Small patches of forest contribute more to environment than previously thought


Research carried out by UGent’s bioengineering department has made a remarkable discovery concerning the contributions of small woodlands

Little wood, big benefits

Small Woodlands contribute much more to the atmosphere than previously thought, according to a study carried out by Ghent University’s department of bioengineering. Per surface area unit, woodlands absorb more CO2, contain richer food sources for animals and are home to fewer ticks compared to their much larger counterparts.

The study focused on small woodlands in agricultural landscapes across Europe and was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Because forests have been cleared to make way for farmland over the centuries, there are many different ages of these types of woodland patches. The researchers wanted to find out how they compared to large forests when it came to contributing to biodiversity and the environment.

Very little was known about the subject until now. Researchers studied the services rendered by these woodland patches to the area’s ecosystem and society. “That means everything they contribute to the local community, such as protection against flooding, crop pollination by insects, water treatment, climate regulation, recreation – and more,” explained professor Kris Verheyen.

Small woodlands provide a greater benefit to the ecosystem per surface area unit

- Professor Pieter De Frenne

The researchers discovered that it is equally important to preserve smaller woodlands as it is large forests, which are usually the focus of conservation practices. “In comparison to large forests, small woodlands do indeed have fewer varieties of flora and fauna,” said professor Pieter De Frenne, “but they provide a greater benefit to the ecosystem and society per surface area unit.”

There are three main areas where smaller woodlands punch above their weight when compared to larger forests. The forest floor absorbs more CO2 per surface area unit, removing more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

They also provide more nutrition for wildlife in the form of berries and young trees. And they are home to fewer ticks, which means they are safer for humans, who are susceptible to Lyme disease caused by ticks carrying the Borrelia bacterium.

“Our results show that the importance of smaller forests cannot be underestimated,” said the researchers in a statement. “Until now, these forests were largely ignored by policymakers. That needs to change because they have a huge impact on society.”

They recommend that these smaller forests be protected in the same way that old-growth forests are.

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