A four-year study involving research at 100 sites across the UK will identify how our most precious woodland and meadow habitats can be successfully restored.

The £2 million project is being funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation. It aims to help tackle the biodiversity crisis, by reversing habitat loss caused by agricultural intensification, urban development, climate change and pollution. 

Researchers from Cranfield University, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), the National Trust, Stirling University and Forest Research are adopting an innovative approach. Rather than simply looking at the presence and number of particular species, they are investigating how different plants, animals and other organisms in ecosystems work together.

The findings from the project will therefore reveal the essential elements required for ecosystem restoration, enabling conservationists to ensure interventions such as tree planting or reintroducing species are made to maximum benefit. 

Professor James Bullock of UKCEH, who is part of the research team, says:  “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.”

The research is taking place at 100 sites in different ecological conditions, exploring the factors that control habitats’ development and stability. These include areas already undergoing restoration such as the Knepp Estate in West Sussex and South Downs National Park, to find out how biodiversity, soils and other ecosystem features can recover. Small areas of woods surrounded by intensively farmed land and heavily degraded landscapes such as mining and quarry sites are also being monitored.

The work of the project, Restoring Resilient Ecosystems (RestREco), will involve field sampling and laboratory analysis, together with remote sensing, bioinformatics, and statistical and mathematical analysis. 

Professor Jim Harris of Cranfield University, the principal investigator, says: “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.”

For more information on the research, visit the project website.