Celebrating 25 years of Scottish heritage

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In the natural world, 25 years is hardly the blink of an eye to an ancient forest of oak and ash, a mountain that’s been standing for millenia or a peat bog that has grown for centuries.

In human terms, of course, a lot can happen in a quarter of a century – if a week is a long time in politics, 25 years is a lifetime.

Looking back to 1992 when Scottish Natural Heritage was founded, there are similarities with today; the Conservatives won a shaky victory in a general election; Black Wednesday sent the markets into meltdown, prompting fears over the future of the European Union; and 65 people were killed in a bomb blast in Manchester.

And yet, there are huge differences. The past 25 years has seen attitudes change – subtly and slowly, perhaps, but surely – towards the natural world and our attitudes towards it.

And that’s why Scottish Natural Heritage is celebrating this year – looking back on 25 years of being the guardian of the country’s stunningly beautiful, wild and diverse landscape and the amazing creatures that belong to it.

“In 25 years we have a number of considerable victories to highlight,” said Mike Cantlay, the chairman of SNH.

He is fairly new to the role, having become chairman only inMay.

But that leaves him free to sing the praises of the organisation which has steered so much of the change.

“Certainly, creating the national parks has been a real achievement,” he said.

“Scotland was, of course, the birthplace of John Muir, the man who created the American national parks and yet it had no national parks.”

SNH worked carefully to create two national parks – one at Loch Lomond and one in the Cairngorms. Both are large areas containing some of the country’s most amazing landscapes and spectacular wildlife.

Having National Park status means that high quality visitor facilities are provided – but only in a way that also takes into account the important conservation work that goes on there.

And it’s not just about keeping the landscape picture perfect – SNH also has to take into account the area’s social and economic development aims.

The idea is that visitors can get the information and advice they need to be able to make the most of their trip – whether they want to walk, mountain bike or picnic by a river – without ruining the enjoyment for other people or for future generations.

Over the years SNH has also been able to offer its protection to Sites of Scientific Interest (SSI).

Another success led by SNH is Scotland’s world-leading legislation giving people the right to roam.

“There are many parts of the world where if you tresspass people can come at you with a shotgun!” Mike reminds us.

Happily, that’s not the case in Scotland.

Access rights apply widely to our countryside and include walking, cycling and wild camping.

There are other very visible success stories and because Mike lives in Callander, he has been privileged to see first hand one of the major changes that has taken place in recent decades.

“I used to see nothing but grey squirrels,” he remembered. “Now, I see nothing but red!”

The careful re-introduction of native red squirrels took careful planning but is now considered a great success.

But the job has changed and as SNH looks to the future, it is no longer just about protecting nature.

The focus now is on inspiring people to be part of it, wherever they live in Scotland – hence the slogan ‘all of nature for all of Scotland’.

“The way forward now is to build on these strengths – on the bedrock of success that has been created,” said Mike. “Nature is often seen as remote to cities and people who don’t live in rural areas.

“The difference now is that we want every Scot to be more involved; to both enjoy and feel ownership of natural Scotland.”

As a government agency, SNH has the clout to bring people together and it has worked hand in hand with many other groups to make things happen.

When we speak, for example, Mike is at Loch Leven, which is one of many National Nature Reserves.

Here people are enjoying a rare afternoon of sunshine and soaking up the natural world in all its glory.

“There are people on bikes and out for walks – people are beginning to realise the importance of nature to our health and well-being,” he added.

And this is how he wants people to celebrate the anniversary.

Rather than attending big parties, SNH wants people to get out and about more.

After all, as they become more involved in nature, they will start to become more opinionated.

That’s exactly what SNH thrives on – people who care about the birds, butterflies, lochs and land.

And not just for the next 25 years either.