I, too, thank John Wilson for securing the debate, and I thank other members for their contributions to it. I join them in commending the Scottish Wildlife Trust for the excellent work that it does for Scotland’s wildlife and for reaching its 50th anniversary. I see that Maggie Keegan, Allan Bantick and Jonny Hughes are here.
My colleague Richard Lochhead was pleased to attend a reception in the Scottish Parliament recently to mark the 50th anniversary of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and I readily acknowledge the conservation work that has been carried out by the trust over the past half century and, in particular, the contribution that has been made over the years by volunteers. A number of members, including John Wilson, Claudia Beamish and Nigel Don, talked about the important role that volunteers play.
Others have talked about the membership numbers and the number of reserves; John Wilson started with that. I want to pick out some of the reserves that were mentioned. Loch of the Lowes was where I had one of my first ministerial engagements. I enjoyed the visit there to see the satellite data for ospreys, the red squirrels and, through the picture window in the main visitor centre, the birds that were feeding avidly. A number of members, including Graeme Dey, Nigel Don and Alex Johnstone, mentioned the Montrose basin, which is clearly important for communities in Angus and the north-east of Scotland. Claudia Beamish and John Wilson mentioned that the Falls of Clyde are important to them.
My first engagement with the Scottish Wildlife Trust was when I undertook some tree seeding at the wonderful Pease Dean nature reserve in the Scottish Borders, as part of a group of Cockburnspath and Cove community councillors. It was hard work, but it was hugely satisfying, and I commend the activity to others.
John Wilson mentioned the Jupiter urban wildlife centre, and Angus MacDonald talked about how it is an inspirational location for local schoolchildren to visit. When I visited there, I too thought that it is hugely inspirational, and a fitting location—as Angus MacDonald said—for launching the revised biodiversity strategy.
Rob Gibson spoke about reserves in the Scourie area before talking about landscape-scale projects; I will come back to the latter. Angus MacDonald mentioned the Carron dams and the Kinneil foreshore, which are great examples of the local work that the SWT is doing the length and breadth of Scotland.
The trust has also been at the forefront of helping to conserve Scotland’s red squirrels. A number of members mentioned that important work. I would like to take this opportunity to record my thanks for the work that has been done to date by the trust and its partners, who are now on the front line of red squirrel conservation. A special mention should, again, go to the very many volunteers who undertake that work.
As Graeme Dey said, last year I was fortunate to visit Kinnaird castle in Angus, which I did at his invitation. Nigel Don and I went to see the excellent red squirrel conservation work that is being carried out by Kinnaird Estates and the Scottish Wildlife Trust as part of the saving Scotland’s red squirrel project. It was clear from the informative discussion on the visit that the public-private-voluntary partnership approach is the best way—the only way, really—to tackle the landscape-wide conservation effort that is required to ensure the continued presence of red squirrels in our countryside. Stewart Stevenson also referred to the project. I was very heartened to hear the positive view that is being taken by those who work on the front line: while the battle to contain squirrel pox virus goes on in the south, where greys are dominant, we seem to have a realistic prospect of safeguarding red squirrels and pushing back the non-native greys from parts of Scotland north of the central belt.
I am keen to mention the Scottish beaver trial at Knapdale, which Alex Johnstone and others mentioned. The SWT is a partner in the trial, along with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland. The project has been impressive and the trial has been very professionally run, and is supported by a lot of good work from a large number of volunteers. I was pleased to visit the trial last year on my way back from Mull, when I was fortunate to see a young beaver kit swimming in the twilight. It was a magic moment.
I was pleased to mark the achievement of the conclusion of the five-year field trial phase at a reception in Parliament earlier this month, when I addressed and thanked many of those who had been involved. I even met the project mascot, Bruce the Beaver. It is possible that there is a photographic record of the event and no doubt a caption competition is accompanying it.
Rather more seriously, the Scottish beaver trial has won awards for its work, including the BBC “Countryfile” project of the year award. It deserves our congratulations on that.
The pressures on Scotland’s landscapes need to be tackled at appropriate scale and they need commitment and ambition, as a number of members observed. The Scottish Wildlife Trust demonstrates all those things and can be proud of the outstanding living landscapes projects at Cumbernauld and Coigach-Assynt, which Rob Gibson mentioned. The projects demonstrate the trust’s expert knowledge and its commitment to integrated land management. The Coigach-Assynt living landscape project is one of Europe’s largest ecosystem regeneration projects, as Rob Gibson said, and is a testament to the trust’s ability to tackle issues on a landscape scale. Nigel Don spoke about the importance of looking after the landscape and letting nature take care of itself. As well as excellent environmental work, the projects also provide local training and employment opportunities, and they strengthen the local cultural heritage links with the land in Coigach-Assynt.
Equally, the living landscape project at Cumbernauld will address a wide range of land use issues and provide many benefits for local people, as well as encouraging wildlife. Both projects represent the very best in partnership working and integrated land management, and they ensure that local people are involved in the important issues in their area and are able to drive land-use choices. That is vital if we are to address the many challenges of land management, such as responding to climate change and managing our natural resources now and in the future.
Rebuilding Scotland’s natural capital is a key priority for both the new Scottish biodiversity strategy natural capital group and the Scottish forum on natural capital. The SWT will make an important contribution to the valuation and future monitoring of Scotland’s natural capital through its membership of both groups.
The biodiversity strategy natural capital group was set up last year to take forward the Scottish biodiversity strategy 2020 challenge, and is looking at a broad range of issues on valuation and use of the environment. Jonny Hughes and his colleagues at SWT have championed this area of debate and were the driving force behind last year’s world natural capital forum gathering in Edinburgh. SWT has a superb track record of promoting greater understanding of ecosystem goods and services, and its membership of both groups will be a tremendous asset, so I thank it for its contribution. The trust is at the forefront of that debate. Aside from its role in the world forum, SWT is one of the five founding partners of the Scottish forum on natural capital.
I turn finally to environmental volunteering, which a number of members mentioned. The conservation work of the SWT, including its volunteers, helps to support the Scottish Government in achieving its conservation objectives. We are very grateful to all those who demonstrate dedication to protecting our environment. Graeme Dey spoke about how he trusts SWT’s advice; I very much agree. Certainly Stewart Stevenson knows it from personal experience, as he mentioned in his speech. I record my gratitude and that of my officials for SWT’s advice. I absolutely agree with Stewart Stevenson about how valuable its role is.
SWT has more than 800 registered volunteers. It has supported the Scottish beaver trial, which Alex Johnstone mentioned, and other projects. It is helping in numerous practical conservation-based projects, including conservation of the Scottish wildcat, which was also mentioned.
We should be very grateful for the contribution that SWT makes and I am glad to hear that everyone across the chamber is. I close by reiterating my very high regard for the work of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. I wish it well in its continued work in the future on behalf of Scotland’s environment and wildlife. I hope that it continues not just for 50 years, but for many years thereafter. Thank you very much from all of us in the chamber today.
Meeting closed at 17:46.