Scotland's Species Champions standing up for wildlife under threat
Public Affairs Manager - Scotland
In our work with Scottish Parliament, we’ve found an unusual way to engage politicians with nature. The MSP Species Champions project gives MSPs a species to support and stand up for, including 12 types of tree. Here’s how the project is making a difference, and how you can urge government to do more for woods and trees, wherever you are in the UK.
What’s a MSP Species Champion?
A MSP Species Champion is an elected politician with focus on a particular species that’s under threat in Scotland.
The aim is to help raise political support for the species’ protection. With almost 1 in 10 species in Scotland at risk of extinction, this support is critical.
Owning a particular species helps to create interest and improve understanding of conservation and biodiversity for MSPs – and adds an element of fun. It’s not limited to trees - a whole host of Scottish wildlife is represented in the Holyrood chamber, from birds, bees and bats to mammals and marine life.
The project is run by Scottish Environment LINK, an umbrella body for environmental NGOs in Scotland. Woodland Trust Scotland is one of its 39 members.
Credit: Charles Dundas / WTML
How did it all start?
In Scotland, public sector bodies have a duty to further the conservation of biodiversity. So in 2012, the initiative was introduced to help push biodiversity issues up the political agenda.
We joined the initiative to raise awareness about tree pests and diseases, and the value of native trees, including in urban areas.
Since then, the Species Champion role has grown in both number and importance. It’s a voluntary position, but 104 MSPs are now promoting and campaigning for their species. That’s over 80% of Scotland’s representatives!
The project has been so well received that other authorities around the UK have since adopted similar approaches.
How are species allocated?
Some MSPs ask for a species when becoming a champion, but they’re mostly assigned to reflect constituency interests.
It makes sense that John Finnie, Member for Highlands and Islands, represents aspen. This rare tree is most common in the Highlands, and there are aspen conservation projects here that the MSP can showcase in his work at the Scottish Parliament.
Finlay Carson, Member for Galloway and West Dumfries, was allocated the Leisler’s bat after the rare mammal was found in Galloway Forest Park in 2017.
And ash trees for Ash Denham MSP was an obvious choice!
Is your MSP a Species Champion?
Over 100 MSPs are Species Champions. 12 of them are standing up for trees:
- Ash Denham MSP for Edinburgh Eastern – ash
- John Finnie MSP for Highlands and Islands– aspen
- Joe FitzPatrick MSP for Dundee City West – elm
- Jenny Gilruth MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes – rowan
- Maurice Golden MSP for West Scotland – Arran whitebeam
- Rachael Hamilton MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire – alder
- Clare Haughey MSP for Rutherglen – birch
- Monica Lennon MSP for Central Scotland – oak
- Gillian Martin MSP for Aberdeenshire East – yew
- Joan McAlpine MSP for South Scotland – Scots pine
- Shona Robison MSP for Dundee City East – wild cherry
- Graham Simpson MSP for Central Scotland – holly
- Adam Tomkins MSP for Glasgow – hazel.
Credit: Kathleen Weetman / WTML
Species Champions in action
We’ve shown them around our woods, briefed them to speak in debates, and of course helped them to plant trees. This all helps them understand what we do, and informs their daily work.
Graham Simpson, MSP for the Central Scotland region, has been trying to save a local ancient wood under threat from development. He’s working hard to raise the profile of the case at Parliament and empower the local community.
Jenny Gilruth MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes loves tree planting with schools in her constituency. As a former teacher, Jenny loves to meet pupils and share the message that every tree counts.
Credit: Charles Dundas / WTML
The project has resulted in real action in many areas.
MSPs have many opportunities to highlight their species, what they’ve learned and how they’re working to protect them. They speak in debates to inform others, put things on record in Parliament and generate debate in the chamber. There’s even a dedicated annual Species Champions debate focused on biodiversity.
As a result, legislation has been changed, such as the Planning Bill and the Climate Change Bill. And issues have come into the Scottish Parliament spotlight that would not usually have a way of getting there.
In 2019, for example, the beaver became protected by law after it was reintroduced in Scotland. This needed to go through the appropriate legislative processes at Parliament. Having a beaver Species Champion meant someone was willing to speak up and encourage Government to put protections in place which were long overdue.
Urge more government action
Representing individual species is proving fruitful in Scotland, but Government needs to look at the bigger picture too.
The UK needs more trees. They’re the ultimate multi-taskers in the fight against climate change. They lock up carbon, fight flooding, reduce pollution and nurture wildlife.
Our Emergency Tree Plan sets out how the UK can tackle the climate crisis. We must boost tree cover - including increasing native woodland in Scotland - and protect our existing woodland.