Alternative silvicultural systems to clearfelling are being adopted in Great Britain as a means of increasing the species and structural diversity of conifer plantation forests. One area where knowledge is lacking is the critical level of below-canopy light for survival and growth of young seedlings. This was investigated by planting seedlings of European larch Larix decidua (Mill.), Scots pine Pinus sylvestris L., Sitka spruce Picea sitchensis (Bong.(Carr.)), Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.(Franco.)), and western hemlock Tsuga heterophylla (Raf. (Sarg.)) in a Sitka spruce plantation thinned to 3 different spacings. The incident light intensity beneath the canopy ranged from about 2 to over 60 per cent of full light. Planting in an adjoining open area provided an indication of growth under full light. Growth and survival of these seedlings were followed for 4 growing seasons. The highest seedling survival was found under the widest spacing and declined with closer spacing and lower light intensity. Only Douglas fir and western hemlock seedlings survived at the closest spacing, and in low percentages. The tallest seedlings of each species were found in the open grown conditions but survival was variable due to increased weed competition. Species-specific growth responses showed little difference under high light conditions but performance at low light was generally consistent with shade tolerance rankings in the literature except that Sitka spruce shade tolerance was slightly lower than expected. Minimum light requirements for these species increased from 10 to 30 per cent of full light with decreasing shade tolerance. Other studies of incident light in Sitka spruce plantations indicated that target basal areas in the range 25–30 m2 ha–1 are required if these light conditions are to be met, which suggests an irregular shelterwood system with frequent interventions should be favoured.