How to Rewild

7 Stages of Succession

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7 Stages of Succession
Key Principle

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Think of this page like an ecology time machine, or a ‘choose your own adventure’ for habitats.

Understanding your land means knowing what it will look like in the future. Our 18 Basic Habitats show you what’s currently there and how to manage it, but the 7 Stages are about ‘what’s next?’.

All ecosystems change over time, and by learning what your current habitat will evolve into, you’ll be able to adapt your management and plan ahead. 

This guide is a companion for the subhabitat descriptions that you’ll find at the top of each habitat page. If you’re confused, just click on a green box and you’ll see an explanation of the habitat and how to manage it.

Key

The green boxes are your current habitat – click on these to visit the detailed habitat page, with more guidance.

The grey boxes are what your habitat will become over time (depending on the conditions) – click on these to jump to the next stage of succession. 

You can click through every stage from start to finish using the grey boxes – the Contents box will also let you jump around quickly.

NB. This complex system is in a beta release state – some connections will continue to be updated as our research horizon expands. It is our position that this tool is accurate enough to be useful, but we also welcome expert feedback.

How to stop succession
Tips for maintaining the habitat in its current condition, if desired. It is often better for biodiversity to let succession continue - refer to the habitat page for more guidance.
Next Stage of Succession: If you have these conditions, the habitats below will appear

This is a derived output of the UKHab v2 classification system. Complete sub habitat criteria are available from the supporting documents on their website.

Recycling

Stage 0: Water/Shore

Summary

In water, and in habitats which are scoured daily by the sea, life specialises by holding on, floating or swimming to stay in place.

How to stop succession
In shallower margins and seasonal pools, occasional dredging/desilting may reset succession to an earlier state, creating more open water habitat. However, wind, human, boat and animal disturbance, and pollution can all slow the colonisation of aquatic plants.
Stage 1: Encroachment of marginal plants
How to stop succession
The depth of the water and frequent boat traffic makes it unlikely that silting up or colonisation by plants will occur. However, invasive plants may require manual intervention.
Stage 1: Encroachment of marginal plants
How to stop succession
The beach will typically resist succession in any area that is even infrequently exposed to wave action and/or moderate human disturbance.
Stage 1: More sediment arrives than erodes (surplus)
Stage 1: More sediment erodes than arrives (deficit)
How to stop succession
The beach will typically resist succession in any area that is even infrequently exposed to wave action and/or moderate human disturbance.
Stage 1: More sediment arrives than erodes (surplus)
Stage 1: More sediment erodes than arrives (deficit)
Recycling

Stage 1: Pioneers

Summary

Bare earth, rock and water are gradually colonised by specialist plants which are adapted to harsh environments. Some plants are artificial pioneers, introduced by humans then cultivated and cared for in gardens, allotments and farms.

How to stop succession
Tilling is necessary at least every few years to prevent cultivated land from reverting to grassland. In a no-till system, a combination of pigs, chickens and/or ducks may be used instead to remove weeds and their roots.
Stage 2: In an arable farming rotational system
Stage 2: When arable farming stops on fertilised soils
Stage 2: When arable farming stops on unfertilised soils with low pH
Stage 2: When arable farming stops on unfertilised soils with neutral pH
Stage 2: When arable farming stops on unfertilised soils with alkaline pH
How to stop succession
Desilting and removal of sections of plants every decade will reset the habitat and restore it to an earlier successional state.
Stage 1b: In slow-moving or still water with Common Reed present
Stage 2: In still water Dystrophic systems (peatland pools), a quaking mire may cover the surface
Stage 2: In still water Eutrophic and Mesotrophic systems, silt will build up to become a seasonally-flooded fen grassland or swampy meadow
Stage 3: In faster-moving waters, riparian scrub could form first as the system may not silt-up
Stage 0: In times of very high flow, the system may reset to open water due to erosion of plant roots
How to stop succession
Maintaining the existing water level, and cutting the reedbed every few years, will resist scrub encroachment.
Stage 2: With grazing and silt deposition, the ground level will raise and become a seasonally-flooded fen or swampy meadow
Stage 2: If the water table drops significantly for a long time, (e.g. drainage) in eu- meso- and oligotrophic systems, the soils typically become neutral, and grassland appears
Stage 2: If the water table drops significantly for a long time, (e.g. drainage), but the water is dystrophic (peatland), the acidity may reduce soil pH, creating Acid Grassland
Stage 3-5: Without cutting every few years, a reedbed will become 'scrubby' or could skip scrub and head immediately to woodland
Stage 0: If flooding and high water levels last well into the growing season, the plants may die off, with the system reverting to open water habitat
How to stop succession
A combination of goats and sheep, managed at moderate grazing intensity, will create an open habitat with a mosaic of bare rock, grassland and scrub.
Stage 2: Loose calcareous rock with high grazing pressure (e.g. limestone or chalk)
Stage 2: Loose igneous rock with high grazing pressure (e.g. granite)
Stage 2: Heavy metal-rich loose rock deposits and/or mining spoil heaps
Stage 3: Loose rock with low grazing pressure will tend to skip grassland, and the edges of the habitat may be scrub or even woodland (light green does not apply to maritime cliffs)
How to stop succession
Even a moderate level of grazing pressure will maintain this fragile ecosystem in an early successional state.
Stage 2: Low or no grazing and/or disturbance may result in scrub encroachment - this tends to skip grassland
How to stop succession
A diverse guild of herbivores, including cattle, horses and sheep, grazed at a fluctuating density (between moderate and high) will maintain a mosaic dune system. An alternative is manual scrub control.
Note: Sand Dune is a level 4 category that includes multiple successional stages at level 5 (see UKHab). We've simplified this all to level 4 codes to make it easier to understand.
Stage 2: High grazing pressure, dry soil on calcareous sediment
Stage 2: High grazing pressure, dry soil on igneous and sandstone sediment
Stage 2: High grazing pressure, wet soil
Stage 3: Moderate to low grazing pressure, dry soil may skip grassland - scrub type depends on what is found locally
Stage 3: Moderate to low grazing pressure, wet soil ('dune slacks')
How to stop succession
Vegetated shingle tends to have very slow succession - even small amounts of disturbance can damage the habitat and 'reset' an area.
Stage 2: Very low disturbance
How to stop succession
Developed areas can be maintained using alternative pest control systems like hot foam spray and flame weeding. Garden weeds can mostly be removed by hand - allowing vegetation to grow taller will also create more competition for vigorous native plants.
Stage 2: Concrete and calcareous gravels (limestone) with grazing pressure
Stage 2: Neutral pH surfaces with grazing pressure
Stage 2: Nutrient-enriched soils
Stage 2: Heavy metal-contaminated soils
Stage 3: Low or no grazing pressure on dry land - some bare land may skip grassland, especially as sealed surfaces crack and soil becomes exposed
Stage 3: Low or no grazing pressure on wet or seasonally-flooded land - some bare land may skip grassland, especially as sealed surfaces crack and soil becomes exposed
Recycling

Stage 2: Grassland & Bog

Summary

The ground becomes covered with a short layer of vegetation – grasses or bog plants. In places, bare earth, rock or scrub may be visible.

How to stop succession
These grasslands can be maintained with moderate to high intensity grazing and scrub control. Take an annual hay cut, which will also resist the spread of scrub.
Stage 2b: Nutrient-enriched topsoil removed on ground with pH below 5.5
Stage 2b: Nutrient-enriched topsoil removed on dry ground with pH from 5.5 - 6.5
Stage 2b: Nutrient-enriched topsoil removed on wet ground with pH from 5.5 - 6.5
Stage 2b: Nutrient-enriched topsoil removed on ground with pH above 6.5
Stage 3: Moderate to low grazing pressure on dry soil - scrub type depends on what is found locally. Highlighted habitats are most likely
Stage 3: Moderate to low grazing pressure on waterlogged or seasonally-flooded soil
How to stop succession
Acid grassland can be maintained with high intensity grazing and manual scrub control.
Stage 2b: Fertiliser applied to site (typically for farming)
Stage 2b: Lime applied to site (typically for farming)
Stage 3: If Bracken is present on, or adjacent to the site and cattle grazing activity is low
Stage 3: If site is waterlogged and/or has consistently high rainfall with moderate grazing pressure. Highlighted habitat is upland only
Stage 3: If grazing pressure is moderate and heathland seed source is nearby. Highlighted habitats are upland only
Stage 3: If no heathland or Bracken is nearby and grazing pressure is low. Scrub type depends on what is found locally. Highlighted habitat is upland only
How to stop succession
Calcareous grassland can be maintained with high intensity grazing and manual scrub control.
Stage 2b: Fertiliser applied to site (typically for farming)
Stage 3: If site is waterlogged and/or has consistently high rainfall, with moderate to high grazing pressure. Highlighted habitat is upland only
Stage 3: Grazing pressure is moderate or low under typical conditions. Scrub type depends on what is found locally. Highlighted habitat is upland only
Stage 3: Grazing pressure is moderate or low under waterlogged conditions
How to stop succession
Neutral grassland can be maintained with moderate to high intensity grazing and scrub control. Take an annual hay cut, which will also resist the spread of scrub.
Stage 2b: Fertiliser applied to site (typically for farming)
Stage 2b: Lime applied to site
Stage 3: If site is waterlogged and/or has consistently high rainfall, and grazing/mowing pressure is moderate to high. Highlighted habitat is upland only
Stage 3: Grazing pressure is moderate or low under typical conditions. Scrub type depends on what is found locally
Stage 3: Grazing pressure is moderate or low under waterlogged conditions
How to stop succession
Keep drainage systems clear and water levels maintained consistently from year to year. Graze the land at moderate to high levels.
Stage 2b: Nutrient levels increase artificially (due to fertiliser or runoff) and site is drained
Stage 2b: Water levels drop on soil with pH under 6.5 on site adjacent to heathland. Highlighted habitats are upland only
Stage 3: Water table is consistent and rainfall is very high on a flat or gently-sloping upland site with Sphagnum moss present
Stage 3: Common Reed is present, grazing pressure is low and water table is consistently high
Stage 3: Grazing pressure is moderate or low and annual flood levels are moderate to low. Scrub type depends on what is found locally
Stage 3: Grazing pressure is moderate or low and annual flood levels are very high
Stage 5-6: On sites adjoining coniferous woodland, this habitat may spread out, skipping earlier stages
How to stop succession
Maintain consistent water levels and avoid disturbance from humans. Drainage and peat harvesting are the biggest threats - without these issues a bog may avoid succession. Low level grazing with sheep and/or ponies can resist the spread of scrub.
Stage 2b: Drainage of a grazed site
Stage 3: Drainage of a site adjacent to heathland
Stage 3-5: Slow drying out of site due to climate change can skip straight to woodland
Stage 5-6: On sites adjoining coniferous woodland, this habitat may spread into the bog
How to stop succession
Keep drainage systems clear and water levels maintained consistently from year to year. Graze the land at moderate to high levels. Take an annual hay cut, which will also resist the spread of scrub.
Stage 2b: Nutrient levels increase artificially (due to fertiliser or runoff) and site is drained
Stage 3: Common Reed is present, grazing pressure is low and water table is consistently high
Stage 3: Grazing pressure is moderate or low and annual flood levels are moderate to low. Scrub type depends on what is found locally
Stage 3-5: Grazing pressure is moderate or low and annual flood levels are very high
How to stop succession
Maintain consistent water levels and avoid disturbance from humans. Any form of grazing is risky.
Stage 2b: Existing conditions are maintained
Stage 2b: Drainage of a grazed site
Stage 3: Drainage of a site adjacent to heathland
Stage 3-5: Slow drying out of site due to climate change
How to stop succession
Cutting back scrub and stripping topsoil every decade or so is used to resist succession. However, this exposes the toxins to weathering and runoff. Calaminarian grasslands tend to have slow rates of succession due to high toxins resisting plant growth.
Stage 2: Dry ground conditions on alkaline soil
Stage 3: Dry ground conditions on acidic soil
Stage 3-5: Wet ground conditions
Recycling

Stage 3: Low Scrub

Summary

Scrub plants take over, creating a dense vegetation layer below chest height which is a refuge for breeding birds, mammals and reptiles. Some taller trees and scrub – especially willow and birch – may appear in places across the habitat.

How to stop succession
Intensive sheep grazing tends to maintain healthy stands of bracken, as the livestock browse any tree and scrub growth over winter when the fern has died back.
Stage 2-3: Repeated annual rolling of bracken with machines or horse-drawn logs will slowly restore the underlying habitat
Stage 3-4: Dry ground conditions with low to moderate grazing pressure
Stage 3-5: Wet or waterlogged ground conditions with low to moderate grazing pressure
Stage 5-6: On land adjoining an existing coniferous woodland, this habitat will tend to spread out
How to stop succession
A diverse guild of herbivores grazing at moderate to high intensity will prevent heathland from reverting to scrub. Muirburn (regular controlled burning) is also possible, but is catastrophic for climate change resilience and bog health.
Stage 2: When the site is overgrazed
Stage 3: When Bracken is present and cattle are not grazed regularly on site
Stage 3: If site is very waterlogged and/or has consistently high rainfall with relatively high grazing pressure. Highlighted habitat is upland only
Stage 3-4: Dry conditions with low to moderate grazing pressure
Stage 3-5: Wet or waterlogged ground conditions with low to moderate grazing pressure
Stage 5-6: On land adjoining an existing coniferous woodland, this habitat will tend to spread out
How to stop succession
Below the tree line, this habitat will tend to remain in place if deer populations remain at moderate or high levels. Above the tree line, this is a climax habitat, with no grazing needed to prevent succession.
Stage 3: Below the tree line, near to a healthy seed source of Caledonian Pine Forest
Stage 3: Below the tree line, on land adjoining a conifer plantation
Stage 3-4: Below the tree line, on dry ground with low levels of grazing and low deer population. Dominant species depends on what is present locally
Stage 3-5: Below the tree line, on wet ground with low levels of grazing and low deer population
Stage 3: Above the tree line, on flat land which is prone to waterlogging, with high annual rainfall
How to stop succession
Annual hedge-trimming across top and sides will prevent this habitat from succeeding to high scrub or woodland.
Stage 3-4: If the edges of the hedge are not trimmed regularly, scrub will expand outwards - the type depends on the species present in the hedgerow and surrounding area
Recycling

Stage 4: High Scrub

Summary

Top of canopy reaches above chest height and some trees may appear through stands of scrub. Eventually scrub will close over the habitat, leaving only animal tracks and some glades.

How to stop succession
Scrub control typically involves coppicing the habitat in sections on a 7 year cycle, to prevent woodland from taking over. Occasional very high density cattle grazing can have a similar effect by crushing large stands of dense scrub. Goats can also reduce or control scrub density and prevent tree growth, depending on stocking levels.
Note: We've grouped all dense scrub types together for ease of use. While the guide is still accurate, it is unlikely that some of the scrub types would be found in some of the conditions - e.g. Juniper Scrub would not be found on wet soils unless the area became waterlogged. Rhododendron is typically found on acid soils, and Sea Buckthorn on coastal Sand Dunes.
Stage 5: On wet and waterlogged soils
Stage 5-6: On nutrient-poor upland soils with moderate to low moisture levels, with an adjacent Caledonian Pine Woodland
Stage 5-6: On upland acid soils with moderate to low moisture levels, where Oak and/or Ash dominate local woodland
Stage 5-6: On upland acid soils with moderate to low moisture levels, where Birch and/or Aspen dominate local woodland
Stage 5-6: On upland calcareous soils, with moderate to low moisture levels where Ash dominates local woodland
Stage 5-6: On lowland soils with moderate to low moisture levels, where Beech, Yew, and/or Box dominate local woodland
Stage 5-6: On lowland sites with a diverse source of local tree seeds - e.g. Ancient Woodland
Stage 5-6: On sites where invasive non-native broadleaved trees like Sycamore dominate local woodland
Stage 5-6: On sites where invasive non-native conifers and broadleaved trees dominate local woodland
Stage 5-6: On sites adjoining conifer plantations
Recycling

Stage 5: Low Woodland

Summary

Canopy reaches above head height and trunks are visible – ground flora begins to develop as light levels increase.

How to stop succession
Intensive grazing and/or mowing is necessary to prevent orchards from reverting to scrubland.
Stage 6: If no woodland adjoins the site and/or the land is grazed at moderate to low intensity, scrub will take over before woodland appears
Stage 6: On upland calcareous soils when Ash-dominated woodland adjoins the site
Stage 6: On lowland soils when Beech, Yew, and/or Box dominated woodland adjoins the site
Stage 6: On lowland sites where a diverse woodland adjoins the site e.g. Ancient Woodland
Stage 6: On sites where non-native invasive broadleaved woodland (e.g. Sycamore) adjoins the site
How to stop succession
Wet Woodland is what happens when riparian vegetation (stream/river/pond edge) reaches its final stage. If the ground remains seasonally-flooded, this habitat will not succeed to a 'higher' woodland.
Stage 6: On nutrient-poor upland soils when ground dries out, with an adjacent Caledonian Pine Woodland
Stage 6: On upland acid soils when ground dries out, where Oak and/or Ash dominate local woodland
Stage 6: On upland acid soils when ground dries out, where Birch and/or Aspen dominate local woodland
Stage 6: On upland calcareous soils when ground dries out, where Ash dominates local woodland
Stage 6: On lowland soils when ground dries out, where Beech, Yew, and/or Box dominate local woodland
Stage 6: On lowland sites when ground dries out, with a diverse source of local tree seeds - e.g. Ancient Woodland
Stage 6: On sites where ground dries out and invasive non-native broadleaved trees like Sycamore dominate the local area
Stage 6: On sites where ground dries out and invasive non-native conifers and broadleaved trees dominate the local area
Stage 6: On sites where ground dries out, which adjoin conifer plantations
Recycling

Stage 6: High Woodland

Summary

Multi-layered canopy with tall trees, small trees and scrub layer in a mature woodland.

Plantation Woodland
On low fertility soils, and in areas with high deer activity, these may be climax habitats. However, forestry management (felling and planting) is typically required to maintain the desired ratio of conifers and tree species.
Stage 6: On sites which become waterlogged
Stage 6: On land adjacent to existing woodland, with low levels of grazing and low to moderate deer activity, with no forestry management, over long periods of time the dominant local woodland will take over
Climax Broadleaved Woodland
Once you reach this stage, the habitat should be stable unless others factors come into play, e.g. flooding, sheep and deer damage. Selective felling of trees for timber will maintain this habitat.
Climax Coniferous Woodland
Once you reach this stage, the habitat should be stable unless others factors come into play, e.g. flooding, sheep and deer damage. Low intensity felling of trees for timber may be sustainable in some areas.
Recycling

Appendix

No Management Plan Available
Sorry, there's no management plan available for these items, as they are not a British terrestrial or freshwater aquatic habitat.

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