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Ancient woodlands provide some of Great Britain’s most biodiverse and culturally significant habitats. Current planning policy aims to protect these ‘irreplaceable’ habitats from the direct and indirect impacts of nearby development. However, assessing the potential impact of development on nearby habitats is complex and impeded by evidence gaps. Our aim is to deliver evidence to underpin future policy, practice, and industry guidance critical to safeguarding ancient woodlands whilst supporting responsible development and woodland use.

This project is closely aligned with AWDev Project WIDGET (Woodland Impacts of Development: Guidance, Evidence and Tools), which is led by the Forestry Commission and funded by the Government’s Project Speed programme. We are working across these two projects to co-develop a synergistic programme of work.

Research objectives

  • Work Package (WP) 1 : Assemble an expert committee of key stakeholders to help identify, characterise and prioritise evidence gaps and policy/practice needs around the impact of development on ancient woodland (AW) condition, informing mitigation across a range of contexts. 
  • WP2: Focusing on the priority evidence gaps and policy needs identified, run a field work campaign to collect data on how development impacts on AW condition whilst accounting for interactions between multiple pressures, and site and landscape characteristics.
  • WP3: Use this information to quantify and map the scale of the issue now, historically and under future scenarios and update policy and practical guidance.
  • WP4: Explore and identify how best to frame messages and communicate responsible use of AW amongst the public and other stakeholders.

Latest updates

  • WP1: We successfully ran a research-prioritisation exercise (RPE) involving an initial online survey consultation followed by two workshops (one in person and one online) with a smaller selection of participants. The survey gathered 113 responses from a wide range of sectors and perspectives and generated 351 suggested research questions. These were grouped into a long list of 35 research questions for discussion and prioritisation within the workshops. The results are being used to inform the WP2 field study focus and are being written up as an open access journal paper (Roach et al., In Prep). Alongside the RPE, a systematic map of the on the impacts of development on forests is also being carried out, the results of which we also plan to publish as an open access journal paper and interactive online tool (Roach et al., In Prep). 
  • WP2: Work is underway to design a natural field experiment and to select field sites across England to explore the impact of development on ancient woodland bird, insect and vegetation communities and how this can be modified by ‘buffer zones’ (semi-natural areas between the development and the ancient woodland). The field work will be carried out in 2024. 
  • WP3: The proportional cover of different development types surrounding ancient woodlands in England have been measured according to current land use patterns and historic land use change (1990-2015). Alongside this, we have explored the potential to use remote sensing data to assess ancient woodland condition and are investigating the use of a detailed land use dataset to measure ancient woodland buffer zone composition and size. The results will be presented as mapped data and summary statistics via an online interactive tool.  
  • WP4: A rapid evidence review was completed (Clements & Ambrose-Oji, 2023) to establish the literature available and gaps remaining around these two key issues:   
    • What are the public behaviours with the greatest negative impact on ancient woodland and who are the key groups undertaking these behaviours?   
    • Is there evidence for the motivations behind these behaviours and interventions that change these behaviours?

Focus groups and interviews are now being undertaken with user groups and site managers in case study woodland sites experiencing different recreational pressures to uncover the motivations behind unwanted behaviours, and to investigate the efficacy of interventions. The results will be written up as advice and briefing notes on encouraging responsible woodland use.  


Clements & Ambrose-Oji (2023): ‘Promoting responsible Ancient Woodland use: Rapid evidence review’ 


Funding & partners
  • ‘AWDev’ is a 2.5 year project which started at the end of 2022 and is funded by the UK Government through Defra’s Nature for Climate Fund programme.  It involves a joint interdisciplinary team of landscape ecologists, social scientists, forest ecologists and planning/policy experts from the University of Reading, Forest Research, Forestry Commission England, Natural England and Defra.