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Impacts of pheasants on invertebrate and plant communities; A molecular approach

Project Description

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Project details

Project Background
The gamebird industry has a value of more than £2Bn annually to the UK economy, of which pheasant shooting forms the major part (estimated at £1.5Bn) and is of fundamental importance to the rural economy, also attracting significant overseas investment. Release of large numbers of gamebirds (≥50M released in 2011), if poorly executed, however, may impose ecological costs through altered trophic interactions and energy flows in ecosystems. Explicitly, omnivorous gamebirds (e.g. pheasants) can modify woodland and hedgerow flora within and outside release pens by trampling, browsing and eutrophication. Studies have indicated correlations between pheasant releases and species-poor invertebrate communities near release pens, however, the evidence on what species may be affected is limited and causal mechanism to these patterns and the wider ecological and conservation consequences have not been established.

Project Aims
This PhD proposal seeks to develop the application of environmental DNA (eDNA) techniques to better understand how release of gamebirds (pheasants) into the UK countryside affects trophic interactions and energy flow in ecosystems. In particular, the studies will reveal whether predation by pheasants and/or more complex ecological processes mediated by the birds (e.g. habitat change and eutrophication) impacts on woodland (in)vertebrate communities. This studentship seeks to answer the following scientific questions: (1.) What naturally available (invertebrate) foods are pheasant releases consuming compared to those that are availabile? (2.) Does the pheasants’ consumption of plant and invertebrate families change over the seasons and across locations, making prey species of conservation concern especially vulnerable? The student will study at 20 sites (including within-site controls without pheasants) over two seasons across Britain with different intensity and history of pheasant releases. They will collect pheasant faeces and sample for soil invertebrates, conduct sweep netting, pitfall and moth trapping for above-ground invertebrates, and sample ground flora (e.g. cover, abundance and leaf density) to generate season-specific indices of plants and invertebrates. They will apply DNA sequencing to pheasant faeces (N>1000 samples) to record presence of (in)vertebrates identified to family, or in most cases, species level in their diet. The latter stages of the project are somewhat flexible and, depending on the initial findings, could include: looking at pheasant

This studentship will offer an exceptional training in a very wide range of specialist skills including: field sampling; plant and invertebrate species identification; experimental design; modern molecular biology techniques - including PCR and DNA sequencing; bioinformatics and use of genome data bases; statistical modelling in a range of frame works using specialist software systems and R; field and conservation biology; and behavioural ecology, as well as basic skills in numeracy, communication etc. These skill sets are highly sought after in the field of ecological and biomedical research and in private (e.g. ecological consultancies) and governmental (Defra, Fera, Natural England) organisations, and more widely, making the student highly employable within diverse sectors.

Funding Notes

“NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.


Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.”


Whiteside, M. A., Sage, R., & Madden, J. R. (2015). Diet complexity in early life affects survival in released pheasants by altering foraging efficiency, food choice, handling skills and gut morphology. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84(6), 1480-1489.

Whiteside, M. A., Horik, J. O., Langley, E. J., Beardsworth, C. E., Capstick, L. A. and Madden, J. R. (2018), Patterns of association at feeder stations for Common Pheasants released into the wild: sexual segregation by space and time. Ibis. . doi:10.1111/ibi.12632.

Neumann JL, Holloway GJ, Sage RB, Hoodless AN (2015) Releasing of pheasants for shooting in the UK alters woodland invertebrate communities. Biological Conservation 2015, pp. 50-59. DOI information: 10.1016/j.biocon.2015.06.022.

Callegari S.E., Bonham E., Hoodless A.N., Sage R.B. & Holloway G.J. (2014) Impact of game bird release on the Adonis blue butterfly Polyommatus bellargus (Lepidoptera Lycaenidae) on chalk grassland. European Journal Wildlife Research 60:781–787.

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