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Holocene perspectives on the ecology of moorland burning in northern England

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  • Full or part time
    Dr K.H. Roucoux
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round

Project Description

Burning has played a role in upland ecosystems since the early Holocene in Britain. Some of the earliest records of the deliberate use of fire by humans, from the North Yorkshire Moors, reveal a profound impact on the landscape including changes in the species make-up of plant communities, woodland clearance, destabilisation of soils and the triggering of peat accumulation in the early to middle Holocene. Today, burning of moorland vegetation is a widespread management practice and rotational patch burning has been in operation for at least the last 100 years. There are strong indications that such burning has detrimental consequences for upland ecosystems via effects on vegetation composition and structure, hydrology, water quality, stream biota and preservation of organic matter (and hence the amount of carbon sequestered). Intensification of burning and increase in the extent of the area burned since the 1970s have led to increasing concern over the resulting ecosystem disturbance.

Project aims
The aim of this project is to place current moorland burning practices into the long-term context by generating new palaeoecological datasets (e.g. pollen, charcoal) spanning the Holocene and analysing documentary evidence (e.g. parish records, aerial photographs) for the past 500 years from a region that is understudied from this perspective, the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The results will meet an urgent need for an improved research foundation to aid the development of practical management policies, and will make a significant contribution to the international scientific effort to understand the role of fire in determining ecosystem function.

This project represents an excellent training opportunity as it addresses not only fundamental blue-skies science but also the applications of the science to conservation and management. We have arranged two six-week placements with the partner organisation (Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority) which will give the student the rare opportunity to work alongside conservation and management practitioners as part of the PhD itself, thus opening up both academic and/or practical policy and management career directions afterwards. The project would suit a student with interests in palaeoecology, ecology, history, countryside management and conservation, and an enthusiasm for field and lab work. There will also be opportunities to develop novel visualisation techniques to connect palaeoecology with management. The student will join a dynamic community of PhD students and be a member of the Environmental Change Research Group, benefitting from the stimulating intellectual environment that this provides through weekly research seminars and encouragement and support of its members.

For more information on the project please see Postgraduate Opportunities - Environmental Geography ( or contact Dr Katy Roucoux - [email protected], Department of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews

Funding Notes

This project is jointly funded by the University of St Andrews and NERC. For information on eligibility and how to apply please go the Departmental Website -

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