SPONFOREST “Unraveling the potential of SPONtaneous FORest ESTablishment for improving ecosystem functions and services in dynamic landscapes”. Finançat per la Comissió Europea, PCIN-2016-174 BIODIVERSA 3 (2017-2019)

The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 aims to establish green infrastructures and to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems until 2020. In this strategy, forests play a key role since they provide multiple ecosystem services. European policy has invested great efforts in afforestation of former farmlands but has largely neglected opportunities for passive landscape restoration and defragmentation by spontaneous forest establishment (SFE). Yet, SFE is common in many parts of Europe due to the widespread abandonment of agricultural land use in past decades. SFE typically leads to many small forest patches that are not or little managed. Together with existing semi-natural forests, these new forest patches form a network of habitats that can help maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services. Although SFE may contribute to the creation of multifunctional, diverse landscapes, it has so far received little attention from ecological and social science research. In fact, SFE is often regarded as a challenge rather than an opportunity for landscape management and conservation.

SPONFOREST will examine the potential of SFE as a cost-effective and politically feasible tool for reinforcing perennial green infrastructures of self-sustaining forests in fragmented landscapes. In-depth ecological and sociological studies will advance the understanding of forest regeneration in the landscape context, analyse ecosystem services and disservices of new forest patches and assess their perception by stakeholders and the greater public. Five case studies in Mediterranean and temperate landscapes will use this approach to investigate SFE under various environmental and socio-political conditions.

The ecological research in SPONFOREST will analyse SFE with a broad spectrum of complementary approaches including dendroecology, population genetics, functional ecology, remote sensing, and landscape analysis. State-of-the-art field and laboratory methods will be used to gather high-quality data that inform a mechanistic framework aimed at forecasting SFE as a function of tree biology and the landscape context.

The social science research of SPONFOREST will combine standardized surveys and in-depth expert interviews with stakeholders and policy makers to elucidate the societal perception of these new forests, their current use and the ecosystem services they supply from a demand perspective, including governance options to regulate this supply. SPONFOREST will place great emphasis on a detailed synthesis of the insights gained from ecological and sociological research, and will actively involve policy makers and experts in the transdisciplinary evaluation of key findings in view of policy recommendations.

The comprehensive but distinct key deliverables address the scientific community, policy makers, forest and landscape managers. SPONFOREST should thus contribute to strategies that optimize future forest governance and management at local to European scales.