Why we should protect Scotland’s environment

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by Tom Hastings

Open any newspaper or magazine, listen or watch radio or TV and you will likely find the environment mentioned somewhere.

If you Google “the environment” you find 56,500,000 hits.  It would seem then that this environment is of some importance, but why is there so much kerfuffle about it and what exactly is “the environment”?

One definition of “the environment” is everything on planet Earth which affects the way life goes about its day to day existence.

This is a big concept but it can be broken down into smaller components which we find function as self-contained ecological units and which include all the life, soil, rocks, weather and anything else that happens to be part of that system.

These components are called ecosystems.  The oceans are ecosystems, as are the deserts and the forests, but these in turn can be further broken down to a basic ecological unit, the habitat.

A habitat is a bit easier to get your head round because it is on a scale we can instinctively understand.  The habitat is a place where an organism, be it animal, vegetable, fungus or bacterium, or more usually an ecological community, can live.  A place which supplies everything needed for survival.  Natterer’s bats live in broad-leaved woodland, they eat the insects which live in the woods and make their homes in hollow trees, so broad-leaved woodlands are their habitat.  It is habitats that most people would recognise as “the environment”.

Scotland has world class habitats.  From our mountain tops to our sea beds, Scotland’s habitats and species are a national treasure.

Our oak woodlands and peat bogs are the finest in Europe.  The machair is a flower rich grassland found on the Western Isles.  Our seas are some of the most productive on the planet and there are the flame shell beds in sea lochs which are found in Scotland and the west of Ireland but nowhere else on Earth.

Of course there are problems with our environment, probably the most pressing being invasive non-native species outcompeting our own, and I’m not even going to start on climate change.  However we do have a great resource which needs to be nurtured and protected for future generations and not exploited for short term gain.

This protection is important for several reasons.  In ecological circles, the concept of “environmental services” is a hot topic; it basically means how much it would cost us to do that which the environment does for free.

It is a contentious subject and I am not totally convinced by many of the arguments, however it offers an indication of the economic benefits of having a healthy, thriving environment.

One study, published in Nature in 1997, looked at different types of ecosystems and habitats and tried to put a cash value on the collective benefits they bring.

One area the study covered was salt marsh and mangrove swamp that both act as barriers against storms coming in from the ocean.  If these habitats are allowed to degrade, usually by building on the land for short term gain, you have nothing standing between you, coastal erosion and flooding.  To get around this requires the construction of big, expensive concrete sea defences to try and hold back the sea, often with all the success of Canute.

The 1997 study placed an estimated collective value of US$33 trillion on the world’s environmental services.  At the time the figure represented more than double global GDP.

But it isn’t just services like these where a healthy environment makes economical sense.  We once had sea eagles in Scotland, they were hunted to extinction but we brought them back.  Mull is better off by £2.3 million pounds per year from the resultant tourist trade.

We have some of the finest, cleanest rivers in Europe and people come from all over the world to fish for our salmon, spending £113 million pounds doing so.

Another extinct but reintroduced bird, the osprey, contributes £3.5 million to the economies of the nine sites where they can be viewed.  Not only the species but the habitats, the mountains, hills, lochs and glens draw millions to Scotland every year.  Skye was recently voted amongst the top 10 European holiday destinations for that very reason.

But filthy lucre is not the only, indeed I’d argue not the main, reason we should be looking after our environment.  Our own physical and mental well being depends on the quality of the environment.  It has been shown that exposure to green space reduces stress and psychological disorders.

In Scotland we have unique habitats and species.  The Scottish crossbill for example is a bird found in the Caledonian pine forest and is the only vertebrate species in the UK to be found nowhere else in the world.  It would be a tragedy if it disappeared.

But surely the most important reason for proper stewardship of our natural environment is that it is our natural environment.  It is Scotland incarnate.  It defines our country and it shapes our people.  It is what feeds us, what gives us water to drink, what makes us wealthy and, with renewables, is what is set to keep us wealthy.

It is our heritage, yours and mine, to be passed to our children and to their children as it was passed to us.  It is not to be lightly sold so that some banker can play laird, not to be taken from us and given to the rich to make them richer and thus making the rest of us poorer for generations to come.  We have to make sure that we don’t lose our forests as it seems the English may lose theirs, or our water, or our wild places.

Lose these things and Scotland loses her identity.

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