THE Scottish Government has been accused of “sacrificing the country’s natural heritage” after it released updated guidance on the protection afforded to important environmental sites such as Loch Lomond.

A policy note published on the government’s website on January 22 stated that the legal protection offered to wetland sites deemed to be of international significance under the Ramsar Convention – an international treaty signed in 1971 for the conservation of such sites – could be downgraded.

All Ramsar sites are also Natura 2000 sites and as such, are offered protection under European law.

However, the updated guidance note declares that sites which do not meet these qualifying requirements will instead receive protection as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which, it is argued, is not as robust.

Scotland currently has 51 designated Ramsar sites, including Loch Lomond, and environmental campaigners are concerned that these may now be put at risk, claiming certain sites will be more vulnerable than others throughout the rest of the UK.

An RSPB Scotland spokesperson said: “The implications of this new guidance note are complicated and will differ from site to site.

“However, effectively, this new note indicates that Ramsar sites in themselves should have no specific protection and protection should instead only be provided by other underlying designated sites.

“The level of protection offered to sites… will depend on the details of those other underlying designated sites.

“RSPB Scotland strongly disagrees with this approach, which could put some of Scotland’s most important wildlife sites at risk, and we think the Scottish Government should ensure that the longstanding policy of providing Ramsar sites themselves with a high level of protection should be retained.”

It is not yet known how the updated guidance may affect sites like Loch Lomond, however, campaigners have already voiced their disapproval.

Cameron McNeish, Scottish outdoors commentator, author and broadcaster, said on social media: “This is an utter disgrace, from a very environmentally dodgy SNP government. Not sure how long I can keep supporting SNP.

“The Scottish Government has to start treating local environmental concerns with the same enthusiasm they have for bigger concerns like climate change.

“One won't work without the other. Needs to act locally and think globally. We are being let down by our rural affairs ministers.

“The Scottish Government chose International Wetlands Day [February 2] to downgrade those environmental sites. I believe that is shocking and very disappointing.”

Save the Loch, an opposition group against the proposed Flamingo Land development at Loch Lomond, said it was “unacceptable” and called on MPs to seek clarification in parliament.

They said in response: “The team at Save the Loch are horrified on hearing this. This does not bode well for Scotland.

“The SNP are looking incredibly weak and ineffective on green issues.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Scottish Planning Policy is clear that all Ramsar sites are protected through co-designation with Natura 2000 sites and/or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and are protected under the relevant statutory regimes.

“Every Ramsar site in Scotland has at least one Natura co-designation, as appropriate to the nature of the site.

“Scotland is meeting its Ramsar requirements.”