The Protection of Norway’s Nature
Debbie Skinner ~SNH~
Sunset on the Evenstad Campus
In May this year I had a unique opportunity to spend a week in Norway and learn about wildlife and land management issues directly from experts in their field. The course was developed by ARCH, funded through the Erasmus+ programme and hosted by the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Evenstad Campus. Eight participants from a mix of environmental bodies attended. Attending from SNH was myself and two colleagues and other organisations present were Forestry and Land, the RSPB and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Libby Urquhart from Archnetwork also attended and must be thanked for all her work with co-coordinating this trip.
Our host for week was Ståle Nordgaard, a teacher on the Evenstad Campus. He did a fantastic job devising a programme that we could all learn from and make relevant connections to our work in Scotland. Ståle was the font of all knowledge and patiently endured our endless questions ranging from the serious to the not so serious! He also ensured our constant demands for fruit were met and worked tirelessly in collaboration with Johnny the chef to devise meal plans to meet all our dietary requirements! Thank you Ståle for making our visit to Norway such a great experience, all your work is very much appreciated.
The course focused on both land and wildlife management issues in Norway with many aspects being of interest and relevant to my work as an area officer for Scottish Natural Heritage. Of particular interest to me was the protection of Norway’s wildlife and habitats in the absence EU Habitat Directive and Wild Birds Directive. I was curious to find out if Norway’s environmental legislative framework has benefited their natural environment and wondered if Scotland could benefit from adopting a similar approach following Brexit.
Environmental Legislation and Protected Areas in Norway
In Scotland we have a substantial legislative framework for the protection of wildlife at a domestic level and also at an international level with our responsibilities under the EU habitats Directive and Wild Birds Directive. This is very much in contrast with Norway which has only two key pieces of environmental legislation, the Nature Diversity Act and the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act. These acts offer protection to Norway’s biological, geological and landscape diversity and ecological processes. With Norway not being an EU member state, it does not have to comply with the above mentioned EU directives however being a signatory of the Bern Convention, it still has certain legal obligations to uphold in an EU context.
Whilst I’m not a fan of the bureaucracy which accompanies these EU directives, I believe that they can offer a greater level of protection than our domestic legislation. It is hard for me to make a judgment on the efficiency of Norway’s domestic legislation without having real experience of how it operates in reality. However from discussions with several of our hosts during the trip I got the impression that at times the Norwegian legislation does not offer robust protection to the environment, particularly when up against development proposals weighted with significant economic and/or political interest. If situations like these arise in Scotland and elsewhere in the EU, then the European Court of Justice can overrule decisions made at a local level if it is deemed that the legislation has not been applied fairy and correctly.
The protected areas which receive the highest level of protection in Scotland are Natura 2000 sites which have been established under the EU Habitats and Birds Directive. In the absence of Natura 2000 sites, Norway’s suite of protected areas are not so dissimilar to our own, however there are some distinct differences in the way these are managed.
Nature reserves in Norway are the most heavily protected sites under the Nature Diversity Act. Norwegian nature reserves are comparable with our own Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which are protected under UK domestic legislation, however SSSIs often underpin Natura sites which afford them greater protection at an international level. Given the absence of this additional tier of protection from the EU, Norway’s Nature Reserves may potentially be at greater risk of damage, especially in areas where there are pressures from development.
Like Scotland, Norway also has National Parks, Marine Protected Areas, Protected Landscape Areas. During our trip we visited a surprisingly snowy Dovre National Park, one of 44 in Norway. Here we visited the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre and received talks from the ranger and the National Park Manager. We learned about the management of National Parks in Norway which appears to be stricter in comparison with Scotland. In general there are no roads permitted within the National Park areas and access is only possible by walking, skiing and cycling. Development is heavily regulated within the park boundary and roads, accommodation and national park visitor centres are all usually located outwith the park boundary. This means access within the national parks is only really possible by means of walking, cycling and cross country skiing. Although this is highly beneficial for nature, this strict approach to access will most likely exclude groups such as the disabled and elderly from experiencing the National Parks. This may not be as problematic in Norway as it would be in Scotland given Norway is very sparsely populated country with what appears to be plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation outwith national park areas.
In contrast to this, Scotland’s only two National Parks are heavily utilised by visitors and are popular holiday destinations for many. It could be perceived that the role of National Parks in Scotland is more about connecting people with their natural environmental rather than strictly focusing on conservation. This is of importance also as unlike Norwegians who have retained a cultural connection to their nature and land, our connection has diminished over time. Opportunities which allow people to experience Scottish nature first hand are therefore very valuable and play a role in restoring our connection with nature.
It could be said that Norway’s strict approach to management may offer much more robust protection to nature within the National Park when compared with our Natura sites, where development can be permitted providing a scientific appraisal demonstrates there will be no adverse impacts on the site. However, the accuracy of these scientific appraisals can fluctuate greatly since they are dependent on the knowledge and skills of the person undertaking them.
Wildlife Management Issues in Norway
During our visit we learned about a wide range of issues surrounding both wildlife and land management. The focus was primarily on the management of large carnivores and moose and much discussion was had about the regulation of hunting.
I learned many new things during our trip but for me one of the most notable was during our visit to the wild reindeer centre where I learned about how Norway’s population of wild reindeer is under serious threat from extinction. It is estimated that there are between 30,000 – 35,000 wild reindeer in Norway which exist in isolated areas as a result of habitat fragmentation, displacement and disturbance from human activity. Due to the lack of movement between the populations coupled with breeding with domesticated reindeer there is a real risk that the genetic diversity of this species will be lost for good. This is something which Scotland can particularly relate to following announcement earlier this year that there is no longer a viable wildcat population in the Scottish Highlands. We also learned the sad news about the recent mass culling of over 2000 wild reindeer as a result of chronic wasting disease (CWD). CWD originates from North America and is a fatal and highly contagious disease affecting cervids. It was clear from discussions with our hosts that CWD is causing great concern in Norway.
The disruption to reindeer habitat has occurred primarily due to the construction of roads, holiday cabins, reservoirs. In addition to this is the increasing pressure to construct new hydroelectric schemes and wind farms within the reindeer habitat in order to meet Norway’s energy demands. Before this trip I hadn’t fully appreciated the scale of development pressures in Norway. Norway’s land mass is 385,203km2 which is over four times the size of Scotland yet it has a slightly smaller population than Scotland and therefore I had naively assumed that the development pressures on the environment would not be much of an issue for Norway. However, just as in Scotland, it appears that many large scale developments in Norway are located close to or within sensitive habitats requiring an often difficult balance between social, economic and environment sustainability to be achieved.
The Norwegian Government has actioned regional plans to be drawn up to safeguard reindeer habitat and various measures have been put in place such as closing mountain lodges at sensitive times of the year for reindeer to reduce disturbance. I do wonder what the current situation would be for Norway’s wild reindeer if they were a species linked to a Natura site. When considering development proposals likely to affect a Natura site, there is a requirement to assess the proposal both alone in in combination with other proposals likely to affect the site. This provides a much more comprehensive insight of how the environment is likely to be effected by a development. I am not sure if cumulative assessments were ever undertaken during the early stages of development within the reindeer habitat. If they had been then there may have been a possibility that these issues could have been detected at an earlier stage.
It is obvious that Norway recognises the ecological, economic and cultural importance of its natural environment. However in the absence of Natura sites combined with increasing pressures from development, Norway’s nature may face testing times ahead. With Scotland’s smaller landmass combined with greater pressures from development, I’m not sure our environment would be robust enough to withstand Norway’s approach to environmental protection. It is therefore reassuring to know that the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that EU environmental standards will continue to be met once we leave the EU.
Hunting demo at the Wild Reindeer Centre