s five year vision in its Corporate Plan: “A Nature Rich Future for All” 2022 – 2026, clearly sets out outcomes to strengthen protection of Scotland’s nature - including through ensuring planning and regulatory systems deliver for nature.

“Onshore wind has an important role to play in tackling the climate crisis and generating affordable and secure energy. NatureScot’s role is to ensure that new developments meet environmental standards.

“The Scottish Government is investing more than £1 billion to tackle climate and nature emergencies. Scottish Ministers have repeated their calls for the UK Government to provide appropriate funding to support public services, as due to inflation last October’s funding settlement is now worth around £1.7 billion less than when it was allocated.”