SCOTLAND LEADS the rest of the world in developing a new method to understanding and conserve wildlife.

A report coordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has detailed a new method to measure the genetic diversity of our wild species and associated risks, with the intention of targeting long-term conservation strategies.

Genetic diversity is key to species adapting to changing climates, new diseases or other pressures they may face in order for them to persist and survive.

The red squirrel, golden eagle, harebells and heather are among the species which make up a big part of our national identity.

Researchers identified a list of target species of particular importance for Scotland chosen for their conservation or cultural value, importance for food and medicines or because they provide crucial ecosystem services such as carbon storage.

Four of the assessed species - wildcat, ash, great yellow bumblebee and freshwater pearl mussel - were classed as being at risk of severe genetic problems as a result of factors including non-native species, disease, habitat loss and pollution.

The new report by SNH follows the news last year that SNH’s Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve had been formally recognised as the UK’s first area designated for genetic conservation, reflecting the importance of its ancient Caledonian pine forest.

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: “Our natural environment is central to our national identity, thanks in no small part to the many unique, varied and iconic wild species that are native to Scotland.
“A pivotal part of conserving some of our most at-risk biodiversity is to build a full picture of the pressures and issues that our wild species are facing – including the state of their genetic diversity.”

SNH Biodiversity Evidence and Reporting Manager, David O'Brien said: “Often when we talk about biodiversity, the focus is on species and ecosystems, but genetic diversity is also essential for nature to be resilient in the face of pressures such as climate change, and it’s great that Scotland is leading the way in this field.
“For the first time, this report sets out a clear ‘scorecard’ method for assessing the genetic diversity of wild species and applies this to some of our most important plants, animals and birds,” he explained.
“Not only does it fill a major gap in addressing the international target for genetic biodiversity conservation but importantly it can be expanded to cover many more species, and adapted for use in any country in the world.”

Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Professor Pete Hollingsworth, added: “Genetic diversity is key to species adapting to changing climates, to new diseases or other pressures they may face. At a time of increasing pressures and threats – maintaining genetic diversity maximises options and opportunities for species to persist and survive”.

Head of Conservation Genetics at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of the scorecard report, Dr Rob Ogden, concluded: “The scorecard is designed as an affordable, practical tool that allows every country to assess its wildlife genetic diversity; what we measure in Scotland can now be compared around the world.”