The contribution of native woodlands to UK’s net-zero climate targets

This project provides an exciting opportunity to contribute to knowledge of the carbon storage of UK native woodlands and to link science with policy and action around woodland creation

Conservation and restoration of forests, wetlands and grasslands can provide one-third of the actions needed to hold global temperature increase below 2°C and prevent disastrous climate change. Many nations have included such natural climate solutions (also known as nature-based solutions) in their efforts to reduce emissions and prevent climate change. The UK Committee on Climate Change has advised that to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the UK must create 30,000 – 50,000 hectares of forest per year (UK CCC, 2019). However, a number of challenges remain, relating to both the science and the practicalities of afforestation. It is not clear how much carbon different types of new woodlands remove from the atmosphere (Morison et al., 2012), or how the ability of new woodlands to remove carbon depends on the way the woodlands are created. Crucially, most work in the UK has focussed on conifer plantations; we know very little about the carbon sequestration potential of new native woodlands. Carbon storage in organic soils can decline after tree planting (Friggens et al., 2020), meaning it is important to understand total carbon storage and any initial losses of soil carbon that could occur from planting trees in the “wrong” place (Matthews et al., 2020). In the UK, almost all the focus on woodland creation has been on tree planting. Natural regeneration, where trees seed naturally to create new woodlands (Spracklen et al., 2013), could make an important contribution to UK targets (Fletcher et al., in prep.), but almost nothing is known about the rates of carbon removal by naturally regenerating woodland in the UK.



This project will make an important contribution to our knowledge of the carbon uptake and storage of UK native woodlands. The studentship will provide the opportunity to conduct extensive fieldwork across the UK to assess carbon storage across a range of native woodland sites.

The project will address the following objectives:

1) Assess the soil and carbon stocks of native broadleaf woodland for a range of woodland ages from newly established woodland to mature woodland, across a range of land use types.

2) Contrast the carbon removal by new native woodlands created by tree planting and natural regeneration.

The student will collaborate closely with a number of key partners, including the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Forestry Research, Woodland Trust, Forestry England and the RSPB. Through these partnerships we have permissions to conduct field work across a variety of newly created native woodlands of various ages and created in a range of different ways including natural regeneration. In particular, these partnerships provide access to a range of landscape-scale woodland creation projects using “rewilding” techniques.

The project is supervised by Professor Dominick Spracklen, Dr Cat Scott and Professor Pippa Chapman at the University of Leeds and Dr Mike Perks at Forest Research. Forest Research are a CASE partner, providing supervision, training and opportunities for research placements.

Training and Research Support

You will join the Biosphere – Atmosphere – Group (BAG) a vibrant group of researchers studying the interactions between forests, the atmosphere and climate. You will also become a member of the Leeds Ecosystem, Atmosphere and Forest (LEAF) Research Centre, providing opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations with researchers across Leeds. Supervision by the CASE partner, Forest Research, will provide training in a wide range of skills relating to work in sustainable forestry. You will benefit from training in both specific technical and in transferable skills provided by the PANORAMA DTP and those offered by the University of Leeds. Working closely with a team of researchers supported by the United Bank of Carbon you will ensure your project work is linked with policy and action on UK woodlands.

Case Partner

The studentship is a CASE project with Forest Research, Great Britain’s principal organisation for forestry and tree related research and is internationally renowned for the provision of evidence and scientific services in support of sustainable forestry. You will be co-supervised by Dr Mike Perks, who has over 20 years of experience studying the interaction between trees and climate. The studentship includes the opportunity for a 3 to 18 month placement with Forest Research.

Entry Requirements

A good first degree (1 or high 2:1), Masters degree or equivalent in Environmental Science, Geophysical Science, Geography or Biology. A desire to conduct extensive field work and an interest in applied conservation is essential.


Fletcher, T. et al., The potential carbon sequestration of natural woodland regeneration, in prep.

Friggens, N.L. et al., Tree planting in organic soils does not result in net carbon sequestration on decadal timescales, Global Change Biology, 2020.

Matthews, K.B. et al., Not seeing the carbon for the tree? Why area-based targets for establishing new woodlands can limit or underplay their climate change, Land Use Policy, 104690, 2020.

Morison, J. et al., Understanding the carbon and greenhouse of forests in Britain, 2012.

Spracklen, B.D., Lane, J.V., Spracklen, D.V., Williams, N., Kunin, W.E., Regeneration of native broadleaved species on clearfelled conifer plantations in upland Britain , For. Ecol. Manage., 310, 204-2012, 2013.

UK Committee on Climate Change, Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, 2019.