The response of plants, carabid beetles and birds to 30 years of native reforestation in the Scottish Highlands.
Globally, there is increasing interest in tree planting, leading to many country-level commitments to reforestation. In the UK, current commitments would achieve 17% forest cover by 2050, with the highest rates of forest expansion expected in Scotland. Forest expansion with native trees is expected to increase biodiversity, particularly woodland specialist species, and associated ecosystem services. Despite this, data on biodiversity changes over the early stages of reforestation are sparse, particularly for upland areas in Scotland where opportunities for forest expansion are greatest. We collected data on the response of plants, carabid beetles and birds to native reforestation and grazing exclusion, using sites reforested over the last 30 years in the Scottish Highlands. Biodiversity in ungrazed, reforested sites was compared to unforested controls and mature native forest, both grazed and ungrazed. Mean bird species richness in reforested plots (4.4 [95% CI: 3.2, 5.9]) was higher than in unforested plots (0.8 [0.5, 1.3]), but lower than in mature forest plots (7.0 [5.4, 8.3]). In contrast, there was no systematic difference in plant or carabid beetle species richness in reforested, unforested or mature forest plots, or between grazed and ungrazed plots for the species richness of any groups. Woodland specialist bird and plant species were found in the reforested plots, and richness of woodland specialist bird species was predicted to reach levels in mature forest c. 36 years after reforestation. Species assemblages differed across habitat categories. For birds and plants, species assemblages in reforested sites were intermediate to unforested and mature sites. For carabid beetles, the assemblages in mature and reforested sites were comparable and differed from unforested sites. Grazing did not strongly influence species assemblages. Policy implications. We show that woodland specialists colonise reforested sites and species assemblages transition towards those found in the target habitat within the first 30 years of reforestation with native species. Native forest should be prioritised in Scotland's future forest expansion targets, given that mature native forest is scarce and fragmented in the Scottish Highlands and that the ultimate gain from native forest expansion may accrue over long time-scales.