Passive rewilding can expand UK woodland quickly and free of charge



PICTURE: Forest development on a former barley field that was abandoned in 1961, one of the two passive overlay sites next to Monks Wood, Cambridgeshire view More

Photo credit: UKCEH

A long-term study of passive rewilding has shown that natural forest regeneration could make a significant contribution to achieving the UK’s ambitious tree-planting goals – potentially for free and within relatively short periods of time.

Research, led by the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), found that natural growth can create biodiverse and resilient forests due to the dispersal of seeds by birds, mammals and wind.

Forests can develop quickly while avoiding the cost, management, and plastic tubing associated with planting programs.

The study – published in the journal PLUS ONE – found that previously bare agricultural fields became bush land rich in game after only 15 years. Within 40-50 years it had evolved into native oak, ash, and field maples with closed canopies, with densities of up to 390 trees per hectare.

Achieving the government’s target of planting 30,000 hectares of forest in the UK each year by 2025 will cost taxpayers a heavy burden as programs such as the £ 5.7 million Northern Forest are planned between Liverpool and Hull.

While natural regeneration is based on the proximity to existing forests or old trees and is not suitable for all locations, the scientists involved in the study can lead to considerable cost savings by including passive rewilding in the national planting goals.

Their research has fed into the Forestry Commission’s new England Woodland Creation Offer Scheme (EWCO), which is the first to provide natural tree colonization grants to landowners.

Dr. UKCEH’s Richard Broughton, who led the study, says, “Biodiversity-rich forests that are drought-resistant and reduce disease risk can be created without our intervention, forest habitat for free and in relatively short periods of time.

“Natural colonization could play an important role in achieving the UK’s ambitious goals for forest creation and nature restoration and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the risk of disease from the transport of nursery young plants or the use of unsightly and polluting plastic tree tubes. “

Dr. Broughton says the research also highlights the vital role played by natural seed dispersers such as wind, mammals, and birds – especially jays, which are commonly viewed by landowners as pests and are persecuted for their predation of other birds. “The tremendous benefits jays provide to natural colonization through the proliferation of tree seeds, especially acorns, help create more forest habitat for all wildlife and far outweigh the effects of predators,” he adds.

The study was carried out by scientists from UKCEH and Bournemouth University; the Polish Academy of Sciences; the Institute for Natural Resources in Finland; Poses? University of Life Sciences in Poland; and Cambridge University.

The research team examined forest development on two former agricultural fields over 24 and 59 years respectively – a two-hectare grassland abandoned in 1996 and a four-hectare barley field abandoned in 1961. The two sites are adjacent to the Monks Wood National Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire, an ancient wooded area documented since 1279 AD.

The tree and shrub growth at Monks Wood has been observed by researchers for several decades. This included counting trees during field investigations and measuring vegetation heights and spatial coverage with remote sensing data (lidar laser scanning from aircraft).

Importantly, the study found that the developing woodland was not hindered by herbivores such as deer and rabbits and therefore no fences were required. Young trees were protected by the initial growth of blackberries and thorny bushes, true to the old adage “The thorn is the mother of the oak”.

The young forests were also resilient to periods of drought in dry summers, which will be important for future forests to cope with climate change.


additional Information

Broughton et al. 2021. Long-term forest restoration on arable land in the lowlands through passive rewilding. PLUS ONE. DOI: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0252466

The research was completed under ASSIST, a National Capability Program (NE / N018125 / 1) funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The researchers were in contact with Natural England and Defra throughout their study, including site visits and workshops. Their work informs about afforestation policy, including the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO), which opened for grant applications on June 9th.

Media inquiries

For interviews and information, please contact Simon Williams, Media Relations Officer at UKCEH, via [email protected] or +44 (0) 7920 295384 Years and 59 years are available on request.

About the UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH)

The UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology is a center of excellence in environmental science in the fields of water, land and air. Our 500 scientists work to understand the environment, how it sustains life and how humans affect it – so that humans and nature can thrive together.

We have a long history of studying, monitoring, and modeling environmental change, and our science is making a positive difference in the world. Topics our science deals with include: air pollution, biodiversity, biosecurity, chemical risks, extreme weather events, droughts, floods, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, soil health, sustainable agriculture, sustainable ecosystems, sustainable use of macronutrients, and water resource management.

The UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology is a strategic partner for the Natural Environment Research Council, which is part of UK Research and Innovation.
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