Passive rewilding can rapidly expand UK woodland at no cost - UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Woodland development after 59 years at the first study site by Monks Wood (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)
Woodland development after 59 years at the first study site by Monks Wood (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)

A long-term passive rewilding study has shown that natural woodland regeneration could make a significant contribution to meeting the UK’s ambitious tree planting targets – potentially at no cost and within relatively short timescales.

The research, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), found natural growth due to seed dispersal by birds, mammals and wind can produce biodiverse and resilient woodland.

Woodland development can be rapid, while avoiding the cost, management and plastic tubing involved in planting schemes.

The study – published in the journal PLOS ONE – found that after just 15 years, previously bare agricultural fields became a wildlife-rich shrubland. Within 40-50 years it had progressed to native closed-canopy oak, ash and field maple, with densities of up to 390 trees per hectare.

Meeting the Government’s target to plant 30,000 hectares of woodland each year in the UK by 2025 is set to come at a high cost to the taxpayer, with schemes such as the £5.7 million ‘Northern Forest’ planned between Liverpool and Hull.

While natural regeneration relies on proximity to existing woodland or mature trees and is not suitable for all sites, the scientists involved in the study say incorporating passive rewilding into national planting targets could result in significant cost savings.

Their research has informed the Forestry Commission’s new England Woodland Creation Offer scheme (EWCO), which is offering grants to landowners for natural tree colonisation for the first time.

Dr Richard Broughton of UKCEH, who led the study, says: “Biodiversity-rich woodland that is resilient to drought and reduces disease risk can be created without any input from us. Our study provides essential evidence that passive rewilding has the potential to expand native woodland habitat at no cost and within relatively short timescales. Natural colonisation could play a significant role in helping to meet the UK’s ambitious targets for woodland creation, as well as nature recovery and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It is an effective option for expanding woodland in many places without the costs of planting, the disease risk of transporting nursery-grown saplings, or using plastic tree tubes that are unsightly and pollute the environment.”

Posted on: 21 June 2021

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