Benefits from Scotland’s ‘natural capital’ growing


From its mountains to glens, lochs and moorlands, Scotland’s natural assets have long been recognised for their wild beauty.

Now a new report has confirmed that the host of benefits we receive from the nation’s plants, wildlife, land, air and water is officially getting better.

According to the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) study, Scotland’s heathlands and peatlands, which store carbon and help combat climate change, in particular, are showing signs of improving.

Scotland’s Natural Capital Asset Index (NCAI) study also suggests the scale of the country’s broadleaved woodlands is also increasing, with a knock-on upswing in numbers of woodland birds.

But it also goes on to highlight a downturn in the quality of designated woodlands and upland bird populations, while species rich meadows are shown to have declined to their lowest extent since 2000.

Although phosphorus and nitrates pollutants are at their lowest level in inland surface waters in 20 years, wild salmon and grilse catches are said to have seen “dramatic drops” in 2016 and 2017.

However, despite the downturn in certain areas, Scotland’s overall natural capital is said to be in an “increasing state” having shown signs of recovery for five consecutive years.

It is now at its highest level since 2000 after decades of decline between the 1950s and 1990s due to human activities such as increases in peat drainage and uses of pesticides.

Natural Capital

Natural capital covers four broad areas: provisioning services such as food, water and timber; regulating services such as natural flood protection and air filtration; cultural benefits from natural beauty and recreation and supporting services which provide long term benefits such as crop pollination and healthy soil.

The new study assessed the quality and quantity of land-based habitats and their contributions to human wellbeing by tracking changes in ecosystems.

It examined habitat quality using 38 separate indicators which rely on datasets gathered by public organisations and citizen science schemes.

While it indicates that the quality of all habitat types in Scotland is improving, among the most significant findings are strong signs that heathlands – the country’s most widespread habitats – and peatlands are recovering after decades in demise.

Scotland is home to around 60 per cent of all the UK’s peatlands, which are recognised for their biodiversity, rare moorland birds and plants as well as playing an important role in water quality and flow.

They act as massive sponges for greenhouse gases, with Scotland’s peat bogs storing ten times more carbon than all of the UK’s forests combined.

However, four-fifths of Scotland’s peatlands have been listed as damaged.

A major peatland restoration project is currently under way, with the Scottish Government recently committing an extra £1.5 million in funding to help regenerate 250,000 hectares of peat bog by 2030.

The new natural capital index shows 40 per cent larger areas of broadleaved woodlands compared to 2000, and woodland bird numbers up by 25 per cent over the same period.

However, it warns that modelling improvements have shown carbon capture from deciduous woodland is “more modest” than previously thought.

Ongoing Threats

SNH chief executive Francesca Osowska added: “It’s excellent news that our natural capital is now officially increasing for the first time.

“Natural capital is vitally important for Scotland’s economy and our quality of life. It provides us with food, water, natural flood defences and crop pollination. There remain many challenges, not least from climate change, and we are working to address these.”

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: “Scotland became the first country in the world to publish a detailed report which monitors annual changes in its natural capital and it is encouraging to see that the contribution nature makes to our society has continued to improve since the index first launched in 2011.” 

The new report highlights ongoing threats to Scotland’s natural environments from invasive species of plants and the impact of climate change, which enables pests and diseases to flourish.

Plans are now under way to include the contribution made by Scotland’s marine environment to the index.

SNH estimates that marine habitats around Scotland store more than 2,000 million tonnes of carbon, which studies show to be equivalent to around 200 years of our current carbon emissions.

The increase in benefits from natural capital comes after official Scottish Government figures placed the partial asset value of Scotland’s natural capital at around £273 billion – 34 per cent of the overall UK total.

The figure takes in everything from oil and gas to timber and renewable energy, plus cash generated from outdoor recreation and fishing. 

This article was originally published as Benefits from Scotland’s nature and countryside ‘are growing’ at The Herald on 10/04/19.

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