Expanding native forest in Scotland: small-scale mechanisms, landscape-scale responses

Forest expansion is an increasing UK priority and Scotland, which was historically extensively forested, receives a significant proportion of this. Mature forest remnants in the Scottish Highlands support rare specialist species and many have been continuously forested for millennia. However, current policies and grants incentivise forest creation by planting, leading to under investment in protection of and expansion from forest remnants. Using a combination of designed experiments and data collection across natural gradients, this project will explore aboveground processes of forest establishment and interactions with belowground communities and soil properties, providing evidence on outcomes of forest expansion by natural regeneration vs planting.

In collaboration with Trees for Life, we are collecting data on soil communities and properties across a landscape-scale network of plots within Trees for Life’s Caledonian Recovery Project and Wild Trees Survey. Trees for Life’s pioneering work provides detailed information on the status of mature forest remnants across Scotland and the dynamics of natural tree regeneration within and around these remnants. We will link data on tree regeneration and forest status to a set of variables on soil communities, soil physical properties, and soil chemical properties. Soil communities both facilitate tree establishment and respond to the establishment of trees, driving subsequent changes in soil physical and chemical properties.

Data collection across the natural gradient of forest status represented by Trees for Life’s network of survey plots will be complemented by experimental work in collaboration with Highlands Rewilding. We have co-designed experiments with Highlands Rewilding, exploring mechanisms of forest establishment and soil property/community responses. Experiments consider natural regeneration and tree planting as mechanisms of native forest creation in a clear-fell plantation (Bunloit Estate) and grassland context (Beldorney Estate). In the Bunloit experiment we have an additional treatment assessing the efficacy of mycorrhizal inoculation of tree establishment.

The role of regenerative farming for biodiversity and ecosystem functioning

Regenerative farming stands at the forefront of a transformative approach to agriculture, redefining our relationship with the land and challenging conventional farming practices. Unlike traditional methods that often deplete soil health and rely heavily on external inputs, regenerative farming is a holistic approach that seeks to restore and enhance ecosystems. At its core, it emphasises sustainable practices that prioritize soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem resilience.

Illustration describing the farming technique

Through regenerative techniques such as cover cropping, rotational grazing, and minimal tillage, farmers aim to not only produce food but also regenerate the vitality of the land. This innovative approach not only mitigates the environmental impact of agriculture but also holds the promise of fostering resilient, thriving ecosystems for future generations. As the world grapples with the urgent need for sustainable food production, regenerative farming emerges as a beacon of hope, offering a path toward a more harmonious and regenerative coexistence with the planet.

Our project focuses on pastureland under different management regimes from passively restored and regenerative practices to intensively grazed grasslands. Our main goal is to be determine the role that regenerative farming plays for nature recovery. While regenerative farming is notoriously difficult to define in specific terms, we have replicated study areas across two sites (Park Farm and Northfield Farm) and different habitat conditions where grazing intensity naturally varies due to winter floods. Across the regenerative farming sites mob grazing is the standard practice.

At the core of the project sits a plot layout which enables standardised monitoring across the grazing intensity gradient (passively restored to intensively grazed pasture). A wealth of monitoring is already underway in the plots including microclimate (soil moisture, soil temperature, ground temperature, and ambient temperature), soil quality, invertebrates (flying, ground- and soil dwelling), ground flora, mycorrhiza, and bioacoustics. We have installed three deer posts (15cm diameter, 2m high) diagonally across each plot (40m x 40m) to enable equipment to be mounted above ground.

Projects that focus on the entire gradient or those with a narrower focus are welcome.

Evenlode Landscape Recovery

The UK’s natural landscapes and environment face unprecedented threats.

While agricultural land blankets approximately 70% of the UK, until now, farmers lacked a clear path to engage in meaningful environmental restoration while sustaining food production. Landscape recovery offers a different path, and a bespoke landscape recovery plan, crafted and spearheaded by farmers, is even more promising. The Evenlode Landscape Recovery project-lead by the North East Cotswold Farming Cluster (NECFC), funded by DEFRA as one of the current ELM schemes, and partnered with the Leverhulme Center for Nature Recovery among others, is a broad collective of innovative farmers across the Cotswolds who believe that farming, combined with the restoration of natural landscapes, is the future. By restoring landscapes, nurturing wild habitats, enhancing soil health, and cleansing waterways on a grand scale, farmers will be at the forefront of mitigating the impacts of climate change without sacrificing food production.

Within the Evenlode Landscape, we are developing profiles of floral and invertebrate biodiversity across several farms. This feeds into our LCNR-funded project “stress-testing the biodiversity metric using DNA metabarcoding” in which we are assessing how well valuations made under Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) reflect real world measures of invertebrate biomass, richness, and community composition. To achieve this, we are using pitfall traps to sample beetle, spider, and other ground invertebrates, which are then identified using DNA metabarcoding technology. The project will also give farmers in the NECFC data on invertebrate diversity on their sites and biodiversity uplift potential under BNG.

With an over-twenty-year lifespan for the project, the Evenlode Landscape Recovery project will offer an opportunity to plan, enact, and monitor long-term, large-scale landscape restoration across the Evenlode catchment.

Rewilding The City

How are different groups taking active steps to make cities wilder? By elucidating the meanings and practices of rewilding in the city, this project asks how rewilding is refracted by the urban, and how the urban is refracted by rewilding. It investigates the role of cities in nature recovery more broadly and centres the importance of maintenance and repair in the production of urban wilds, bringing together contemporary literatures in political economy, posthuman geographies, and urban ecologies.

To this end, several case studies are harnessed to conceptualise urban wilds. Currently, these include: beaver reintroductions in the UK and Germany; forms of “low maintenance” gardening in Newcastle; and peregrine falcons. Further work will be conducted on less charismatic creatures and processes obscured from the rewilding discourse.

Jonny is currently conducting fieldwork on beaver reintroduction sites in Enfield and Ealing, London in collaboration with Dr Thomas Fry and Professor Jamie Lorimer. Alongside a series of illustrative journal articles, this research is designed to inform a monograph on rewilding cities.

Rethinking the role of state institutions in nature recovery

The English government (environmental policy is largely devolved) has ambitious plans for nature recovery, but its proposed strategy positions the government as a relatively passive player whose job is to create compliance markets and de-risk private investments in nature to ensure they deliver appealing returns. However, there are whole host of risks and negative unintended ecological and social consequences that could arise (Chausson et al. 2023). There is a strong case for states to take a more proactive, mission-driven approach to guiding nature recovery (Mazzucato 2021; Kedward et al. 2022). We are running a workshop with senior figures from government, eNGOs, finance and academic to explore the public policy programme that would underpin a mission-driven approach to driving nature recovery.

PIs on this project:

Dr Sophus zu Ermgassen (Department of Biology, Oxford).

Katie Kedward (Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, UCL)

Professor Erik Gomez-Baggethun (Norwegian University of Life Sciences)

Equitable distribution of nature-rich accessible green space: An Oxfordshire case study

There are well known links between health and spending time in green spaces[1], as shown by the increased interest in social prescribing[2]. However, there is evidence that the most deprived communities have least access to green space, that more deprived communities receive greater benefits from green space1, and that not all green spaces have similar impacts, with more biodiverse areas providing greater benefits[3]. Oxfordshire’s Local Nature Partnership wishes to understand the equality of access to green space, in terms of quantity and quality, across the county to help prioritise effort and funding.

Working in collaboration with LCNR health, ecology, and society work packages, the Oxford Martin School’s Agile Initiative and Oxfordshire’s Local Nature Partnership, the project will investigate the distribution and biodiversity characteristics of accessible green space in relation to socio-economic factors in Oxfordshire, a LCNR case study area.

The project has identified neighbourhoods that are relatively deprived according to socio-economic measures and lack access to greenspace on a number metrics (including amount of greenspace, greenspace crowding and private gardens). These neighbourhoods, predominantly in urban areas, are presented as priorities for greenspace funding and effort. Although it is often virtually impossible to create new greenspaces in densely populated urban environments, existing greenspaces can be improved and protected from development, and innovative ways of increasing green infrastructure can be considered, such as greening active travel routes and pocket parks. In approaching such efforts, it is important that local communities are consulted and engaged in decision making, to ensure that local greenspace works for those using it. Recommendations for Oxfordshire greenspace based on the report have been developed with local government officers and NGOs with responsibilities and / or interest in the subject.

[1] Smith et al. 2023. Agile Initiative Research Brief: Embedding nature recovery in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.
[2] Sandhu et al., 2022. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp22X721445 3Aerts et al., 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldy021

Extension service provision facilitating landscape-scale nature recovery

Context and rationale

Different landscapes present a series of varying physical and social challenges to nature recovery, resulting in efforts requiring localised and targeted approaches. The UK Government Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) initiative represents one such approach for providing strategic catchment-scale farm advice. The initiative predominantly focuses on mitigating agricultural water pollution but there is overlooked potential to expand the CSF’s remit to facilitate farmer collaborations and deliver further landscape-scale nature recovery. With the Government’s Landscape Recovery Scheme due to roll-out in 2024 (Defra, 2023), this project will contribute crucial evidence to inform effective policy by answering the following research questions:

1.    What are the current niches of different organisations providing farm advice (also known as extension services) in facilitating landscape-scale nature recovery? What and where do gaps exist in advice provision?

2.    What is the potential of the CSF initiative to facilitate broader landscape-scale nature recovery?


Planned activities and outputs

We plan to conduct qualitative and statistical analysis of data collected through semi-structured interviews gathered during winter 2022/23 from 140 farm advisors across government, industry and non-profit organisations in England.

The two project outputs will be:

  1. An analytical framework to examine existing advice provision at different spatial scales
  2. A policy briefing summarising results from applying the analytical framework to our interview data at the regional and national scale, comparing advisory niches of different sector organisations for nature recovery. The briefing will identify gaps in advice provision and highlight potential opportunities for organisations, such as CSF, to expand their remit and provide advice on landscape-scale nature recovery.


The Good Natured Conservation Optimism Short Film Festival

The Good Natured Conservation Optimism short film festival, now in its fifth year, shares hopeful stories of nature’s recovery and people’s stewardship of it from all over the world. From its inception, this annual event has been held in collaboration with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (with the exception of the pandemic in 2020). Over the past four years, the film festival has seen 479 submissions from 56 countries. Its virtual editions (see here for 2022) have been viewed on YouTube approximately 1,000 times each. The in-person event at the Oxford Museum of Natural History is usually attended by approximately 150 visitors, with consistently positive feedback from audience members and the top three words being used to describe the festival in 2022 as “fun”, “interesting” and “hope”.

For our 2023 edition, we are excited to partner with the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery. This includes the addition of a “Nature Recovery” category for the film festival, as well as an accompanying reception and art exhibition based on the prompt “What does nature recovery mean to you?” We will deliver a workshop on positive communication and stop motion animation, giving researchers at the LCNR the opportunity to make mini stop-motion animations and equipping them with skills to frame their work in new and creative ways.

More information here

We will be showing the Film Festival in the School of Geography on October 13th at 4.15pm.

More info and to book here


The landscape aesthetics of nature recovery

Ambitions for nature recovery in the UK involve profound changes to land use that will shift the ecological composition and appearance of different landscapes. Recovery commonly involves a transition from worked, agricultural landscapes towards those in which natural processes are given more autonomy. It aims to move from landscapes characterised by low biological abundance and diversity, linear landscape features, and tightly controlled processes towards those marked by biological abundance and diversity, complex landscape features, and unpredictable landscape dynamics.

Some British citizens care deeply about the appearance of the landscape and resist radical changes to land use and landscape composition. Although the rural landscape has undergone radical transformation in the last few centuries, there are powerful, conservative cultural ideals of the countryside as a timeless source of aesthetic, moral and political value that is threatened by change. Imagined archetypes with ecological and cultural baselines in a desired past persist into the present. These archetypes have been central to the history of the conservation of cultural landscapes in the UK.

The lowland English countryside and the Scottish Highlands offer two important examples of these archetypes. The first is exemplary of the English Pastoral and second of the Romantic Scottish Sublime. We anticipate that these two aesthetic ideals help frame the landscape preferences of key players in our two case study regions – rural Oxfordshire and the Scottish Cairngorms. They create the popular and powerful archetypes that are both shared and contested by many farmers, foresters, traditional conservationists, tourists, stalkers, and other rural publics. We expect that there is a good chance that they may both configure and restrict the ambitions of those planning and implementing nature recovery projects across the UK. They shape perceptions of responsible land management and of mess and messiness.

This project aims to test this hypothesis to answer the following research questions:

  • What are the common aesthetics of UK nature recovery?
  • How do they contrast with the pastoral and sublime, as expressed in Oxfordshire and the Cairngorms?
  • How might different publics and stakeholders be engaged in deliberating the aesthetics of nature recovery?
  • Is there are middle ground between the aesthetics of recovery and the aesthetics of pastoral and the sublime – for example in the aesthetics of regenerative agriculture?

Why study aesthetics?

Aesthetics involves the study of perception and the generally pleasant experience of a sight, sound and smell or taste. There is much debate about the degree to which aesthetics are socially constructed or innate. But research shows that aesthetics underpins both environmental ethics and politics. Aesthetics shape the emotional attachments people form with species and landscapes. It propels relations of curiosity, care, and protection, as well as dislike and disgust. Landscape aesthetics also reflects the predominant social order. They express powerful ways of seeing that may serve to naturalise the status quo. These ways of seeing are contextual and contingent and are thus contested. As a consequence, past and current debates about what is natural and right for the UK countryside are strongly shaped by aesthetic, as well as ecological and economic considerations.

Potential for Collaboration with Green Health Initiatives in Oxfordshire

Research into the effects of nature on mental and physical health has been rapidly accumulating over the last decade. Alongside a growing evidence base, there has been significant interest in using this knowledge to implement nature-based wellbeing interventions on the ground. The research at the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery Health and Wellbeing theme directly contributes to our understanding of this field.

It is essential that a research theme focussed on this topic work as closely as possible with organisations already involved in this field of nature and health. Close collaboration expands research horizons as a broad range of perspectives enables new questions to be asked. It also opens the possibility for research outcomes to have immediate effects as knowledge can be disseminated through existing community networks by partners collaborating with the centre.

The first stage in this project involved reaching out to NGOs working on natures role in health and wellbeing to determine the state of activities on this theme in Oxfordshire. The findings from this alongside the potential for collaboration have been summarised in a report.