Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Uncertain future for Highlands and their wildlife

Scotland’s uplands are to become the focus of a major new debate between land managers, policy makers and the general public, with the aim of producing a long-term managerial vision of their future, according to RSPB Scotland.

The organisation is pushing to plan a way forward for the management and use of Scotland’s mountains, hills, glens and moorland and their function in the modern world, given the current thinking on climate change, agricultural policies and the requirements of local communities.

The RSPB has just released a report spelling out the challenges faced, along with some possible solutions, in an effort to bolster the debate and help form policy on the future of Scottish uplands. Two recent inquiries into such areas have already been set up – The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Inquiry into the Future of Scotland’s Hills and Islands, and the Crofting Inquiry, led by Mark Shucksmith.

Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland, explained: “The time is right to open the debate on the future of our uplands and the landscapes, wildlife and communities that depend on them. Our uplands are a huge national resource; they underpin much of our tourism, sustain local jobs and provide public benefits for those who spend leisure time in them. They also play a crucial role in the natural processes of the land, which we rely on, storing both water and carbon.

“RSPB Scotland has some ideas about the future it would like to see for the uplands, but we recognise that no-one has all the answers. We want a national debate and would urge everyone with an interest in the uplands to take part, so that future public policy supports sustainable land management that maintains jobs and enriches wildlife habitats.”

The document in question, The Uplands – Time to Change?, highlights several areas of concern:

  • Large swathes of the uplands are in sub-optimum condition and deteriorating, despite the fact that areas are protected as SSSIs or National Scenic Areas.
  • Important habitat such as upland hay meadows and wildlife such as Black Grouse are facing long-term problems in certain areas.
  • Much drinking water comes from uplands but can suffer pollution problems, while the lessened ability of upland soil structures to retain water will increase the risk and magnitude of flooding.
  • Hill farming income is falling while the average age of farmers is increasing. Livestock, primarily cattle, are being removed from our uplands at an accelerating rate, with, potentially, serious environmental, economic and social consequences.
Furthermore, the report goes on to highlight the challenges faced by upland areas in the face of climate change which include the loss of wetlands and the increased likelihood of moorland and forest fires. Species of economic importance, such as Red Grouse, may well have to retreat to higher altitudes due to habitat loss/change due to climatic changes.

Stuart Housden commented: “Our report lists some serious challenges now and in the immediate future, but there are also opportunities … Managed properly, our upland soils can store huge amounts of carbon, soaking up thousands of tonnes a year which would otherwise contribute to global warming.”

He added: “We have to give proper recognition to the services our uplands provide and proper reward to those that manage the land in a way that delivers them. Finding common ground and a shared vision will give the people and wildlife in our uplands a future.”

As well as land owners, farmers and grouse moor managers, the general public can have their say in the debate on the future of Britain’s uplands – comments and suggestions can be emailed direct to uplands@rspb.org.uk.

Photo: European Golden Plover by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com)