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MOORCO – Moorland colonisation

Image showing moorland colonisation by Silver Birch trees
MOORCO studies the changes that occur in above and below-ground biodiversity and ecosystem servcies when woodland establishes on moorland

The MOORCO project studies how woodland expansion onto moorland affects biodiversity and ecosystem services.

MOORCO stands for moorland colonisation and is an umbrella project encompassing four different experimental platforms that study the impact of woodland expansion onto heather dominated moorland.


Scotland is currently a relatively sparsely wooded country but historically woodland covered a much larger area. The present situation is primarily the result of centuries of deforestation, largely as a result of man’s activities. Today Scotland’s woodland cover is about 17% of the land area, which the Scottish Government aims to increase to 25% by 2050.  Woodland expansion onto moorland is one way to achieve this target and pine and birch woodlands are the two native types of woodland that most readily establish on moorlands.  Caledonian pinewoods are included within Annex 1 of the EC Habitats Directive and both Caledonian pinewoods and upland birch woodlands are Priority Habitat within the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Both woodland types together make up the majority of the remaining fragments of native woodland in Scotland today and will readily expand, given the right conditions.

Experimental platforms

Our long-term experimental work is carried out on four experimental platforms:

  1. Chronosequence plots. 3 sites with chronosequences of birch establishment onto moorland
  2. Miles planted plots. 3 sites each with replicated plots of planted birch and open heather moorland.
  3. Miles felled plots 1 site with replicated plots of planted heather on felled birch woodland and mature birch woodland
  4. The BIG experiment.  3 sites each with replicated plots of planted birch or pine and open moorland with and without grazing.


When birch colonises moorland the following changes were found to occur:

Changes in biodiversity

  • The vegetation changes from heather-dominated to grass- and herb-dominated understorey
  • The number and diversity of soil mites, Collembola (spring tails) and earthworms increases
  • The soil microbial community changes from being fungal-dominated to bacteria-dominated
  • The species of fungi present also change.

Changes in soil properties

  • Soil acidity decreases
  • Soil phosphorus and bulk density increases
  • Total soil carbon and depth of organic matter decreases
  • Soil moisture decreases

Changes in ecosystem services

  • Rates of litter decomposition increase
  • Increased rate of nitrogen mineralisation
  • Less carbon is stored in vegetation and litter in some 20 year old birch woodland vegetation than in moorland vegetation
  • Less carbon is stored in the soil under some 20 year old birch trees, planted on moorland, than in the moorland soil

See individual experimental platform pages or Publications for further details of results


MOORCO is a collaborative project across several groups and themes within the James Hutton Institute and with many different staff involved. In the first instance please contact Dr Ruth Mitchell for further details.


Areas of Interest

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.