Worldwide declines in biodiversity have been rapid over the last few centuries and it is reckoned that we are in the sixth mass extinction event. It has been particularly bad for the UK – it ranks 189th out of 218 countries for the intactness of its biodiversity.
Losing Biodiversity in North East Scotland
The biodiversity of North East Scotland has been indelibly changed by the actions of humans. It is probably true to say that no part of it has been unaffected by humans.
The lowland farmlands are now dedicated to supply food and drink. Some of this is direct, such as the many fields used to grow potatoes and wheat, some indirect such as the grass grown to feed livestock. Much of the barley grown throughout the region is destined for higher things; distilling into the famous whisky brands that Scotland is renowned for.
These lowland areas have seen massive changes. A hundred years ago hay meadows would have made up much of the landscape as they were needed to feed the horses that provided most of the power needed. These meadows and their highly diverse plant and insect communities have been replaced by arable fields or by grassland dominated by rye-grass. Species like corncrake and great yellow bumblebee were found here, and corn buntings have become much reduced in distribution and population size. Hedges and field corners are affected by fertilisers and pesticides, meaning they are home to a few tall grasses and little else.
The remnant grasslands, heathlands and wetlands in the lowlands are home to some interesting species, small blue butterfly, water voles and water shrews, but they are losing biodiversity. In many instances this is from too little management; they were created as part of mixed farming systems but have now become isolated from the surrounding intensive agricultural systems as they are no longer needed. The same is true of the dunes around the coast, formerly used for grazing but now left ungrazed. This has resulted in the expansion of scrub and tall grasses and the loss of many species associated, such as thyme and bird’s foot trefoil, with low-intensity management.
The uplands have, perhaps, been less drastically changed by humans. However, even the highest tops of the mountains are affected by nitrogen pollution and past overgrazing. Lower down the hill many upland heathlands are burnt to provide suitable habitat for red grouse, and whilst this benefits some species such as curlew and golden plover, other species do less well.
Some woodlands show long-term continuity, such as the pine woodlands of Ballochbuie. However, many other woodlands have seen biodiversity declines due to a lack of management as many woodland species are associated with open areas, such as fritillary butterflies. Capercaillie and wildcat are declining across the region and efforts are ongoing to try and reverse this.
Freshwaters are affected by the management of the land that drains into them. Runoff of nutrients and pesticides from agriculture have seriously affected many rivers, and catchments such as the Ythan are managed as nitrate vulnerable zones to reduce this impact. Species such as fresh-water pearl mussels are now very restricted due to overharvesting, but ongoing mink control has seen water voles bounce back.
Marine environments have seen many changes. With improved fisheries management, many fish species are increasing in abundance. In contrast, seabird populations are doing less well, likely due to shifting distributions of important prey species such as sand eels with increasing water temperatures.
Hay meadows and their highly diverse plant and insect communities have been replaced by arable field or by grassland dominated by rye-grass
Principal Ecologist at the James Hutton Institute
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