newLeaf will look at how quickly trees can adapt to change in the wild and whether human intervention is needed to protect their future.
Our woodlands, forests and trees are critical for our environment, health, well-being and ability to move to a zero-carbon society. However, due to increasing risks from climate change, pests and disease, the future is uncertain for our treescapes.
We may see woodlands and forests as fixed, but in truth, they are amazingly dynamic and can shift within human lifespans. In fact, it is often only human activity that prevents populations from changing and adapting. For example, uncontrolled grazing removes tree seedlings and saplings and can stop regeneration from occurring. This means there is little opportunity for new genetic diversity to enter a population and allow it to adapt.
“We need millions more trees in our landscape to help the UK achieve net zero, but a more unstable future climate, and new pests and diseases, make planning ahead difficult. Although they have great adaptive potential, we don’t yet know if tree species can adapt fast enough.”
This is a central question for newLEAF, and if trees cannot adapt fast enough what can humans do to help? newLEAF seeks to answer these by exploring how our treescapes have adapted in the past, and what this can tell us about their future.
Researchers will look at the last 100 years of treescape history in the UK and combine data on changing tree populations with historical policy information. They will measure how much tree species have already adapted, in real populations, and how much they could change, by looking at experimental planting. They will build computer models to test strategies and tools to help minimise risk from pests and disease. All this will help us understand the link between policy choices and the outcomes for treescape resilience.
“Importantly, we also need to understand how people make decisions in uncertain times, and to seek new ways to handle uncertainty in planning for the future. A key part of this for newLEAF will be the link between arts and science, which will challenge us to see new perspectives on living with and planning for change.”
The project will be working with arts researchers to understand how artists view uncertainty, dynamism and change in creating their work, and will aim to engage people with these themes through the creation of a new artistic work.
Dr Stephen Cavers, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
UKCEH, Forest Research, James Hutton Institute, Universities of York, Strathclyde, Stirling and Glasgow, and Robert Gordon University