Woody plant encroachment (also called bush encroachment, shrub encroachment, woody encroachment, bush thickening, or woody plant proliferation) is a natural phenomenon characterised by the increase in density of woody plants, bushes and shrubs, at the expense of the herbaceous layer, grasses and forbs. It predominantly occurs in grasslands, savannas and woodlands and can cause biome shifts from open grasslands and savannas to closed woodlands. The term bush encroachment refers to the expansion of native plants and not the spread of alien invasive species. It is thus defined by plant density, not species. Bush encroachment is often considered an ecological regime shift and can be a symptom of land degradation. The phenomenon is observed across different ecosystems and with different characteristics and intensities globally.
Its causes include land use intensification, such as high grazing pressure and the suppression of wildfires. Climate change is found to be an accelerating factor for woody encroachment. The impact of woody plant encroachment is highly context specific. It is often found to have severe negative consequences on key ecosystem services, especially biodiversity, animal habitat, land productivity and groundwater recharge. Across rangelands, woody encroachment has led to significant declines of productivity, threatening the livelihoods of affected land users.
Various countries actively counter woody encroachment, through adapted grassland management practices, controlled fire and mechanical bush thinning. In some cases, areas affected by woody encroachment are classified as carbon sinks and form part of national greenhouse gas inventories. The carbon sequestration effects of woody plant encroachment are however highly context specific and still insufficiently researched. Depending on rainfall, temperature and soil type, among other factors, woody plant encroachment may either increase or decrease the carbon sequestration potential of a given ecosystem.