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North Yorkshire woodland research project will explore the impacts of extreme weather

Posted on 23 November 2023

University of York researchers are monitoring how the creation of England’s biggest new native woodland could help stave off the worst effects of climate change, such as flooding.

North Yorkshire woodland research project - photo by Paul Barker

University of York researchers are monitoring how the creation of England’s biggest new native woodland could help stave off the worst effects of climate change, such as flooding.

Earlier this year the Woodland Trust started work at Snaizeholme, near Hawes in North Yorkshire, not only in creating one of the largest contiguous new native woodlands in England but signalling the start of complex and vital scientific research.

The research will measure rainfall, soil properties and streamflow, using this detailed data to track changes over time. This will help scientists, geographers and policymakers to understand how the flood mitigation benefits of new woodlands develop as the trees grow.

Over the course of the next 20 years, a team of scientists from the universities of York and  Leeds will brave the site’s harsh weather conditions, which includes an annual rainfall a 200cm per year making it the wettest place in Yorkshire. 

Already on site, scientists are using specialist equipment such as soil moisture and temperature sensors, weather stations and state of the art lightning detectors to measure extreme weather events.


The results of this research have the potential to directly help us adapt to the impacts of climate change by increasing our understanding of how trees can reduce flooding risk, capture and store carbon, and provide vital habitat for nature recovery across UK uplands.

Dr Rob Mills, from the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of York, said: “Opportunities to create and restore habitats at this scale are rare in England. Snaizeholme provides a unique opportunity to understand how carefully restoring a rich mosaic of habitats provides a range of benefits for people, nature and climate.

“We know intact woodlands can be richly biodiverse ecosystems, and exploring how soil biodiversity, and the activity of soil microbes changes over time will be an important part of our work at Snaizeholme as the woodland develops'.”

Dr John Crawford, Conservation Evidence Officer for the Woodland Trust, added: “We know mature woodlands deliver a range of important benefits: they provide a home for nature, lock away carbon to fight climate change, and slow the flow of water helping to reduce downstream flooding.”

“Working together with world-leading researchers will allow us to take detailed measurements of how biodiversity and ecosystem functions change as the trees grow and the woodlands mature. The research has the power to be a game changer when it comes to how such a new site can combat the extreme effects of climate change.”

Restoring habitats

Another key focus of the research will be researching how establishing new trees alters the properties of soil.

Professor Dominick Spracklen, from the University of Leeds, said: “Restoring habitats across a whole valley has the potential to deliver big benefits for people, nature and climate. We have used a computer model to calculate that restoring the valley would reduce downstream flooding during a 1-in-50-year storm event by nearly 10%. 

“To check that our predictions are correct , we are now installing special equipment to monitor soil and vegetation properties, rainfall and river flow. This will allow us to understand how the flood reduction benefits of the project grow as the native woodlands mature.”

Careful approach

Many centuries ago, the glacial valley at Snaizeholme would have been blessed with swathes of woodland stretching across the landscape but today the 561 hectares (1387 acres) site is almost devoid of trees. It’s a stark situation repeated across the Yorkshire Dales National Park, where total tree cover is less than 5% and ancient woodlands only make up 1% of that cover.

The Woodland Trust is planning to plant almost 291 hectares (719 acres) with native tree saplings. The careful approach to planting will see different densities of trees planted across the site to create groves, glades and open woodlands that gently transition into and connect with the other habitats, all delivered without the use plastic tree guards or herbicides.

It's a unique and complex piece of conservation work due to the range of habitats and species, the topography and elevation – not to mention the estimated 200cm of rainfall per year. Tree planting will exist alongside huge restoration projects, including 113 hectares (279 acres) of blanket bog / deep peat, approximately 100 ha (247 acres) of limestone pavement and over 77.4 hectares (191 acres) of open valley bottom following Snaizeholme Beck.

Further information:

Phase one of woodland creation at Snaizeholme has been funded by the White Rose Forest through its Trees for Climate funding programme. 

Trees for Climate, part of Defra’s Nature for Climate fund, provides grants for woodland creation within all Community Forest areas in England. Researchers at the University of Leeds are supported by the Peter Sowerby Foundation.

The project at Snaizeholme is supported by Woodland Trust’s partners Aviva, B&Q, Screwfix, Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate.

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