Resurrecting Natural Capital: Ghost Woodlands
A focus on carbon credits is leading to new woodland creation being prioritised over the restoration and expansion of our remnant native woodlands. But the time has come to take a closer look at our so-called “ghost” woodlands and, where possible, to resurrect them.
Most people are aware that Scotland was once a forested country. Boreal pinewoods in the east converged with temperate rainforest in the west and trees cloaked our hills and glens up to much higher altitudes than today. Over millennia, these ecosystems have become fragmented, with just pockets of semi-natural woodland remaining, scattered across the country. Many of these fragments continue to decay and die, even now in 2022. Known as “ghost” woodlands, they are the bare bones of once-rich habitats, disappearing slowly, one tree at a time.
A fragment of ancient upland birchwood now reduced to “ghost” woodland, dying on its feet – Photo: James Rainey
As we square up to the twin challenges of climate breakdown and the loss of biodiversity, native woodlands are rightly touted as one of the key nature-based solutions we should be deploying. For this reason the Scottish Government has a stated ambition to increase native woodland cover by 3,000 – 5,000 hectares per year. But much of the woodland creation that has been occurring to date has been delivered through tree planting, leading to the current strange situation where new plantations are being funded even as existing fragments of ancient woodland continue to decay and die.
The reasons for this are understandable. Tree planting is essential in some contexts, for instance where a lack of seed sources or rank vegetation are preventing the natural regeneration of woodlands. Planting also has a much greater certainty of outcome, one that is far easier to audit when analysing the value for (public) money that a forestry grant has delivered. Crucially, the carbon credit yield of tree planting is more predictable, giving land managers or investors greater confidence in a project, increasing the likelihood of financial viability.
However, the whole point of natural capital is to understand the full value of natural assets like woodlands, not just their financial worth. When you factor in the cultural significance and value to wildlife of ghost woodlands, it becomes clear that these vestigial habitats are repositories of vast ecological wealth – our equivalent of the Amazon rainforest. They must be protected then restored then expanded, massively.
Thankfully, for those land managers lucky enough to have ghost woodlands in their care, the economics of regenerating these habitats is at last starting to stack up.
Comparison of current aerial imagery with historic OS maps from the late-1800s reveals that continued deforestation has been occurring in Scotland over the last two centuries, despite commercial forestry increasing overall tree cover. Image credits: Historic OS Map from the National Library of Scotland, Aerial Imagery from Bing Maps.
Funding the restoration of ghost woodlands:
Scottish Forestry has long offered Woodland Improvement Grants for the expansion of native woodlands through natural regeneration. To be eligible, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) determination is required and there must be evidence on the ground that regeneration is likely. In addition to this source of public funding (and thanks largely to the hard work of the Woodland Carbon Code and charities such as Future Woodlands Scotland), it is now also possible to generate carbon credits through the restoration of ghost woodlands, providing land managers with a long-term source of revenue to cover the ongoing costs of nurturing a woodland back to life.
While the carbon yields may not be as predictable as they are for planted schemes, the upfront costs are much lower. With Woodland Carbon Code projects running for up to 100 years, there is also plenty of time for carbon sequestration within a project area to really snowball.
The buyers of carbon credits, too, are starting to appreciate the cultural and ecological value of ghost woodlands, with many willing to pay more for the ‘charismatic’ carbon credits generated by these projects. New carbon standards for ecological restoration that will capture and highlight the co-benefits of natural regeneration projects explicitly are also in the pipeline, making it easier for land managers to communicate the full value of their actions.
Ancient woodlands provide habitat for charismatic species such as capercaillie. The intrinsic and ecological value of such wildlife is not being captured by carbon markets currently.
Land reform and ScotGov Policy:
Most land managers I speak to want to restore ghost woodlands on their land simply because “it is the right thing to do”, although many are understandably interested in the new natural capital revenue streams that can be accessed to help them do this. However, action to date has been almost entirely voluntary with no actual stipulation to restore anything. The latest indications from Scottish Government are that this voluntary status quo is unlikely to persist indefinitely.
Earlier this month, the “Land reform in a Net Zero Nation” consultation was published, ahead of new legislation being introduced late next year. Of note is the proposal that all large landholdings (i.e. those over 3,000 hectares) will be subject to “compulsory land management plans”. This requirement will necessitate the production of a publicly available document, which details how land is being used and managed so as “to meet requirements for sustainable management, contributing to net zero and nature restoration goals”.
At the same time, Scottish Government has a new biodiversity strategy out for consultation. Success is being defined in terms of milestones hit by 2030 and 2045 respectively, with a stated aim for 2030 of “native woodland cover and woodland ecosystem health sustaining rich biodiversity, and large-scale regeneration steadily increasing, largely through reductions in deer browsing and grazing impact…”.
It seems likely, therefore, that resurrecting ghost woodlands will become an important part of many land managers’ remit. If you’d like to find out more about appraising native woodlands on your landholding or how to fund their restoration, we’d be delighted to hear from you. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A ghost woodland in the NW Highlands being restored through deer fencing. With reduced browsing pressure on the inside of the fence natural regeneration is occurring, ensuring the continued survival of this ancient remnant. Photo credit: James Rainey
 Scotland’s Forestry Strategy: 2019 – 2029, p. 02