How ancient Devon woodland will help citizen scientists predict the effects of climate change
Scientist Alison Smith has begun a four year research programme at Clinton Devon Estates’ Hunshaw Woods near Torrington which, when complete, will be packaged into a simple measurement toolkit that can be used by an army of “citizen scientists” in their local woodlands to predict the impacts of climate change on forests, and ultimately protect species that might be endangered by it.
Alison’s research involves measuring leaves, buds, ground flora, saplings and canopy cover and mapping her findings against changes in the weather which are recorded by weather stations tracking the effects of hot temperatures, wet weather, severe cold and droughts. She hopes that, with the right research, techniques can be developed that enable this work to be carried out by volunteer groups from local communities and schools across the UK.
Alison explained: “At the moment it is difficult to say what impacts climate change will have on our forests. We know that it will have an impact, but different forests will respond in different ways. At the moment, the methods used to detect the subtle changes in the growth and health of forest species are too costly, too time consuming and too labour intensive to study as widely as is needed. I am hoping to find methods that can accurately monitor the effects of the climate on woodlands, which are cheaper and easier to use, and ideally which can be carried out by trained members of the community. Then we can gather information from all over the UK to work out how our forests are responding to their changing surroundings. Eventually, this will mean that we can implement appropriate and effective management to mitigate detrimental effects and protect species that might be endangered by changing climates.”
Hunshaw Woods has been selected for the study because it is one of the oldest native broadleaf woodlands in Britain and a registered Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). According to Alison, it offers a variety of trees, saplings and flora which can be measured to see how each reacts to different weather. “We already know that certain species of trees like certain weather and that ideal growing conditions vary from plant to plant but this study will enable us to predict the future sustainability of our ancient forest species and understand growth in relation to climate change. It will also help us find out what we can do to help biodiversity in our woodlands.” She continued: “It is so important that we as a nation understand what is happening to the world around us and why. Hopefully, by getting people involved in monitoring programmes it will also help to empower them and involve them in future projects to help protect our forest heritage.”
Head of Forestry and Environment for Clinton Devon Estates, John Wilding said: “We are pleased to support Alison in her research project by providing the opportunity to unlock some of the secrets of this ancient woodland, with its centuries’ old natural lifecycle. The theory that these forests in particular will be used to identify methods that can be successfully used to monitor the effects of climate change on forests across the UK and potentially beyond is particularly exciting.”
Once Alison has completed her field studies she is hoping to take her methods across the globe to Ecuador in the Andes to trial them in the high altitude forests that are already noticeably affected by climate change which in turn impacts directly on the local communities.
Alison Smith is a PhD student at Plymouth University where she works in the School of Biological Sciences. The title of her research project is “Woodland Ecology in a Changing World: Effective methods for monitoring ecosystem dynamics of temperate broad-leaved woodland in relation to climate change.”