Astounding UK nature recovery observed for the first time from space - Zoological Society London (ZSL)

ZSL conservation scientists lead ground-breaking research using satellites to understand the impacts of rewilding efforts over two decades, at famous UK site.

A long-standing UK rewilding project which has seen key species and native vegetation returned, has been monitored for the first time from space, showing remarkable ecosystem recovery.

Longhorn cattle grazing in long grass
Longhorn cattle free ranging at Knepp Wildland (image ZSL)

Scientists at ZSL (Zoological Society London) have used long-term satellite data to monitor and evaluate the impacts of more than 20 years of nature restoration efforts at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex – one of England’s longest running rewilding sites.

New research published today (1st April 2022) by ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, Imperial College London and the University of Sussex, gathered satellite data and imagery such as those available from Google Earth, to track changes in trees and shrubs from 2001 to 2020 across the 1,400-hectare Knepp Estate.

After scouring years of earth observation images across seasons, the team pieced together a picture of definitive nature recovery at the site, with results showing that rewilding efforts have led to a 40% increase in areas with trees, and six times more shrubs than before the project started.

The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, with only an estimated half of its original biodiversity left. Exponential rates of land use change for agriculture and urbanisation are the top drivers of this.

Satellite data showed that nature has bounced back particularly well in the south side of the Estate where fields were left for long periods before the introduction of herbivore species such as Exmoor ponies and fallow deer. This space exhibited the most significant change in land cover between 2001 and 2020, with the area dramatically switching from brown ‘plowed’ fields and grassland to shrubs, woody vegetation and trees. Conservationists who led the study say that these changes would have reinvigorated support for important ecosystem functions including food sources, habitats, water and soil retention.

Measuring the impacts of long-term rewilding projects, such as Knepp, has thus far been a challenge. This study is the first in the UK to use satellite images to assess the long-term impacts of rewilding as a strategy for a nature positive future.

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Posted On: 01/04/2022

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