THE vast commercial forestry plantations of the North York Moors may not be as empty of wildlife as many assume, according to new research by the University of York.

In fact, a species of ant has been found to be thriving in the forests, thousands of acres of which have been created over the past 60 years.

The research, by the University’s Biology department and the Forestry Commission, found that the northern hairy wood ant (Formica lugubris) is colonising plantations of coniferous trees.

Duncan Procter, who is a PhD student in the Department of Biology at York, mapped more than 5,500 ant nests in the North York Moors.

He said: “The northern hairy wood ant is a keystone species in forests because it supports a wide range of birds and invertebrates.

“Some of the latter are only found in the wood ants’ nests which, as they are large mounds of organic matter, play an important role in the decomposition cycle of the forest.”

York Press:

An ant nest-mound in the forests of the North York Moors. Picture: Sam Ellis

A keystone species is one that has a significant effect on its environment.

Forest cover in Britain has more than doubled over the last century and a half, with forests now covering 13 per cent of British land compared with just five per cent in 1900. Much of this expansion is dominated by non-native coniferous species grown for commercial forestry.

The research suggests that colonisation of commercial forests by wildlife takes time, and that just because the forest may be empty, it does not mean that it is poor habitat for wildlife.

Duncan Procter added: “We believe, therefore, that we should re-assess the idea that a coniferous monoculture is bad for diversity.”

York Press:

A swarm of ants. Picture: Duncan Procter

Co-author Dr Elva Robinson, of the Department of Biology at York, said: “It’s great that here we have a conservation story that has a really positive message.

"Clearly, there are still challenges to address but this research illustrates nature’s remarkable ability to adapt to environmental change.”