Scotland’s nature is protected and restored with flourishing biodiversity and clean and healthy air, water, seas and soils

Last updated: 16 December 2021

This outcome is about restoring the richness and resilience of nature in Scotland – for its own sake, and because it is fundamental to our health, wellbeing and prosperity. It means reversing biodiversity loss and improving the health and quality of our natural environment.

Here we report five initial indicators that help us to monitor progress towards this outcome: marine and terrestrial species, air pollutant emissions, freshwater condition, marine environmental quality and soil health. These indicators reveal the considerable, detrimental impact of human activity on biodiversity and environmental quality in Scotland, and the improvements that can arise from successful intervention.

Measuring the health of all nature’s many elements is extremely challenging and the widest possible sources of evidence should be considered in assessing progress towards this outcome. The indicators show improvements in some aspects of environmental quality, including a reduction since 2005 in the levels of eight major air pollutants in certain areas. However, the indicator data also highlight the ongoing decline in Scotland’s biodiversity and significant impacts on the health of our natural environment, including high levels of plastic and litter on our beaches, and damage to important marine habitats caused by seafloor disturbance. The significant challenges surrounding terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss in Scotland have recently been highlighted in the State of Nature Scotland Report 2019 and Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 reports.

Marine & terrestrial species

Indicator Updated: 04 November 2021

Headline: There has been a sustained decline in Scotland’s biodiversity over recent decades.

Source: NatureScot. Data for this chart can be downloaded from the Data Source page.

Biodiversity is monitored via the marine and terrestrial species indicator, which comprises three separate metrics: marine and terrestrial species abundance and terrestrial occupancy. These reflect changes in the abundance and distribution of a wide range of seabirds and land and freshwater species of plants, insects, birds and other animals. Find out more about the biodiversity indicator group.

The indicator reveals a sustained decline in marine and terrestrial abundance since the baseline year (1994). It shows a marginal increase in terrestrial occupancy, reflecting changes in species’ distribution, which may, in part, be due to the northward colonisation of southerly species due to climate change.

Quantitative data on changes to Scottish biodiversity prior to 1994 is not captured in the indicator. However, the State of Nature Scotland Report 2019, highlighted a sustained decline in biodiversity between 1970 and 1994 and concluded that these trends should be ‘viewed against a backdrop of profound historic human influences on nature in Scotland’.

A more detailed breakdown of the marine and terrestrial species indicator, showing trends for different groups of species, is available on the NatureScot website.

Further information on Scotland’s biodiversity strategy indicators is available here – these indicators track more detailed changes in Scotland’s species, habitats and ecosystems.

Air pollutant emissions

Indicator Updated: 16 December 2021

Headline: The quality of Scotland’s air has improved considerably in recent decades. However, certain pollutants exceed safe limits in some major urban centres, where air pollution continues to be associated with poor health and premature death.

Source: Air Pollutant Inventories for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Data for this chart can be downloaded from the Data Source page.

Air quality is assessed via a single indicator, which shows trends in annual emissions of the eight main air pollutants in Scotland. Find out more about the air quality indicator.

Air quality has improved significantly since the 1950s, with reductions in most pollutants, in particular lead, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. Overall, the air we breathe today is cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. The majority of pollutants are well below limits set for protecting human health and the environment. However, in some major urban centres particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide concentrations are still above such limits. Poor air quality continues to result in adverse health impacts, mainly related to respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Freshwater condition

Indicator Updated: 16 December 2021

Headline: Scotland’s rivers and lochs have gradually improved since 2009 due to actions implemented under River Basin Management Plans.

Source: The data is derived from SEPA's Water Classification Hub . Data for this chart can be downloaded from the Data Source page.

This indicator reports on the percentage of river and loch waterbodies achieving ‘Good’ or better ecological status in terms of four metrics; water quality, water resources (flows and levels), access to fish migration and physical condition. It includes heavily modified and artificial waterbodies such as canals. Find out more about the freshwater condition indicator.

The river basin management plans set out a range of actions to address issues affecting water quality, physical condition, water flows and levels, invasive species and the migration of wild fish. These actions include investment in waste water treatment, improved rural land management practices and restoration of historical industrial impacts.

Marine environmental quality

Headline: Marine environmental quality is significantly impacted by litter and seafloor disturbance.

The quality of the marine environment is assessed using four key metrics. The “clean seas” metric is updated annually; the remaining three are updated every six years.

(i) Clean seas

Indicator Updated: 04 November 2021

Source: UK Clean Safe Seas Evidence Group clean seas assessment. Data for this chart can be downloaded from the Data Source page.

This metric reports the percentage of Scottish marine regions with acceptably low levels of chemical contaminants. Find out more about the clean seas metric.

The metric is calculated by assessing the concentrations of five key contaminants in fish and shellfish and in sediment against acceptable limits. Below such limits, the contaminant concentrations are unlikely to have adverse effects for marine life. Since 2017, the percentage of regions with acceptable concentrations of contaminants has remained stable.

(ii) Beach litter

Indicator Updated: 04 November 2021

Source: Marine Scotland. Data for this chart can be downloaded from the Data Source page.

This metric reports the number of litter items per 100 metres of beach surveyed in six coastal areas of Scotland. Find out more about the beach litter metric.

The ten years to 2017 have seen worrying increases in many types of litter. Plastic is the most common item found on beaches in all areas of Scotland, although the abundance of plastic bags and plastic bottles is decreasing in all areas. In contrast to more rural areas, sanitary items make up a significant proportion of the litter found in the Clyde and Forth harbours and are on the increase in these areas. Marine litter is greatest near urban areas.

(iii) Plastic litter ingested by seabirds

Indicator Updated: 04 November 2021

Source: OSPAR. Data for this chart can be downloaded from the Data Source page.

This metric reports the percentage of fulmars, a species of seabird, exceeding a level of 0.1g of plastic in their stomachs. Find out more about the plastic ingested by seabirds metric.

OSPAR is the mechanism by which fifteen governments and the EU cooperate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. OSPAR examines the stomachs of fulmar corpses found on beaches in five North Sea areas and has set a target that less than 10% of these seabirds should have more than 0.1 g of plastic in their stomachs. This target has not been reached in any area since recording began.

In the latest period for which data are published, 2012-2016, 56% of the birds in the North Sea exceeded this level of plastic, with an average of 0.28g per bird. This does however represent a small reduction when compared with the period 2007-2011 (63% of fulmars exceeded the level with an average of 0.37g of plastic per bird).

(iv) Predicted disturbance to seafloor habitats

Indicator Updated: 04 November 2021

Scottish marine regions

Scottish offshore marine regions

Source: Marine Scotland. Data for this chart can be downloaded from the Data Source page.

This metric reports the predicted extent of physical damage to seafloor habitats due to towed bottom-contact fishing activities in different areas, based on fishing activity and modelling. Seafloor habitats are key components of marine ecosystems and play an important role in storing carbon. Find out more about the predicted disturbance to seafloor habitats metric.

The indicator categorises disturbance at the seabed from 0 (none) to 9 (very high). Category 0 denotes an undisturbed region. Categories 1 to 5 represent areas of low disturbance; 5 to 9 represent highly disturbed areas, potentially in poor condition.

Assessments are provided for each of the eleven Scottish Marine Region (SMR) areas and ten Offshore Marine Region (OMR) areas. Seafloor habitats are predicted to be in poor condition across more than half of their area in nine out of twenty one regions, and some level of damage is likely in all regions. For SMR areas, five have more than half of the seafloor with high levels of disturbance. For OMR areas, four have more than half of the seafloor with high levels of disturbance.

Soil health

Options for undertaking additional work to identify strategic indicators of soil health are being explored.