Implications of changing from grazed or semi-natural vegetation to forestry for carbon stores and fluxes in upland organo-mineral soils in the UK
Abstract. In the UK, as organo-mineral soils are a significant store of soil organic carbon (SOC), they may become increasingly favoured for the expansion of upland forestry. It is important, therefore, to assess the likely impacts on SOC of this potentially major land use change. Currently, these assessments rely on modelling approaches which assume that afforestation of organo-mineral soils is "carbon neutral". This review evaluates this assumption in two ways. Firstly, UK information from the direct measurement of SOC change following afforestation is examined in the context of international studies. Secondly, UK data on the magnitude and direction of the major fluxes in the carbon cycle of semi-natural upland ecosystems are assessed to identify the likely responses of the fluxes to afforestation of organo-mineral soils. There are few directly relevant measurements of SOC change following afforestation of organo-mineral soils in the UK uplands but there are related studies on peat lands and agricultural soils. Overall, information on the magnitude and direction of change in SOC with afforestation is inconclusive. Data on the accumulation of litter beneath conifer stands have been identified but the extent to which the carbon held in this pool is incorporated into the stable soil carbon reservoir is uncertain. The effect of afforestation on most carbon fluxes is small because the fluxes are either relatively minor or of the same magnitude and direction irrespective of land use. Compared with undisturbed moorland, particulate organic carbon losses increase throughout the forest cycle but the data are exclusively from plantation conifer forests and in many cases pre-date current industry best practice guidelines which aim to reduce such losses. The biggest uncertainty in flux estimates is the relative magnitude of the sink for atmospheric carbon as trees grow and mature compared with that lost during site preparation and harvesting. Given the size of this flux relative to many of the others, this should be a focus for future carbon research on these systems.