Many woodland areas across the world are currently experiencing major dieback and collapse, owing to factors including climate change, grazing livestock, fire, and the spread of pests and diseases. As well as the loss of important ecosystems, the collapse of woodlands also impacts upon the people who visit and enjoy such areas -- and the economic benefits that woodlands provide.
A team from Bournemouth University has taken an interdisciplinary approach to studying the New Forest National Park, using historical data to see how its woodland areas have changed over the past 60 years alongside interviewing visitors about their response to such changes.
"Our aim really is to make that connection between a natural environment and human use," say project lead, and BU's Professor of Conservation Ecology, Adrian Newton. "So we are looking at the ecology of the system, and how it's changed over time -- particularly in the context of climate change -- but also the benefits provided by these ecosystems and the implications of those ecological changes for people."
The project has used survey data collected in the New Forest over the past 60 years to measure the scale of the changes. The findings have been stark, as Professor Newton explains. "We've actually been able to go back and survey these long-term plots and show that the woodlands have changed a lot, as many trees have died over that period -- particularly beech trees," he says.
"60 years ago, there were complete and intact beech woods -- which are now, in some cases, almost grassland, so many of the trees have died. These ancient native woodlands that we have in the New Forest, which are very special in terms of their wildlife value, are also really valued by people, as we have also shown in our research. Yet they are dying on quite a big scale -- and we can see that from these longterm data, and our analysis of woodlands that are currently experiencing dieback."
The two-year project is part of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Sustainability (BESS) programme, funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It aims to increase understanding of how major ecological changes occur in woodlands, and their potential ecological and societal impacts. By combining knowledge of ecological changes, with an understanding of human behaviour, the team hope to use expertise from different subject areas to reach a better understanding of the underlying issue. Alongside ecological surveys, the team have interviewed visitors to the New Forest to ascertain what they value and enjoy about the area. GPS trackers have also been used to study their movements around the forest.
"The New Forest is a very special place because it's so important for so many people," says Arjan Gosal, a PhD student working on the project. "It has something like 13 million day visits a year, so recreational use is something we've looked at in depth. We have surveyed what visitors say they like about the forest and have then explored this further by seeing where they go and how they spend their time when they're here."
He adds that the woodland areas -- and particularly those featuring native species -- were especially popular with visitors. "It's the woodlands and particularly the native woodlands they like best," he says. "They love having a walk in the woods and they particularly like the broadleaf trees and the larger trees. But it's exactly these bigger, native, broad-leaf trees that are dying, so I think we are showing that this is of importance to people."
Other strands of the project have investigated the knock-on effect of such loss of woodland to the area's ecosystems -- such as plant-life and soil composition -- and the impact on the environment. Team members Dr Elena Cantarello, Dr Philip Martin and Paul Evans have also modelled simulations of how the area is likely to continue to change in the future, accounting for factors like climate change, spread of disease, and grazing animals. Professor Newton hopes that the project's findings will be of real use to those who oversee and maintain woodland areas, helping with the implementation of management schemes to minimise loss.
"We want to provide evidence that these changes are happening and they have real implications for human society, but we're also keen to give some actual advice to managers," he says. "We want to make them aware of what's happening, but to also give them some guidance as to what they can do to address the problem. At the moment we are working with the Forestry Commission, who are busy developing a new management plan for parts of the New Forest, and we are hoping that some of our results will help inform that."
With climate change being such a huge and complex issue, Professor Newton hopes projects such as this will help to demonstrate, in a clear and tangible way, the impact it is having on our environment.
"I think there's a lot of uncertainty for the general public around climate change and whether it's really having an effect," he says. "I think this is a good example where you can show that it really is -- we are literally finding hundreds of dead trees in these woodlands where we know that 60 years ago that wasn't the case. So it is changing, and we can document that and raise awareness -- but also show that actually it really does matter, because people value these woodlands for their aesthetic value, for recreation and perhaps even for the economy. These ancient native woodlands they're very special, they've been here a long time and they are disappearing. We're trying to find a way to save them."
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