Monitoring of protected areas has been inadequate in Scotland over the last decade. Niamh Coyne, RSPB Scotland’s Conservation Planner discusses the need for this to be urgently addressed to meaningfully deliver on the Scottish Government’s commitment to protect 30% of Scotland’s land for nature by 2030.

Two weeks ago, we issued a stark warning to all our newly elected MSPs about the perilous state of Scotland’s nature, following analysis that showed nature in Scotland is more depleted than in 212 other countries and territories out of 240 assessed. We called on the Scottish Parliament to take urgent action to turn this around.  

Protected areas are a vital component to tackle growing pressures on the natural world: to halt and reverse declines in nature. In Scotland, our protected areas are diverse and far-reaching: from expanses of blanket bog in the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland; to the ancient Caledonian forest at Abernethy that is home to magnificent species such as ospreys and capercaillie. Our most important areas for nature are protected by law: Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs); Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs); and internationally important Ramsar wetland sites.

wetland with two trees to the left and hills in the background

Scotland’s protected areas are extremely important for nature and for people, however they are not sufficient on their own to halt the loss of nature. Rather, they must be embedded within wider landscapes that are also managed in a way that supports nature and the climate. This helps our habitats to expand and be better connected and allows wildlife to move more easily throughout Scotland. Protected areas must also be well managed and in a healthy condition to provide long-term benefits for protected species and habitats.

Last year, the Scottish Government committed to protect 30% of Scotland’s land for nature by 2030, hot on the heels of the UK Government’s commitment to protect 30% of land in the UK by 2030 (known by some as “30x30”). These commitments must be delivered in a way that leads to the genuine recovery of nature.

Monitoring the condition of protected areas is vital to understand the health of their species and habitats, and to ensure the right management is in the right place for nature. It is the responsibility of NatureScot to monitor the health of protected areas and ensure they maintain good condition in line with shared standards for monitoring across the UK.

Common scoter on water (all black seaduck with some yellow on top of bill)

However, monitoring of protected areas has been inadequate across all four countries, and in Scotland has become piecemeal and mediocre at best. NatureScot has suffered cuts to resources and funding for monitoring over the last decade; furthermore, the frequency of monitoring protected areas has slowed, and reporting lacks transparency. Despite these barriers to monitoring, NatureScot are in the process of developing a new ‘Monitoring and Surveillance Strategy’, signalling an opportunity to improve monitoring and condition of protected areas in the coming years.  

Robust monitoring of protected areas is essential. The RSPB is developing a set of principles to underpin robust monitoring of protected areas, and we are keen to share this and work on it with others. We want to kickstart meaningful conversations with decision makers to proactively address the nature crisis and ensure we do not suffer another decade of inaction.

Currently around 65% of the special wildlife protected by our important nature sites is in a good condition. Action and investment is needed to improve this situation and ensure that nature in Scotland’s protected areas is thriving – robust monitoring is vital for achieving this. 2021 represents an important year of change and recovery for many reasons: the pandemic, and the nature and climate emergency.

Sundew and red sphagnum close up

Targets set later this year at two international summits – the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15 and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s COP26 – are expected to be evermore ambitious. The Scottish Government has previously stated it wishes to keep Scotland aligned with EU environmental protections; therefore, robust monitoring is vitally needed to ensure Scotland keeps pace with international and European measures, and to meaningfully deliver on the commitment to protect 30% of the Scotland’s land for nature by 2030.

Monitoring of protected areas must be radically transformed, scaled up and funded across all four countries of the UK. For more information see our blog for Green Alliance here: