Carbon in Ancient Woodland Restoration

Woodlands are large and complex entities which hold significant amounts of carbon in their trees, smaller plants, soils and other biodiversity. This carbon and the woodland’s carbon-cycle may be altered when there are physical changes made to that woodland or its management. This could be through tree or other plant species being changed or removed, or soils being disturbed, all of which may happen for a variety of management reasons.

In the process of restoring important ancient woodland sites it is likely there will be some disturbance and alteration of the whole woodland carbon system, irrespective of previous land-use (whether it is a planted woodland site and exotic conifers are removed, or native species altered, for example).

Current knowledge of the carbon potential of ancient woodlands before, during and following the restoration process was reviewed for the Woodland Trust. This was to better understand the carbon-related significance of these management processes and of the ancient woodlands themselves, and to begin to provide the basis for making high-quality carbon-related management decisions.

Information from this review will be used by the Woodland Trust to enable advisors and managers of planted ancient woodland sites to make informed carbon-positive management decisions.

The review was completed in March 2021.

Ancient Woodland Restoration Carbon Review for the Woodland Trust (Summary)

Report Outline & Key Questions

This report aims to enable advisors, PAWS owners and managers to make informed decisions with respect to carbon positive woodland management of UK based PAW restoration sites. This review, therefore, investigates variation of carbon capture within commercially managed and natural woodland systems in the UK, and forest operations equivalent to the restoration process. Carbon models used in the literature are also considered for their capability to assess carbon in ancient and native woodland systems.

Based on reported known and predicted carbon values of equivalent woodland types, this review aims to answer:

  • What components of the woodland system are particularly important considerations for carbon-positive management of PAWS restoration?
  • Does, and how does, woodland carbon differ between productive conifer or broadleaved stands, and low or no-disturbance native woodland stands?
  • How does the restoration process affect the carbon balance of the woodland?

Headlines and Key Findings

Carbon research of ancient woodlands, or planted ancient woodlands, is substantially lacking. Carbon research that directly compares typical native and productive woodlands or trees is also underrepresented in the literature. This is found particularly in comparison to the wealth of research in the carbon dynamics of productive woodland types and soil carbon.

Measured and predicted rates of carbon capture vary widely between and within woodland types. The general rate of carbon capture in unmanaged broadleaved woodlands appears to be lower but within range of that measured in productive coniferous woodlands.

Woodland soils are one of the most important carbon-related considerations when planning and carrying out woodland operations.

Woodland trees are the most important carbon sink in the woodland system, potentially sequestering many tonnes of carbon per hectare each year.

Managed broadleaved woodlands have been shown to be capable of much higher carbon sequestration than managed conifer woodlands, where the carbon saved by harvested wood products are not included.

The carbon found within the litter and soils of broadleaved woodlands is higher than that found in productive conifer woodlands.

Productive woodlands, where the product is used to substitute fossil fuels (and make substantial in-direct carbon savings), are capable of the highest overall predicted carbon balance of all woodland types.

Woodlands left as a ‘reserve’ (no management or that cease to be managed), and old-growth woodlands appear to be capable of the highest carbon capture of all woodland types, with relatively small amounts of carbon sequestering within the forest soil predicted to continue for centuries, if not indefinitely.

Review author: Carrie Hedges

Date: March 2021

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