Sixty years ago, scientists let a farm field rewild – here’s what happened

The Monks Wood Wilderness experiment was a rewilding study before the term existed. This is what we can discover from it

In the archive of the UK Centre for Ecology & & Hydrology there is a typed note from the 1960s that planted the seed of an idea.

The note reads: ” It might be interesting to view what occurs to this location if male does not interfere. Will it end up being a wood once again, for how long will it take, which species will remain in it?”

Composed by Kenneth Mellanby, director of the Monks Wood Experimental Station, a previous research study centre in Cambridgeshire, UK, the note describes a four-hectare arable field that lies next to the station and the ancient woodland of the Monks Wood National Nature Reserve. After collecting a final barley crop, the field was ploughed and after that deserted in 1961.

So started the Monks Wood Wilderness experiment, which is now 60 years old. A rewilding study before the term existed, it reveals how enabling land to naturally regrow can expand native woodland and assistance take on climate change and biodiversity loss.

How brand-new woodland produces itself

The result is a structurally complex forest with multiple layers of tree and shrub plants, and collecting nonessential as the environment ages. This complexity offers specific niches for a wide range of woodland wildlife, from fungis and invertebrates in the dead logs and branches, to song thrushes, garden warblers and nuthatches which nest in the ground layer, tree and understorey canopy.

The Monks Wood Wilderness field in the 1960s (left) and 2014 (right). Image: UK Centre for Ecology & & Hydrology

A shrubland of thorn thickets emerged after the very first 10 to 15 years. Controlled by bramble and hawthorn, its seeds were dropped by thrushes and other berry-eating birds. This thicket safeguarded seedlings of wind-blown typical ash and field maple, however especially English oak, whose acorns were planted by Eurasian jays (and perhaps grey squirrels too) as forgotten food caches. Its believed that jays were particularly busy in the Monks Wood Wilderness, as 52 percent of the trees are oaks.

The Monks Wood experiment benefited from the field lying close to an ancient woodland, which meant an adequate supply of seeds and representatives for their dispersal– jays, rodents, and the wind. Such fast colonisation of the land would be unlikely in more remote places, or where deer are superabundant.

However there are lots of woods in the UK that could broaden by allowing adjacent fields to return to nature. This would ultimately amount to a substantial increase in overall woodland cover.

The intermediate shrubland phase was a suntrap of blossom and wildflowers. Rabbits, brown hares, muntjac deer and roe deer were all common, but the protective thicket suggested there was no requirement for fencing to prevent them eating the emerging trees. Those trees eventually rose up and closed their canopy above the thicket, which ended up being the forest understorey.

The site in 2021, after 60 years of natural regeneration. Image: UK Centre for Ecology & & Hydrology

Tree planting or natural regeneration?

Main image: A jay. Credit: Dorothea Oldani

Those trees ultimately rose up and closed their canopy above the thicket, which ended up being the forest understorey.

The Monks Wood Wilderness fills out this space in our knowledge as an example of planned natural regrowth that has actually been kept an eye on over decades, with a second two-hectare field (named the New Wilderness) included 1996 to expand the experiment.

We can now finally respond to Mellanbys 60-year old concerns. Within 40 to 50 years, the ploughed field became a closed canopy forest with nearly 400 trees per hectare. And as the canopy grows taller, more plant and animal types are showing up, such as marsh tits and purple hairstreak butterflies– mature woodland experts that have made a house here as the environment gradually assembles with the ancient forest close by.

The Wilderness experiment shows whats possible when nature is enabled to develop rich, native woodland totally free. I believe Mellanby would be pleased with how everything turned out.

Considering that the 1990s, the 2 Wildernesses have actually been regularly surveyed by scientists counting and measuring trees on foot and tracking tree cover from drones and airplanes. These surveys documented the advancement of forest over 60 years in our just recently published study, exposing the patterns of environment regrowth.

Roe deer prevailed, but not abundant enough to stymie tree growth. Image: Gaith Shalan What about doing practically nothing instead? Natural regeneration includes developing woodlands by allowing trees and shrubs to plant themselves under natural processes. Its free and includes no plastic or nursery-grown saplings, which can introduce diseases. The result is woodland thats well adapted to regional conditions.

Richard K Broughton is an ecologist and ornithologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & & Hydrology, and a senior research associate in zoology, University of Oxford This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Check out the initial post.

Oak seedlings were early pioneers in the regrowth of the forest. Image: UK Centre for Ecology & & Hydrology

Permitting the land to naturally restore noises interesting, but ecologists and organizers need to know where this method is likely to work best. How abandoned land turns into woodland is rarely documented, as it normally takes place where people have strolled away.

The UK is one of the least forested places in Europe, with just 13 per cent forest cover compared to approximately 38 percent across the EU. Just half of the UKs forest is native woodland, which sustains a wide range of native types. The rest is dominated by non-native conifer plantations grown for lumber.

With the climate and biodiversity crises getting worse each day, theres an urgent need to expand woodland quickly. Tree planting is the normal technique, but its expensive.

Only half of the UKs forest is native forest, which sustains a large range of indigenous species. Natural regrowth includes producing forests by permitting shrubs and trees to plant themselves under natural procedures. Within 40 to 50 years, the ploughed field ended up being a closed canopy forest with almost 400 trees per hectare. And as the canopy grows taller, more plant and animal types are showing up, such as marsh tits and purple hairstreak butterflies– fully grown forest specialists that have made a home here as the environment gradually converges with the ancient forest close by.

This circumstance is slowly changing. The UK government aims to create 30,000 hectares of brand-new woodland each year till 2025, supplying new habitat for wildlife and assisting reach net zero emissions, as forest stores more carbon than any other habitat other than peatlands.

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