Many ecosystems in the UK and around the world are at risk because of the effects of climate change and other forms of human activities. A study of the New Forest National Park by BU researchers unveiled the extent to which woodlands collapsed once a tipping point was reached, impacting important ecosystems and the economic benefits that woodlands provide.

Building on this, the researchers are examining the landscapes of Dorset to see whether any major changes in ecosystems have occurred or might occur and the potential economic repercussions of these. Identifying issues at this stage could help appropriate policy and management steps to be taken for the benefit of the economy and wider society.

The concept of an environmental tipping point – a threshold point beyond which sudden irreversible change may occur causing ecosystems to collapse – has grown in recognition and importance in environmental policy. The sight of vast ice sheets collapsing and the threats posed by rising sea levels are striking examples that have helped raise public awareness of the environmental, social and economic consequences that can follow.

Professor Adrian Newton and project team From left to right - Dr Arjan Gosal, Dr Philip Martin, Professor Adrian Newton, Dr Elena Cantarello

The team led by BU’s Professor Adrian Newton discovered one of the first examples of a tipping point in a terrestrial ecosystem. The discovery came while conducting research into woodlands in the New Forest National Park. The two-year project formed part of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Sustainability (BESS) programme, funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The project used survey data collected in the New Forest over the past 60 years to measure the scale of changes. The findings were stark, as Professor Newton explains.

“We were able to show that the woodlands have changed a lot, as many trees have died over that period – particularly beech trees,” he says. 

View Professor Newton's staff profile
Where 60 years ago, there were complete beech woods, in some cases, these are now almost grassland, so many of the trees have died.

The project aimed to increase understanding of how major ecological changes occur in woodlands, and their potential ecological and societal impacts. Its findings will be useful to those who oversee and maintain woodland areas, helping with the implementation of management schemes to minimise loss.

“We wanted to provide evidence that these changes are happening, and they have real implications for human society, but also to give some practical advice to managers,” says Professor Newton.

“One of our hopes was that they would take account of our research and manage woodlands in a way that would prevent future dieback.”

These hopes appear to have been realised, now that the Forestry Commission, who worked with the BU team, have incorporated some of the findings into the New Forest Management Plan. However, much work remains to be done to ensure these woodlands do not experience further dieback.

Decline in the basal area in the forest recorded by the project team
Approximate reduction in juvenile tree densities recorded

Further research

On the back of the success of the initial project, NERC have funded further research. Called Tipping Points in Lowland Agricultural Landscapes, the three-year project started in 2016, and covers a much wider area.

“We are extending our initial research beyond woodlands to look at all ecosystems in Dorset. We want to test whether these non-linear changes are happening in other ecosystems and if they are, what the implications are for economic growth,” explains Professor Newton.

The team is building an archive of environmental data stretching back 80 years, looking at both how the environment has changed and how it is linked to the economy, to economic growth and employment. Identifying the changes means that appropriate steps can be taken in terms of policy and management.

Professor Newton’s research has already unearthed another tipping point, in Poole Harbour. Clam fishing had been an industry worth several million pounds per annum, but it collapsed a few years ago through a combination of water pollution and rising water temperature.

Post-Brexit opportunity

The project also held a workshop to look at future land use in Dorset. Agriculture has changed radically in Dorset since 1930s, with increasing intensification.

Professor Adrian Newton

If we carry on intensifying agriculture, we’re concerned there will be a broader tipping point that could cause a big impact on the economy. It may even be the case that this threshold has already been crossed.

The workshop considered different strategies and opportunities for changing how the land is managed and agriculture distributed in Dorset. It forms part of the project's impact plan designed to translate the BU research into policy and environmental management. Key stakeholders include the Dorset Local Nature Partnership and the Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership.

“We are trying to bridge the divide between nature and the economy through this project. We want to use the results to inform broader dialogue around land use post-Brexit and the potential opportunities it may bring,” continues Professor Newton. “As the project has moved forwards, Brexit has initiated debates about what should be happening in the future. Our aim is to inform those debates.”

News from the Faculty of Science & Technology