Preventing biodiversity loss is a huge challenge. For example, around 10 million hectares of forest are destroyed every year globally, mainly due to agriculture and urbanisation. Remaining forests continue to be threatened by pollution and climate change.
“About 16 % of the world’s forests are found in mild temperate climates, including those in Europe's densely populated regions,” explains the principal investigator of the EU-funded underSCORE project, Kris Verheyen, head of the Forest & Nature Lab at Ghent University, Belgium.
“Temperate forests are recognisable by their high share of deciduous tree species. However, more than 80 % of the plant biodiversity in these forests is actually found in the understorey – the vegetation layer on the forest floor.”
This layer of vegetation performs several critical roles. It supports insect pollinators and facilitates nutrient cycling and tree regeneration. But despite this, key stakeholders – policymakers, forest managers, scientists and academics – can sometimes overlook the ecological importance of the understorey. This is partly because there are currently no tools available to accurately model and predict the impact of biodiversity loss at this level.
Informed forest management
To address this knowledge gap, this project which received European Research Council support, began by distributing a questionnaire to 800 leading decision-makers in Europe. The aim of this survey was to pinpoint key drivers behind forest management decisions, and to assess the extent to which the understorey was considered in these decisions.
“We also asked the kind of tools that decision-makers use when facing uncertainty,” says Haben Blondeel, a researcher from the Forest & Nature Lab at Ghent University. “We were particularly interested in decision support systems (DSS).”
DSS are software-based tools that combine databases, models and user-defined inputs to predict a tailored output to support a decision-making process. The project team found that understorey-related DSS were unknown to the pool of respondents. “Without such dynamic tools, predicting forest plant biodiversity change in the future is like groping in the dark,” adds Blondeel.
The project team therefore set about developing a working prototype of a web-based DSS (named UnderSCORE) to support decision makers when facing uncertainty in forest conservation and management. Indicators ranging from levels of nitrogen pollution to forest canopy density were applied to a data set of around 4 000 vegetation surveys across forests in temperate Europe.
“The name ‘UnderSCORE’ emphasises the need to consider the overlooked understorey,” explains Mike Perring, a researcher from the Forest & Nature Lab at Ghent University and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. “It also reflects its output – easily understood scores for different indicators. Users can compare these scores across environmental and management contexts, and over time.”
At present, the prototype DSS can be used to compare average trends between regions in Europe, to help forest managers assess the health of understorey vegetation. “We plan to expand this effort by incorporating mathematical process-based models and more site-based environmental data,” adds Perring.
Aiding biodiversity conservation
The online DSS prototype was launched in December 2020 and sent to the 800 stakeholders that participated in the questionnaire. “Since then, UnderSCORE has not been standing still,” says Verheyen. “A new PhD student is conducting an in-depth scenario analysis of DSS outcomes. This information will feed into an update of the DSS.”
Verheyen also believes that the project has helped in raising awareness of the understorey, and the need to take this into account in forestry management. Several academics for example now use the UnderSCORE DSS in their curricula as an example of innovative planning.
“One surprising outcome of our questionnaire was the unanimity with which decision-makers across Europe placed biodiversity, forest regeneration and climate change high on the agenda,” notes Verheyen. “Purely economic objectives such as timber quality or timber quantity received neutral importance ratings. This shows that the objectives of forest management decision-makers do not conflict between countries and sectors. This is encouraging for biodiversity conservation on a continental scale.”