Meeting our '30 by 30' biodiversity commitment on terrestrial and freshwater sites: consultation on legislative proposals

Closed 24 May 2024

Opened 2 Apr 2024


The Global Climate Emergency and the Nature Emergency are twin reinforcing crises: the actions we take to address each are fundamental to our wellbeing and survival as a species. There is now an indisputable body of evidence that biodiversity, both globally and in Scotland, is in real trouble. Our efforts to address the crisis to date have generated some lessons and local successes but we urgently need to accelerate and scale up those efforts to drive landscape and seascape scale recovery. Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy sets out a clear ambition: for Scotland to be Nature Positive by 2030, and to have restored and regenerated biodiversity across the country by 2045.

The Strategy is one element of Scotland’s Biodiversity Framework, which includes the following three parts:

  • An overarching Scottish Biodiversity Strategy which sets out our high level vision to be nature positive by 2030 and substantively restore and regenerate nature by 2045;
  • Underpinning 5-year Delivery Plans which will set out the actions we need to take to achieve that vision; and
  • The proposed Natural Environment Bill, which will provide a framework for statutory nature targets to drive action and deliver transformational change.

The commitment to protect 30% of our land and seas for nature by 2030 (known as 30 by 30) is a key delivery mechanism for achieving the vision set out in our Biodiversity Strategy and forms an important part of the Delivery Plan. We propose that a natural environment Bill include provisions that help us to deliver 30 by 30 by modernising our terrestrial and freshwater protected areas and making sure they are effective in protecting and restoring our important nature.

The international context

The commitment to protect 30% of our land and seas for nature by 2030 is an international commitment in the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), specifically Target 3 of GBF. The Scottish Government is working with the other UK administrations to ensure consistent implementation, reporting and to share emerging thinking on best practice. Target 3 states that parties will:

“Ensure and enable that by 2030 at least 30 per cent of terrestrial, inland water, and of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are effectively conserved and managed through ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, recognizing indigenous and traditional territories, where applicable, and integrated into wider landscapes, seascapes and the ocean, while ensuring that any sustainable use, where appropriate in such areas, is fully consistent with conservation outcomes, recognizing and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including over their traditional territories.”

The Scottish Government has consistently recognised the importance of the 30 by 30 target.

Target 3 of the GBF can be broken down into two key elements:

  • Achieving 30% of land and seas within areas protected and managed for nature.
  • Ensuring that the areas within the 30 by 30 networks are effectively managed.

Target 3 then goes on to specify how the 30 by 30 network can be achieved through:

  • Protected and/or Designated Areas – these are what most people understand as protected areas i.e. areas containing or comprising features which are considered to be of particular significance; and
  • Other Effective [area based] Conservation Measures (OECMs) – International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have established criteria to clarify what constitutes an OECM. These criteria cover governance, purpose, longevity and security of management for biodiversity.

Protected Areas in Scotland

In Scotland protected areas on land currently comprise SSSI (Sites of Specific Scientific Interest)*, European sites (Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC))** and Ramsar sites.*** The Planning system also recognises areas for their other designations such as National Scenic Areas and Wild Land areas which are closely affiliated with natural landscapes and biodiversity. However, these are not classed as protected areas as there is no mechanism to explicitly safeguard biodiversity. For the same reason, locally recognised sites for biodiversity, such as Local Nature Reserves or Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation are also not recognised as protected areas.

[*Designated through the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.]
[**Founded on the EU Habitats Directive 1992 and Birds Directive 1979 and implemented through the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (“the Habitats Regulations”) (as amended).]
[***Founded on the Ramsar Convention 1971 and implemented through Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 or Habitats Regulations 1994.]

The current provisions for protected areas have been in place, largely unchanged, since the 1980s. At that time, in acknowledgement of rapid land-use change, Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSIs) were designated to protect areas for biodiversity and geodiversity.

This was achieved by selecting the best examples of certain habitats, species populations, and geodiversity, within specific Areas of Search (largely akin to local authority areas) so that there would be a full geographic spread of sites throughout Scotland of important habitats, species populations and/or earth science interests which could then be managed and protected. This collection of designated sites was later supplemented through the designation of European sites, to reflect the international importance of Scotland’s habitats and species.

Marine Protected Areas already cover approximately 37% of Scottish waters, and so the focus will be to put in place fisheries management measures for existing MPAs, where these are not already in place, ensuring they are effectively managed.  However, on land, there is still some way to go. Currently, approximately 18.2% (c. 1.4 million hectares) of Scotland is within a designated protected area. Annex A provides a map of these sites.

On land, the 30 by 30 project needs to assess the opportunities for expanding the area of protected sites and improving their overall condition.

Protected areas will continue to be central to Scotland’s approach to halting the loss of biodiversity and the Scottish Government has commissioned NatureScot to identify the opportunities for establishing new protected areas or expanding existing ones.

However, we do not think that there are significant areas of Scotland which currently meet the high qualifying standards for designation under the existing statutory regime.  Initial assessments are that only a small percentage of the additional one million hectares required to achieve 30% coverage on land/freshwater will come from extending or designating new protected areas. 

Other Effective [area based] Conservation Measures (OECMs)

In parallel with the work to deliver 30 by 30 in Scotland, the other UK administrations are also considering what options they have and, as in Scotland, the focus in terms of increasing the overall area of the network is on defining and implementing Other Effective Conservation Measures (OECMs). We do not consider that additional legislative provision is required at this time explicitly to support that process.

30 by 30 Policy Framework

As part of the first 5-year Delivery Plan for the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, a policy framework has been co-designed for achieving 30 by 30.

This codesign process involved over 100 organisations and individuals representing a diverse range of interests. The 30 by 30 policy framework sets out a vision and key  principles (set out in full on NatureScot website) which will guide the further development and delivery of policy. Final consultation on the policy framework was included in the 2023 Biodiversity Consultation, “Tackling the Nature Emergency: Consultation on Scotland’s Strategic Framework for Biodiversity.

Need for legislative reform

Evidence indicates that natural features in protected areas are in better condition than in undesignated areas with 65%* in favourable condition (i.e. that the natural feature can sustain itself under current management and environmental conditions), and a further 12% unfavourable but with management in place to promote recovery.

*[Official Statisitic ‘Condition of Protected Nature Sites 2022’ The Proportion of Scotland's Protected Sites in Favourable Condition 2022 | NatureScot]

The main causes of unfavourable condition in the remaining 23% of sites are invasive non-native species and grazing pressures – both issues which tend to require action at a landscape scale to be effective.

There is a well-established process for the identification of protected area sites and for consultation on the process and consequences of designation. However, some perceive that the current legislative provisions are not in line with our current understanding of biodiversity and so limit the contribution our protected areas can make to nature restoration, reducing their effectiveness in safeguarding and restoring biodiversity.  Additionally, the premise for these designations is to protect and prevent the loss and damage of biodiversity. However, there is currently no requirement for land managers to be proactive in managing sites to either maintain condition or to promote recovery of biodiversity.

In summary, the key criticisms of the current Protected Areas regime are:

  • The current legislation is predicated on preventing loss and damage to sites, not on proactive management to restore and maintain them.
  • Protected Areas are based on a static list of ‘natural features’ on a site, which in some instances may result in management which is sub-optimal for biodiversity or insufficiently flexible to accommodate changes driven by climate change.
  • Current protected areas legislation is mainly focussed on on-site action to prevent loss / damage, and therefore can further complicate wider landscape scale action and interventions to restore biodiversity and promote connectivity.
  • The current protected areas landscape is complex with overlapping designations which have differing safeguarding provisions. The resulting legal complexities may result in sites being seen as no-go areas for progressive land management.


This consultation is seeking views on the legislative proposals which will support the implementation of 30 by 30 and are potentially to be included within a natural environment Bill. These legislative proposals aim to:

  • Create flexibility around designated sites
  • Increase Proactive Management of Protected Areas and other important areas for biodiversity

We wish to ensure we do not add complexity to the landscape, so have suggested ways to deliver biodiversity benefits which complement the existing regime.  Each of these proposals is set out in more detail in the sections below, with accompanying questions and space for any additional comments that you may have.

Read the consultation paper

What happens next

Following the consultation closing date, responses will be analysed and used to inform our next steps. Responses, where permission has been given, will be published, along with an analysis report and summary.


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