Ecology of upland native woodlands

Epiphytes on oak within Glencripesdale National Nature ReserveSummary

This research programme is investigating the influence of different management options and ecological processes on the condition of upland native woodland habitats. Practical tools are being developed for woodland managers.

The main themes of this programme are:

  • Restoration of upland planted ancient woodland sites (PAWS)
  • Management planning and monitoring
  • Factors influencing natural regeneration
  • Impact of management on lower plants
  • Woodland history – it’s influence on current structure and composition.

Research objectives

  • To improve our understanding of how to achieve favourable condition in upland native woodlands
  • To provide practical tools and guidance to aid the selection of appropriate management options.

The research work is divided into the following areas:

Funders and partners

Forestry Commission logo
This work forms part of the Ecosystems and Biodiversity research programme which is funded by the Forestry Commission.

Work completed under this programme has also been funded by:

  • European Union LIFE Nature (through the Caledonian Partnership)
  • Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • English Nature
  • Forest Enterprise Scotland.

A study has been undertaken in partnership with Stirling University’s Centre for Environmental History.

Rationale for this programme

There are several trends which influence the current condition of our upland native woodland resource and have implications for management:

  • Many woods have gone through a phase of industrial use (e.g. coppice production for iron smelting), which was often relatively short-lived. This activity stopped in most of upland GB before 1900 although many of the more accessible woods were exploited again in the two world wars. Woods now often have a high degree of inherited naturalness which has built up from a lack of recent disturbance.
  • A large proportion of ancient semi-natural woods were planted with non-native trees in the 1930’s to 1970’s. Activities to restore these woodlands have accelerated due to targets in woodland HAPs and to the increasing maturity of planted trees.
  • Many woodlands have become more effectively isolated as adjacent land has been “improved” for agricultural production. This has reduced potential for colonisation.
  • Herbivore numbers have increased in most upland native woods. In upland England and Wales, many woods are heavily stocked with sheep whilst in the Highlands of Scotland , red deer numbers have increased from 185 000 in 1969 to around 350 000 today (MacKenzie and DCS)).
  • Two important factors which are likely to influence this resource are Common Agricultural Policy reform and climate change.

Woodland habitat action plans (HAPs)

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan encompasses several HAPs for upland woodland types: upland oakwoods, upland mixed ashwoods, native pinewoods and, in part, wet woodlands. The HAP for Upland Birchwoods in Scotland  awaits publication but is also of relevance to this programme. HAPs contain targets for the:

  • Improvement of existing semi-natural woodlands,
  • Restoration of ancient woodland sites planted with non-native trees
  • Creation of new native woodland.

These plans have generated a lot of activity and much has been achieved. However, it is not always obvious which management option to select and improved guidance is required. Similarly, new methods are needed to assess habitat responses and inform the future direction of management.


Ralph Harmer