Ecosystem health indicators are measures which help us to understand where action should be taken to restore ecosystem health and associated benefits.

What are ecosystem health indicators?

People are part of ecosystems. We benefit from the services they provide from clean water to the health benefits of a walk in the woods. Ecosystem health is a measure of the status of ecosystems, through a combination of three inter-related elements:

  • Condition of components – how far from a ‘good’ state
  • Function – the extent to which ecosystems retain their natural function and so have the capacity to deliver a range of benefits
  • Sustainability or resilience – the extent to which the health of ecosystems (and their capacity to deliver benefits) can be sustained under human and environmental pressures, including climate change.

The resilience of ecosystems depends on a range of interactions and responses to environmental pressures, such as climate change, damage to soils or pollution. The nature of many of these responses to pressure may be complex. For example, there may be a tipping point where pressure on an ecosystem leads to gradual change up to a threshold beyond which there is a sudden, perhaps irreversible change in its state. In many cases relationships between pressure and response remain poorly understood.

Ecosystem health has links to:

  • Ecosystem - a dynamic, interlinked complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities, and their associated non-living environment, interacting as an ecological unit.
  • Ecosystem services – the benefits people get from ecosystems, such as provisioning of clean drinking water and the decomposition of waste.
  • Natural capital - those elements of the natural environment that provide valuable goods and services to people, such as the stock of forests, water, land, minerals and oceans .
  • Biodiversity - the totality of life on earth: the variety of species, including the variation within species, the living systems they form, and the natural processes with which they interact. NatureScot collates a further suite of Scotland-wide biodiversity indicators.

Why do we need ecosystem health indicators?

We need indicators to:

While ecosystems and biodiversity are important in their own right, all of the food we eat and the resources we use ultimately come from nature, so ecosystem health is relevant to all of us. Due to the nature of the indicators, some change quite quickly such as condition of freshwater, whereas others such as soil carbon are much slower to change. The indicators are updated according to the rate of change and availability of data.

How can ecosystem health indicators be used?

Different audiences for this information and data, include:

  • Policy makers - Undertaking assessments of the benefits of policy and areas in which intervention is needed. For example, targeting those where the greatest gains can be made in topics such as habitat restoration, and equitable access to nature.
  • Government agencies - Evidence to show where work has delivered greatest benefits or where more work is needed. The cross-agency nature of the ecosystem health indicators makes cooperation easier with the use of a common evidence base.
  • Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - Public bodies work with NGOs to deliver policy outcomes. Ecosystem health indicators will help develop cross-sectorial projects that deliver public benefit. Many of the improvements in our protected nature sites have resulted from such partnerships.
  • Research - Ecosystem health indicators and the underpinning data give an insight into where research can best be targeted to deliver the greatest social and environmental gains.
  • Commercial - Businesses can look for opportunities to make Scotland both fairer and wealthier with access to data showing where environmental products might be most likely to have a market or help them make investment decisions that avoid damage to sensitive ecosystems.
  • Citizen scientists - As well as being a resource in their own right, ecosystem health indicators can be coupled with other sources of information (For example, NBN Atlas Scotland) to gain better understanding of our country’s nature and environment.

Who can help?

The following organisations have contributed to the development of these indicators and have useful resources and information on their websites:

  • NatureScot - works to care for natural heritage, enabling people to enjoy it, helping people to understand and appreciate it, and supporting those who manage it.
  • Scottish Government - has a range of responsibilities under devolution, including the environment. Detailed policies, as set out in the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy support the development of a Habitat Map.
  • Scottish Environment Protection Agency - is making sure that the environment and human health are protected, and ensuring that Scotland’s natural resources and services are used as sustainably as possible and contribute to sustainable economic growth, through environmental regulation, river basin and flood risk management planning and flood warning.
  • Scotland's Rural College - delivers comprehensive skills, education and business support for Scotland’s land-based industries, founded on world class and sector-leading research, education and consultancy.
  • British Trust for Ornithology - an independent charitable research institute combining professional and citizen science aimed at using evidence of change in wildlife populations, particularly birds, to inform the public, opinion-formers and environmental policy-makers and decision-makers.
  • Centre for Ecology and Hydrology - a research organisation focusing on land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere.
  • The James Hutton Institute - a research organisation delivering fundamental and applied science to drive the sustainable use of land and natural resources.
  • Scottish Wildlife Trust - champions the cause of wildlife through policy and campaigning work, demonstrates best practice through practical conservation and innovative partnerships, and inspires people to take positive action through its education and engagement activities.
  • ClimateXchange - provides independent advice, research and analysis to support the Scottish Government as it develops and implements policies on adapting to the changing climate and the transition to a low carbon society.
  • RSPB - Europe’s largest nature conservation charity, working for a better world for nature and people, where biodiversity is halted, and human actions ensure sustainable management of the planet’s natural resources.
  • Scottish Environment Link - a forum for Scotland’s voluntary environment organisations, with over 35 member bodies representing a range of environmental interests with the common goal of contributing to a more environmentally sustainable society.

This page was updated on 03 Jul 2019

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