New research set to unlock nature mysteries and tackle biodiversity crisis

Press release
Ancient oaks in the New Forest
Published : 09 Aug 2021

A four-year research project has been launched to help tackle the biodiversity crisis by identifying how the UK’s most precious woodland and meadow habitats can be successfully restored by looking at how all the different plants, animals and other organisms in ecosystems work together.

The £2 million project, funded by Natural Environment Research Council, aims to reverse  habitat loss and the degradation of land caused by agricultural intensification, urban development, climate change and pollution.  

It will look at how these ecosystems knit together through complex individual processes like nutrient cycling, carbon capture and pollination - rather than simply looking at the presence and number of particular species. This is an innovative approach to understanding ecosystem processes and will have major implications for ecological restoration target-setting.

The research is due to get under way at over 100 meadow and woodland sites, currently in the process of being restored, across the country including the Knepp Estate, South Downs and Stonehenge landscape as well as at heavily degraded landscapes such as mining and quarry sites and intensively farmed agricultural land.

The partnership project is led by Cranfield University including the National Trust, Stirling University, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and Forest Research.

It hopes to provide evidence to improve the effectiveness of ecosystem restoration, using woodlands and meadows as examples of some of our most heavily ecologically degraded environments. 

The research will help conservationists and those involved in restoration ensure interventions such as tree planting or re-introducing species are made to maximum benefit.  

Professor Jim Harris of Cranfield University, Lead Principal Investigator for the project, said “Improving our ability to restore functional ecosystems is crucial to ensuring we restore nature and achieve net gain in line with Government plans ‘to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. 

“We are trying to understand how the nuts, bolts and cogs of the ecosystems that we are interested in reassemble and function, and whether this can be done quickly – or whether we need a lot of patience with Mother Nature – who you simply cannot fool.”  

Teams of soil ecologists, botanists, entomologists and animal behaviourists will kick-off an integrated programme of field sampling and laboratory analysis, together with remote sensing, bioinformatics, and statistical and mathematical analysis.  This programme will provide a detailed exploration of different restoration sites and the factors which control their development and stability. 

The Knepp Estate in West Sussex is one of the sites which will be involved in the research.  Charlie Burrell, conservationist and landowner said: “At Knepp we have learned the value of monitoring the changing dynamics in a process-led landscape restoration project. This monitoring is key to show how biodiversity, soils and other ecosystem services can recover quickly from a low baseline. 

“We are delighted to be a partner in this project which aims to measure ecosystem resilience in restoration projects in the face of climate change. This science will provide a crucial evidence base to support a growing movement which is integral to re-connecting our landscape making it better for wildlife and people alike.”

For more information about the project visit

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Additional quotes:
National Trust
Rosie Hails, Director of Science and Nature at the National Trust said: “There is a global biodiversity crisis driven by mounting pressures including land degradation and climate change.  

“Landscape restoration has previously been hampered by an old school approach focused on restoring a landscape to a particular point in time.  However, with the increasing number of challenges our landscapes are facing we need to look forward to what will create the robust, functional and resilient ecosystems of the future.

“We therefore need to get to grips with what ‘good’ conservation looks like – what are the ingredients to help us to create functionally intact ecosystems for the future.

“The results will help us with our own conservation goals of creating 25,000 hectares of priority habitats by 2025 and the establishment of 20 million trees to expand or to create new wooded landscapes over the next decade.

“It’s essential that our decisions are built on strong evidence, so we are delighted that the Trust can play a role in this research.”

Professor James Bullock of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said “We cannot simply set in motion the restoration or rewilding of degraded places and hope for the best. The natural world and the benefits we get from nature, including carbon capture, clean water and beautiful landscapes, are threatened by climate change, pollution and mass extinction.  The ecosystems we restore must be resilient to these threats, and we will investigate how to achieve this aim.”

University of Stirling
Professor Kirsty Park, of the University of Stirling, said: “We will examine how the outcomes of restoration vary with proximity to other similar habitats, the initial state - in particular, agriculture and ex-quarry sites, and the methods used to restore them. 

"For our woodland sites, this will include planting versus natural colonisation, which is a very hot topic at the moment. Importantly, we will also look at how these outcomes vary over time, by including sites of varying restoration age."

Forest Research
Dr Kevin Watts of Forest Research said: “There is an urgent imperative to restore degraded ecosystems across the Globe to tackle the biodiversity and climate crises. Yet, ecosystem restoration can be a complex, expensive and time-consuming process and it may take decades, or even centuries, to see the desired results.”

“This project will help unpick and examine the vital elements underpinning successful restoration and provide important measures to assess whether restorations are actually working and we are on the correct pathway to restoration success.”