A Natural Regeneration Experiment

In 2022, The Prospectory and friends began an informal, natural regeneration experiment in a 3.7 acre field above Talybont on Usk in the Brecon Beacons. The field adjoins 7.6 acres of steep, mixed woodland; a combination of oak, birch, hazel and hawthorn. Until September 2021, the field was grazed by a small flock of sheep but these have now gone.

Photograph taken in 2010

Natural regeneration occurs when existing trees and shrubs release seeds that germinate successfully to produce new growth. Scrub and woodland provide the vital services of storing carbon and supporting biodiversity. As a process, natural regeneration is as old as woodland itself given it’s how trees have reproduced, unassisted by us, throughout their millions of years of evolution. Yet, when expanding woodland in the UK, planting has become the cultural norm.

I had originally considered planting trees in the field but reading around the subject and discussing with people more knowledgable than me, I decided to try a natural regeneration experiment instead. The reported advantages over tree planting are claimed to be:-

  • UK’s native tree species have a wide genetic diversity. When new generations of trees are the offspring of those already thriving in the local area, they are likely to be more resilient to a changing climate, pests and diseases.
  • Natural regeneration can create more natural landscapes and species mixes which can be far more beneficial for wildlife.
  • These trees have more beneficial mycorrhizal (root) fungi, which help with water and soil nutrient uptake, and sharing resources between trees.
  • They show adaptation to locally prevalent environmental conditions, often surviving better than planted trees.
  • Their final distribution will be determined by which seeds succeed based on the immediate soil conditions where they land rather than planting formats determined in advance.

After planting 20,000 trees in the US, one researcher remarkedThe ones that grew best were mostly ones we didn’t plant, they just grew naturally on the ground we had set aside for planting. Lots popped up all around. It was a good reminder that nature knows what it is doing.”

From my point of view, as a life long experimental psychologist (not an ecologist), there are two things which particularly appeal to me about a natural regeneration project:-

  • Enjoying unpredictable outcomes – no-one knows what exactly will happen – what diversity and what surprises will emerge? Even with the most controlled experiments I’ve ever designed, the most powerful learning has been in the surprise effects of some unintended aspect of the experiment.
  • Understanding messiness and natural diversity. Natural regeneration can elicit a negative reaction because (like unmown lawns or grass verges) people see it as “scrubby, messy, uncontrolled and uncared for”. But is what we perceive as “messy” simply a culturally determined view? Nature can be messy but in that biodiversity lies its strength and resilience – a key part of the environmental reset we need. Unfortunately, the UK government’s new biodiversity metric does not value scrubby landscapes dominated by bramble, thistle and ragwort (often key features of rewilding projects). Instead it logs them as a sign of “degradation”.

The Experimental Plan

This is still evolving and, I’m sure, will continue to do so.

The sheep have been removed and the field is now undisturbed. We have selected 4 corners of the field (next to either woodland or hedges) labelled below as Talybont Bottom Corner (TB), Talybont Top Corner (TT), Aber Bottom Corner (AB) and Aber Top Corner (AT).

We have planted hazel poles at these 4 points as markers and plan to take photographs 4 times a year: March, June, September and December to record any changes. The photographs will consist of both the view looking across the entire field from that point and a small area of ground immediately around the pole.

In addition, with the help of a friendly ecologist, we hope to document the plants and seedlings growing in each of these 4 quadrants once a year.

Warning : The experiment will certainly outlive my likely life span! Here’s one which started 60 years ago!

March 2022 – Starting photographic record – photos by Jon Dixon