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Ancient woodlands and development-related threats: How can we develop effective, targeted mitigation to protect these valuable ‘Keepers of Time’?

   Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

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  Dr Becks Spake  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Ancient woodlands provide some of Great Britain’s most biodiverse and culturally significant habitats. Current planning policy aims to protect these ‘irreplaceable’ habitats from the direct and indirect impacts of nearby development. But how do multiple development-associated pressures vary and interact in different situations, landscapes and climates, and how can we manage against the negative impacts in these diverse contexts?

This exciting PhD project sits at the heart of a larger, Defra-funded project involving a joint interdisciplinary team of landscape ecologists, social scientists, forest ecologists and planning/policy experts from the University of Reading, Forest Research, Forestry Commission England and Natural England. This team will share expert knowledge with the PhD student to steer research excellence to an applied end.

During this 3.5-year project, the student will have the opportunity to conduct ecological fieldwork and to gain experience working at the science-policy interface. Their work will deliver evidence to underpin future policy, practice, and industry guidance critical to safeguarding ancient woodlands whilst supporting responsible development and woodland use, by:

1)    Identifying and prioritising key evidence gaps and policy/practice needs around development impacts on ancient woodlands.

2)    Gathering and synthesizing relevant studies that measure the impacts of different types of development on ancient woodlands.

3)    Conducting a landscape-scale field study to measure the impacts of development on ancient woodland biodiversity and condition.

4)    Estimating and mapping likely developmental pressures on ancient woodlands across England now, historically and in the future.

The student will receive training in a range of skills and techniques including expert elicitation, evidence synthesis, R and R Shiny coding, spatial data and statistical analysis, ecological modelling, field work, biodiversity surveys, co-developing policy and practice guidance.

Supervisory team:

Dr Becks Spake from University of Reading’s TREE Lab brings expertise in woodland ecology, field research design and statistical analysis. Dr Chloe Bellamy (FR) has expertise in co-developing spatial methods, models and tools to guide decision-making. Dr Alice Broome (FR) specialises in woodland biodiversity & protected species. Dr Nadia Barsoum (FR) is an expert in in woodland biodiversity monitoring & assessment, including molecular methods, and field research design.


The University of Reading, located west of London, England, provides world-class research education programs. The University’s main Whiteknights Campus is set in 130 hectares of beautiful parkland, a 30-minute train ride to central London. Our School of Biological Sciences conducts high-impact research, tackling current global challenges faced by society and the planet. In 2020, we moved into a stunning new ~£60 million Health & Life Sciences building, purpose-built for science research and teaching. It houses the Cole Museum of Zoology, a café and social spaces.

The University of Reading is a welcoming community for people of all faiths and cultures. You will be joining a vibrant community of ~180 PhD students representing ~40 nationalities. We are committed to a healthy work-life balance and will work to ensure that you are supported personally and academically. During your PhD, you will expand your research knowledge and skills, receiving supervision in one-to-one and small group sessions. You will have access to cutting-edge technology and learn the latest research techniques. 

The student will also join a growing community of Forest Research student ecologists and post-docs, with the option to work full- or part-time from FR offices in Edinburgh or Farnham. 


With a commitment to improving diversity in the biosciences we encourage applications from underrepresented groups.  Applicants should preferably hold an MSc in a relevant subject and at minimum an upper 2nd class degree or equivalent in a biological or conservation-science related subject. A desire to work across academic, policy and practice arenas is welcomed. Experience in R coding and a valid UK driving licence would be advantageous.

Open to UK/Republic of Ireland students only.

How to apply:

Submit an application for a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology:


*Important notes*

·      Please quote reference GS22-133 in the ‘Scholarships applied for’ box in the Funding Section of your application. 

·      When you are prompted by the online application system to upload a research proposal, please omit this step.


Further information:




Dr. Becks Spake: [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

This is a 3.5-year Nature for Climate Fund studentship funded by DEFRA and supported by Forest Research, the Forestry Commission and Natural England. The PhD scholarship will cover:
1) A maintenance grant of approximately £17,668 per year (aligned with UKRI rates)
2) A research training support grant
3) Full tuition fee at UK/Republic of Ireland student rates and
4) Fieldwork equipment, travel and subsistence budget.
- Starts February 2023


Defra, Natural England & Forestry Commission (2022) Keepers of time: ancient and native woodland and trees policy in England – GOV.UK (
Spake, R., Bellamy, C., Graham, L.J., Watts, K., Wood, C., Norton, L., Bullock, J.M., Eigenbrod, F. (2019). An analytical framework for spatially targeted management of natural capital. Nature Sustainability, 2, 90-97. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0223-4.
Sutherland, William J et al. (2011). “Methods for Collaboratively Identifying Research Priorities and Emerging Issues in Science and Policy.” (2001): 238–47.
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