Last year the Scottish Government committed to protect at least 30% of Scotland’s land for nature by 2030. So how much land is currently protected and how far do we have left to go?

Protecting at least 30% of Scotland’s land by 2030

Protected areas are our most important nature sites. They are the frontline of defence for nature against growing pressures from human activity and climate change. Whilst we still have some fantastic places for wildlife, Scotland was recently found to be one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. This is a stark reminder of all we have historically lost, whilst our remaining places for nature show us how much we have left to lose.

Next year, global leaders will come together to agree new international targets to save nature. This new global framework is expected to include a target to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 (“30 by 30”). In a pre-emptive move, the Scottish Government signed up to this target last year – a very welcome step and demonstration of leadership. They must now start to develop a clear routemap to achieve it, to ensure this target leads to genuine recovery of nature.

A razorbill floats on the water's surface, the camera showing both above and below.

Action also needs to be taken to ensure that 30% of Scotland’s seas are effectively protected. Photo credit: Aidan McCormick

How much land is protected across the UK?

To design a roadmap to “30 by 30” we first need to find out where we are now. In a new paper published today in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, scientists from the RSPB examined the area of land designated as protected in the UK and whether it is being managed effectively for nature conservation.  It found that whilst the UK Government reported 28% of land across the UK to be protected for nature, only 11.4% of land is primarily protected for nature, and as little as 4.9% of UK land may be effectively protected for nature. Effective protection means that land is being managed in the right way to support nature, and that the wildlife it supports is in good condition.

The situation in Scotland

The paper highlights that Scotland is leading the pack of the four UK countries in terms of performance on protected areas. The authors found that across much of the UK the protected area estate is disproportionately made up of designated landscapes such as National Parks, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty rather than sites specifically protected for nature. In comparison we know from the NatureScot’s own data, that 18% of land is designated as statutory nature conservation sites in Scotland (Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest). This is a good start.

However, we also know that not all of the 18% of land protected for nature in Scotland is effectively managed and in a good condition. 65% of designated features – the special species, habitats and geological interests that these places protect – are in a good condition, with 1 in 5 remaining in unfavourable condition. Inadequate progress has been made to turn this situation around over the last decade: there have been persistent cuts to the budgets for monitoring and management of protected areas and in recent years condition has started to go in the wrong direction.

A less rosy finding of the paper was that the UK Government include Scotland’s National Scenic Areas (NSAs) in their reporting of protected land coverage. NSAs, which cover around 10,000 km2, are created to protect landscapes of particular beauty and cultural value, have no statutory purpose to protect nature, and were found to not meet the IUCN criteria of a protected area. Despite this, the UK Government report NSAs in their extent of protected areas - the Scottish Government does not include NSAs in their reporting and in the future the UK Government should not either.

The research also shows that the protected areas figure reported by UK Government includes the UK’s National Parks. The Scottish Government also counts National Parks towards protected areas coverage. However, the paper finds that unlike protected areas for nature, these landscapes are not primarily designated just for the protection of nature and therefore concludes that National Parks shouldn’t be counted towards 30x30 in their current form.

The fact that National Parks contain towns, villages and often areas of intensively managed land, means they won’t ever be able to count in full towards the 30% target. It is important to recognise though that they do contain a huge amount of land within them that is or could be valuable for nature and should be protected and, ultimately, counted. The Scottish Government has recently committed to designating at least 1 new National Park and Scotland’s two existing National Parks have expressed welcome ambitions to do more for nature. They should be supported and resourced to contribute more towards nature’s recovery by the Scottish Government.

National Parks, such as Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, have welcome ambitions to do more for nature. Photo credit: Andy Hay

Looking ahead: the road to 30%

The key message of the paper is that what really matters when it comes to protected areas, is quality, not just quantity. The Scottish Government is coming out the top of the pack in the UK, but there is a long way to go.

It is vital that the Scottish Government starts to develop an ambitious, robust plan, now – in collaboration with delivery partners – for achieving “30 by 30”. This must mean not just creating legal protections for land, but effectively protecting 30% of Scotland’s land through targeted monitoring, management and investment. The cuts to protected area budgets must be reversed immediately and a significant year-on-year uplift in funding must be provided over the lifecycle of this parliament. New and existing National Parks have huge potential to deliver more for nature’s recovery and should be supported to do this. Over time, more areas within the National Parks could then contribute to the 30% target.

Nature is in trouble and Scotland can no longer afford to coast along. Progress in improving the management and condition of our important nature sites has stagnated – this must be reversed urgently. This will require political commitment and significant financial reinvestment in our protected nature sites to ensure these places can play their part in halting and reversing the loss of nature.

The silhouette of a crested tit perched on a branch at sunset.

Immediate action is required to ensure more sites are effective in saving nature. Photo credit: Ben Andrew

Cover photo credit: Chris Gomersall