Woodland Creation and Ecological Networks (WrEN) Project

Woodland Creation and Ecological Networks (WrEN) projectWhat is WrEN?

The concept of landscape-scale “ecological networks” has emerged from efforts to reduce, and ultimately reverse, widespread habitat loss and fragmentation. The widely recognised principles of bigger, better quality, more and more joined-up outlined in Lawton’s ‘Making Space for Nature’ review help to frame an approach for both policy and conservation delivery on the ground. Although it is widely agreed that this landscape scale approach to biodiversity conservation is underpinned by a number of sound scientific principles, the empirical evidence around the relative importance of these characteristics is limited. Designing networks in practice is complex and we need an evidence base that allows us to prioritise those conservation actions that contribute most effectively to a particular ecological network.  

The Woodland Creation & Ecological Networks (WrEN) project seeks to contribute to this evidence base by using created woodland as a habitat system on which to test these ecological network principles at a landscape scale. WrEN started in 2013 in Scotland. In 2014 work was continued in Scotland and a second study area established in central England with over 100 sites having now been surveyed. WrEN is a collaborative research project between University of Stirling, Forest Research and Natural England (working in partnership with Defra, Scottish Natural Heritage, the National Forest Company, the Woodland Trust and the University of Derby).

The approach

The long history of woodland creation within the UK since about the turn of the 20th Century has inadvertently created a series of historical test landscapes containing patches of woodland of varying sizes, shapes and spatial configurations (see Figure 1). The date of establishment for many of these woodland sites is known which enables the project team to assess how these landscape scale changes have impacted on current biodiversity.
The selected woodland sites represent a range of site and landscape level attributes that when measured help to describe the key elements of ecological networks. What makes this project particularly novel is the consideration of all attributes together and how they interact to affect populations of woodland species. To understand how these spatial attributes together with the age of the sites affect biodiversity, first requires good old fashioned field work. The project is fortunate to have a strong group of experts ready and willing to head out with quadrats, sticky traps, hand lenses and bat detectors to help collect this valuable data. The following key taxonomic groups that represent a range of network-related traits are the current focus of work: trees, ground flora, lichens and bryophytes, ground invertebrates, bats, small terrestrial mammals and birds. The intention is to expand the scope of the field survey in time to include other groups.

A key, exciting aspect of this project is the recent digital availability of historic land use maps which show us what was happening up to 150 years ago. They allow us to essentially “go back in time” and assess the impact of historic land use change on current biodiversity” says Elisa Fuentes-Montemayor who leads the fieldwork and analysis at the University of Stirling.  

The future

In evaluating the ecological network concept with respect to created woodlands WrEN will provide evidence to underpin future conservation efforts to create and enhance networks for woodland species. It will help to inform the development of practical guidelines to assist practitioners in the planning and implementation of future landscape scale conservation work.

WrEN focusses on created woodland sites within lowland agricultural landscapes. The evidence could therefore potentially be used to inform how agri-environment schemes and other conservation projects can better contribute to ecological networks through the targeting of appropriate conservation actions.

Nicholas Macgregor, principal specialist in landscape ecology at Natural England, said: “creating robust ecological networks that support larger populations of species and enable them to move across landscapes is a very high priority for conservation, and there are many conservation projects across the country that are working towards this.The WrEN project, which to our knowledge is one of the most comprehensive studies of its type that has ever been done in the UK, will give us valuable information about the relative importance of different ecological network components for a wide range of woodland species. With this information we will be able to provide much more detailed advice to conservation practitioners.”

More information on the project and how you can get involved as a volunteer can be found at the WrEN project website below: http://www.stir.ac.uk/natural-sciences/research/groups/bes/ecologyevolut...