Implementing an Ecosystem Approach in Aberdeenshire

Published on 11 June 2014 in Sustainability and Communities , Ecosystems and biodiversity

View from a hill path


This research briefing summarises the results of a governance and policy analysis for Aberdeenshire. It was undertaken using funding from the Ecosystem Services Theme of the Scottish Government Environmental Change Programme 2011-2016 to support Aberdeenshire Council with the first stage of the Regional Land Use Pilot project. The specific research was not directly commissioned or endorsed by Scottish Government.

Key Points

Fit between policies and delivery of ecosystem services

We adopted the National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA 2011) suite of ecosystem services consisting of four Supporting, six Regulating, four Provisioning and two Cultural Services. A review of the relevant policies, plans and strategies underpinning the delivery of the Regional Land Use Pilots showed how they interact with this suite of ecosystem services. They can be categorised as follows:

  • directly supportive of the delivery of ecosystem services (for example, Scottish Biodiversity Strategy)
  • indirectly supportive (for example, the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003 because delivery of ecosystem services requires the implementation of River Basin Management Plans)
  • ambiguous (for example, Recipe for Success - Scotland's National Food and Drink Policy, because increased food production could impact on some ecosystem services, if sufficient mitigation measures were not in place); and
  • very indirect or neutral (for example, Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010, which affects the sector delivering ecosystem services, but does not directly influence ecosystems services themselves).

Whilst most focus should be given to those instruments that could directly support delivery of ecosystem services, our work suggested that Aberdeenshire Council should also pay attention to ambiguous and indirectly supportive policies, to ensure a comprehensive coverage. No policy, strategy or plan sets out to have a negative impact on ecosystem services but the analysis suggests that some of the more complex instruments might require a trade-off between achieving an agreed socio-economic objective and enhancing a particular ecosystem service. For example, allowing urban expansion under the National Planning Framework could lead to more impervious surfaces and impact on soil formation and water cycling, if suitable mitigation measures are not adopted. This ambiguity is unsurprising, given that the purpose of using an Ecosystems Approach to help deliver the goals of the Land Use Strategy is to assist with complex decision making trade-offs, ensuring ecosystem function protected whilst pursuing societal goals.

Attention to operational implementation

Our analysis focussed on assessing how the stated objectives of polices, plans and strategies would deliver ecosystem services but it is clear that how ecosystem services are delivered will depend on how these instruments are implemented on the ground. It is possible that there may be conflicts between policy implementation and delivery of ecosystem services at the local level for policies whose objectives are synergistic with the Land Use Strategy at a national level. For example, the Common Agricultural Policy and the Scottish Rural Development Plan are crucial policy drivers for delivery of ecosystem services but it is difficult to generalise about how the complex bundle of incentives and regulations will influence the actions of individual land managers. Nor is it possible to be sure that all ecosystem services will be delivered equally from a desktop study. Therefore, our analysis provides a strategic appraisal of how policies might support delivery of ecosystem services but further research is ongoing to consider how land managers and other key players might respond to policy drivers and deliver the suite of ecosystem services in specific circumstances.

Which stakeholders should be involved and why?

Stakeholders were placed in four different categories according to their potential to influence or be influenced by the delivery of ecosystem services and the implementation of the Regional Land Use Pilots.

  • Key Players have a strong interest and a strong influence on delivery and implementation. These include land owners and managers; and many public agencies (for example, SEPA, Visit Scotland) plus the local authority.
  • Subjects have a strong interest but a weaker influence on delivery and implementation. These include local communities and NGOs such as conservation or recreation bodies.
  • Context-setters have a weak interest in but a strong potential influence on delivery and implementation. These include developers and other industry sectors such as transport.
  • Crowd have a weak interest in and a weak influence on delivery and implementation. These include visitors and food/timber processing industries.

Therefore it is crucial to involve key players and subjects in the Regional Land Use Pilots and to keep the context-setters and crowd informed at the key stages.

The Ecosystem Approach and the Land Use Strategy

The Land Use Strategy is well correlated with the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) Ecosystem Approach and integrates the Malawi principles in its own objectives and principles. However, temporal and spatial scales, such as described in the Malawi principles, are difficult to implement as there is no guideline to select the “appropriate” ones beyond the CBD advice to decentralise management at the lowest appropriate scale. Delivering the Regional Land Use Pilots through the local authority provides a democratic mandate, but for fine grained analysis of constraints and opportunities, it will be necessary to work at a local scale. Attention to change over time, as well as across different geographic communities, is very important to ensure that ecosystem functions are protected from small but cumulative impacts, which could tip a system over a threshold leading to irreversible changes.

Research Undertaken

We carried out a thematic analysis of the policies, plans and strategies listed in the Annex describing the Regional Land Use Pilots, using matrices to identify interactions (conflicting and complementary) between strategic objectives and the suite of ecosystem services. The stakeholders involved in delivering these policies, plans and strategies were assessed using Interest-Influence Grids. Finally, the fit between the Convention of Biological Diversity’s Malawi Principles and the Land Use Strategy Principles were assessed using a matrix approach. Details of the methodology and the findings can be provided in a technical report on request.

Policy Implications

The research was undertaken to support Aberdeenshire Council deliver stage one of the Regional Land Use Pilot project (baseline policy mapping) and illustrated the need for working in ‘local focus areas’ to get a more nuanced understanding of ecosystem service delivery and engage stakeholders.


Kirsty Blackstock, James Hutton Institute

Anja Byg, James Hutton Institute

Jose Munoz-Roja, James Hutton Institute

Laurie Barant, Superago University, Montpellier


Sustainability and Communities , Ecosystems and biodiversity

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