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Scotland in world first for genetic diversity - Scottish Natural Heritage

Scientists have developed a world-first method to help understand and conserve genetic diversity in some of our most iconic wild species.

Heather, red squirrel, golden eagle, Scottish bluebell and Scots pine are among those assessed in a new report published by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Genetic diversity is the differences among individuals due to variation in their DNA.

Red Squirrel © Lorne Gill/SNH
Red Squirrel © Lorne Gill/SNH

Conserving the genetic diversity of plants, animals and wild species is the focus of one of the 20 international Aichi biodiversity targets.

But while there are strategies in place to assess and report on genetic diversity in agriculture, horticulture and forestry, there is a gap when it comes to wild species.

Researchers identified a list of target species of particular importance for Scotland and developed a “genetic scorecard” for each, assessing their genetic diversity and any associated risks.

The species were chosen for their conservation or cultural value, importance for food and medicines or because they provide crucial ecosystem services such as carbon storage.

The research found that four of the assessed species - wildcat, ash, great yellow bumblebee and freshwater pearl mussel - were classed as being at risk of severe genetic problems as a result of factors including non-native species, disease, habitat loss and pollution.

Harebell (Scots bluebell) ©Lorne Gil / SNH
Harebell (Scots bluebell) ©Lorne Gil / SNH


David O'Brien, SNH Biodiversity Evidence and Reporting Manager, said: “Often when we talk about biodiversity the focus is on species and ecosystems, but genetic diversity is also essential for nature to be resilient in the face of pressures such as climate change, and it’s great that Scotland is leading the way in this field. For the first time, this report sets out a clear ‘scorecard’ method for assessing the genetic diversity of wild species and applies this to some of our most important plants, animals and birds. Not only does it fill a major gap in addressing the international target for genetic biodiversity conservation but importantly it can be expanded to cover many more species, and adapted for use in any country in the world.”