Improving evidence for river woodland restoration initiatives

Image: The River Dee Trust
Roderick Low

Researchers from The James Hutton Institute and the University of Aberdeen are leading efforts to advance the evidence-base for river woodland restoration in Scotland.  

River woodlands play a pivotal role in sustaining the ecological integrity of rivers while providing opportunities to mitigate aspects of the multifaceted challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change. The urgent need to restore these habitats has prompted research efforts.

In Scotland, over half of the riparian vegetation along the primary river networks lack essential trees or shrubs. Native woodlands bordering streams and rivers have largely disappeared due to agricultural intensification, urban expansion, or have been hindered from regenerating by browsing and grazing animals.

The work is being funded by Scotland’s Centre of Expertise for Waters (CREW), which is based at the Hutton.

The Hutton’s Professor Marc Stutter, who is leading the project, says, “Streams and rivers within watersheds are interconnected, flowing from their source in the headwaters to the sea, and laterally within floodplains.

“The presence of these woodlands along waterbodies is indispensable for the ecological functioning of freshwater systems. They contribute to carbon and nutrient cycling, ultimately supporting the health of the rivers and wider ecosystems.

“Prioritising the restoration of these habitats in Scotland emerges as a critical objective for guaranteeing and optimising many benefits, such as cleaner water and air, drought adaptation, flood risk mitigation, carbon storage, sustaining soil health, enhancing biodiversity and ecosystems, improving human health, and benefiting wild fish and angling activities.”

Building on a recent review by the Riverwoods initiative that identified a number of scientific gaps, the project seeks to understand which evidence gaps as well as other barriers are preventing or limiting stakeholders’ involvement in woodland restoration.

Professor Stutter leads the project in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team at the Hutton and the University of Aberdeen’s Geography Department (Dr Julie Rostan, Dr Josie Geris and Dr Flurina Wartmann) with expertise spanning across hydrology, river ecology and social sciences.

The team will identify and prioritise key evidence gaps and barriers to river woodland restoration. By leveraging interdisciplinary insights and stakeholder engagement, the project aims to catalyse transformative change towards a more sustainable future for Scotland’s river ecosystems.

Image Credit: The River Dee Trust