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28 Nov 2022

What if a new National Park wasn’t only on land?

Written by Stuart Brooks, Director of Conservation and Policy
A view of a section of coastline from above, showing a sandy beach with a very blue sea. Green cliffs gently rise to the left.
As the Scottish Government begins the process to choose one or more new National Parks, we believe that it should look seawards as well as landwards. It should also be more ambitious.

This month heralds the next stage in a process immensely important to anyone who cares about protecting Scotland’s landscapes and heritage: the wrap-up of the consultation on the role and approach to National Parks in Scotland. The outcomes will help to guide the Scottish Government’s choice of the next National Park (or Parks) by 2026.

Scotland came late to the National Parks approach. Despite Scotsman John Muir helping to pioneer the concept in America in the 1870s, we didn’t get one on our own land until 2003, over half a century after the first National Park was established in the UK. We therefore have some catching up to do, since National Parks offer an ideal opportunity to help achieve the nation’s biodiversity and climate goals. But that means the Scottish Government and its agencies need to get their criteria and choices right.

At the National Trust for Scotland, we already know the protective power of National Park status. As a conservation charity, we are fortunate to care for sites and properties in both of Scotland’s existing National Parks: Ben Lomond (in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park) and Mar Lodge Estate (in the Cairngorms National Park). We know that being part of a National Park helps us to protect the unique landscapes and natural heritage in and around these sites. It also helps us to promote local economic development and share these sites with a greater number and diversity of people, in line with our Nature, Beauty & Heritage for Everyone strategy.

The creation of a new National Park brings an opportunity to address our climate and nature crisis, and Scotland needs to make the most of these chances.

Looking across a very blue Loch Lomond to the peak of Ben Lomond.
National Park status helps protect Ben Lomond’s unique landscape and heritage.

The National Trust for Scotland also manages the protection and conservation of some of Scotland’s most treasured coastal sites and properties, from Robert Adam’s magnificent Culzean Castle & Country Park that overlooks the Firth of Clyde, to Inverewe with its heritage garden on the Atlantic coast. In addition, we look after a number of coastal and island National Nature Reserves, including St Abb’s Head, Staffa and St Kilda, caring for the precious habitats, flora, fauna and sea life found in them.

There’s a strong case to consider a coastal and marine National Park in Scotland. England and Wales already have National Parks with substantial coastlines; Scotland does not, despite the extent and beauty of our coastline and its importance to our natural and cultural heritage. The marine environment can be one of our most effective tools in tackling climate change, storing carbon and restoring biodiversity, yet as a nation we are falling behind in protecting it.

Although there are now 244 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Scotland, designation alone is not a guarantee of protection. Of the 31 MPAs considered by Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020, fewer than a third had achieved their conservation objectives. The Assessment revealed that the West Highland region has lost 90% of its serpulid reefs (fragile reefs built by a marine tubeworm), the Hebrides has lost 27.1% of its seagrass beds and the Moray Firth has lost 99.5% of recorded blue mussel beds. The dramatic decline of these individual species highlight the severe pressures our seas are facing.

However, a coastal and marine National Park could incorporate highly protected areas, including no-take zones, and stringent pollution controls, which would offer the opportunity for true protection of marine habitats and species. Implementing robust management measures would help to restore and protect our precious seas, which provide us with a wide range of ecosystem services such as carbon storage, flood protection, water purification, recreation and cultural identity. It has also been proven that, in the long term, this approach will create opportunity for more sustainable fishing stocks.

“A coastal and marine National Park in Scotland would offer a platform to highlight the importance of our seas and coastlines, allowing visitors to better engage with and value them, as well as leading to economic opportunities.”
Stuart Brooks
Director of Conservation and Policy, National Trust for Scotland
A photo of the upper half of a man out on a mountain. He has short brown hair and is wearing a grey fleece jacket with a rucksack.

Wherever our next National Parks are sited, Scotland must be more ambitious about nature recovery. Our existing National Parks focus on landscape and cultural heritage protection, in contrast to a focus on nature protection that we see in other nations. It’s right that our National Parks are places where our rural communities are supported and our cultural heritage is protected, but if Scotland is to meet its ambitions of restoring biodiversity and preventing the impacts of climate change, our National Parks should do more. They should aim to deliver for nature as well as for human activities, cultural heritage and landscape. We could use large-scale ecological restoration to improve the quality of our natural habitats, boost biodiversity and support ecosystem benefits such as carbon storage, fresh water, food and opportunities for recreation and wellbeing. Planning, regulation and management approaches should support this.

Looking across a wide glen, with a river snaking through the middle. Tall mountains rise either side.
As at Mar Lodge Estate, National Park approaches should focus on large-scale ecological restoration.

Scotland has a wealth of remarkable landscapes and seascapes, and the government is spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting National Parks. But in making its choices, the Scottish Government has to go further: perhaps looking seawards and certainly being more ambitious in terms of nature recovery. Our own submission to the National Parks consultation prioritises these themes; we call on the Scottish Government and its agencies to do the same.

Our Strategy

Our new strategy – Nature, Beauty & Heritage for Everyone – provides a framework for the future of the National Trust for Scotland as we look towards our centenary in 2031.