Emphasising that people are crucial in managing Scotland's natural heritage, and that protecting wildlife should not involve vast 'no-go' areas, Lord Sewel announced details of the government's consultation on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) at Mugdock Country Park near Glasgow.
'Scotland's countryside is not a true wilderness, it is semi-natural, and many of the wildlife habitats we value today are not only the result of past management by people but rely on continuing management by them to maintain and enhance for generations to come,' he said.
The consultation paper suggests that SSSIs should continue to be designated on scientific criteria but selection guidelines should be tightened up to ensure SSSIs are sites of Scottish, UK and international importance with a clear role and purpose. Local authorities should play a more active role in choosing conservation measures in their areas for sites of less than national importance.
Under the proposals, owners and occupiers of new SSSIs would have the choice between entering a positive management agreement with SNH or consulting SNH before carrying out potentially damaging operations (PDOs). Compensation for not carrying out PDOs would be ended, and replaced with positive conservation arrangements supported by financial incentives.
Owner and occupiers would be given a right of appeal when SNH refuses consent to carry out a PDO, and the consultation paper identifies possible options for the appeal process.
Proposals to ensure that government departments and other public bodies which own or manage SSSI land set a good example to the rest of the community are also outlined.
The government's objectives for the SSSI review are to modernise the system and make it more user-friendly for owners and occupiers of SSSI land, as well as giving local communities a stronger voice in the process.
Lord Sewel concluded: 'These proposals represent a sensible, pragmatic and affordable approach for caring for the best parts of our natural heritage.
'If our objectives can be met, SSSIs will be seen as an accolade rather than a constraint by owners and occupiers. They should be a badge of distinction for the best parts of Scotland's natural heritage which can be used to help generate social and economic as well as environmental benefits for local people.'
Comments on the consultation paper are invited by 30 November. During the consultation period, a series of meetings will be arranged by The Scottish Office in different parts of the country to get direct feedback from local people.