Slow development of woodland vegetation and bird communities during 33 years of passive rewilding in open farmland

Broughton, R. K. et al. | PLOS One | 2022 | Peer Reviewed | Original research |


Passive rewilding is a potential tool for expanding woodland cover and restoring biodiversity by abandoning land management and allowing natural vegetation succession to occur. Land can be abandoned to passive rewilding deliberately or due to socio-economic change. Despite abandonment being a major driver of land use change, few have studied the long-term outcomes for vegetation and biodiversity in Western Europe. Studies are also biased towards sites that are close to seed sources and favourable to woodland colonisation. In this case-study, we reconstruct a time series of passive rewilding over 33 years on 25 ha of former farmland that had been subject to soil tipping, far from woodland seed sources. Natural colonisation by shrubs and trees was surveyed at three points during the time series, using field mapping and lidar. Breeding birds were surveyed at three time points, and compared with surveys from nearby farmland. Results showed that natural colonisation of woody vegetation was slow, with open grassland dominating the old fields for two decades, and small wetlands developing spontaneously. After 33 years, thorny shrub thickets covered 53% of the site and former hedgerows became subsumed or degraded, but trees remained scarce. However, the resulting habitat mosaic of shrubland, grassland and wetland supported a locally distinctive bird community. Farmland bird species declined as passive rewilding progressed, but this was countered by relatively more wetland birds and an increase in woodland birds, particularly songbirds, compared to nearby farmland. Alongside biodiversity benefits, shrubland establishment by passive rewilding could potentially provide ecosystem services via abundant blossom resources for pollinators, and recreation and berry-gathering opportunities for people. Although closed-canopy woodland remained a distant prospect even after 33 years, the habitat mosaic arising from passive rewilding could be considered a valuable outcome, which could contribute to nature recovery and provision of ecosystem services.