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Woodlanders welcome the return of the natives

 September 12, 2020 | Simon Jenkins

The University is the driving force behind one of England’s most ambitious native woodland creation projects

Far from the madding crowd, the University – with the support of our donors – is helping to create one of Britain’s largest oak woodlands.

More than 80 years ago, Hardknott Forest in the Lake District National Park was controversially planted with non-native conifers. With many of these having now been harvested for timber, there was an opportunity for change. The unique history and special location of Hardknott Forest in one of England’s most dramatic mountain landscapes, made the forest ideally suited to a different approach. After close consultation with local people and organisations Forestry England, the owners of the woodland, decided to transform the 630-hectare plantation to native oak and birch woodland.

The University, in partnership with Forestry England, is working with enthusiastic and hardy volunteers – both adults and schoolchildren –  removing non-native conifers and planting thousands of native saplings.

Despite the challenges of 2020, this year has seen:

  • 113 days’ volunteering work
  • 68 hectares of non-native conifers removed – bringing the total restored to 95 hectares
  • 4,135 native trees planted
  • 200,000 square metres of peat bog restored

As the conifers are removed, so nature is lending its own hand. “We have helped create young woodlands packed with thousands of saplings – birch, rowan, willow, oak, holly and juniper,” said Project Manager Professor Dominick Spracklen of the Faculty of the Environment. “This work shows that natural regeneration – where trees naturally seed and spread themselves – can be an effective way to create diverse woodlands rich in wildlife.”

Children who have visited the site have been using “camera traps” to spot animals inhabiting the new woodland. During 2019, 21 mammal and bird species were recorded on camera. “Forest wildlife can be quite secretive. Camera traps are an ideal way to introduce children to the birds and animals of the forest; we’ve captured pictures of deer, badgers, foxes, otters, owls – and more.” In total, 48 species of bird have been identified at the site.

Peatland restoration is another aspect of the work. Peatlands are one of our most important and threatened habitats. They lock up large amounts of carbon and are crucial habitats for many rare species. In 2019 the team surveyed an area of peatland that had been drained in the 1980s. The drainage ditches dry out the peatland, releasing carbon and destroying the habitat. In March, months of planning and preparation came to fruition, when a local contractor was employed to block the drainage ditches, re-wetting and restoring the peatbog.

Another benefit of the project is the removal of plantation trees from around crags and cliffs creating new climbing locations that have become popular with rock climbers.

The Leeds researchers are also conducting long-term monitoring of the forest, providing vital data on how natural processes can restore forests without the need for tree planting. Crucially, this work informs the way the forest is managed, ensuring that decisions are guided by the latest research.

Hardknott Forest could now become a model for regeneration: “We’re keen to see whether we could help bring other landscapes back from their tipping points,” says Prof Spracklen. “And this is all made possible through our donors’ generous support.”

You can help too.

Belgian company Ecover, which manufactures ecologically-sound cleaning products, has pledged its support to selected sustainability projects – and our restoration work at Hardknott has been nominated as a finalist in the process. Success would allow us to further the positive impact upon people, nature and our climate in the area.

That’s where you come in. The popularity of the projects on social media will be taken into account as they select their winners. Explore our Hardknott Forest content across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, then comment using #UniversityofLeedsxEcover from 30 November 2020 to give Hardknott your support.

Camera traps have captured some of the wonderful wildlife of the renascent woodland: