Mobilising Palaeoecology for Local Nature Recovery: Using temporal land-use and ecological data to inform sustainable agriculture and landscape recovery schemes in the Lake District National Park

   Department of Archaeology

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  Prof Karen Milek, Dr Althea Davies, Dr Andreanna Welch  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project investigates how palaeoecological archives can be used to inform nature recovery strategies in the Lake District National Park and UNESCO World Heritage site. Focussing on the Lyth and Winster River catchments in the southern part of the Lake District, the project will develop in collaboration with stakeholders seeking to deepen the evidence base for strategies to implement the government’s 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. An innovative suite of archaeological and palaeoecological methods, including the analysis of soils, pollen, and environmental DNA recovered from dated buried soils, lake sediments, and/or peat sequences, will be used to explore the temporal relationships between past climates, past land-use, and biodiversity. The project aims to answer these four questions:

  • How do different methods (GIS, pedology, palynology, eDNA) contribute individually and collectively to the evidence base for the relationships between past land management and biodiversity? Is a multi-method approach to the study of palaeoecological archives effective and worthwhile?
  • How has biodiversity in the Lyth and Winster catchments changed over time, and to what extent can these changes be associated with changes in land-use?
  • How can the understanding of the long-term evolution of land-use and biodiversity in the study area be applied in a practical way by stakeholders to inform local nature recovery, sustainable agriculture, and climate action strategies?

To what extent can the information obtained by this study be usefully applied to national environmental land management policies?

Research Context:

Established in 1951, and encompassing some 2,292 km2 of mountainous environments, narrow valleys, and landscapes shaped by 3000 years of agro-pastoralism, the Lake District National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017. The Management Plans of the National Park and Westmorland and Furness Council include strategies for securing the future of farming and forestry in the region, recovering nature and biodiversity, and taking action against climate change (LDNPA 2023; WAFC 2023). Consequently, they need ecological data that can help decision-makers strike a balance between the needs of national food security, conserving the cultural and natural heritage environment of the Lake District, and delivering Cumbria’s Local Nature Recovery Strategy, a flagship of the government’s Environment Bill (DEFRA 2021).

Environmental archaeologists and palaeoecologists often strive to contribute to contemporary challenges, and Davies (2011; Davies et al. 2014), Fisher (2019), and others have demonstrated the value of long-term ecological perspectives on nature conservation, sustainable agriculture, and land management strategies. However, in practice, knowledge of the historic environment and its biodiversity is rarely applied to nature recovery strategies due to the lack of collaboration with stakeholders from the early stages of the research, and the failure to communicate easy-to-understand, practical guidance to those designing and implementing nature recovery plans (Smith 2021). In the Lake District, heritage and palaeoecological assets have not yet been mobilised in this way, even though there is excellent potential due to the superb organic preservation conditions in the abundant peat and lake sediments (Grosvenor 2017). This project presents an opportunity to work directly with landowners, and land managers in the Lake District to apply the results of environmental archaeology and palaeoecology to the development of Local Nature Recovery Strategies.


This project integrates a range of techniques to engage with stakeholders, to examine long-term ecological records, and to situate these within the environmental and archaeological contexts of the Lyth and Winster catchments.

Community and stakeholder engagement: meetings, workshops and focus groups with end-user collaborators: the Lake District National Park Authority, the Lynster Farmers Group, and Westmorland and Furness Council.

 GIS: development of a multi-dimensional GIS that integrates Lake District Historic Environment Records, existing biodiversity and temporal palaeoecological data, historic maps, and remote sensing data. Together with stakeholder engagement, this GIS will form the basis for the selection of three case study sites.

Fieldwork: Extraction of intact peat/sediment/soil cores and/or excavation of test pits, and collection of surface samples at three case study sites.

Laboratory methods:

Geoarchaeology: Pedological and sedimentary analysis of the sampled buried soils, sediments, and peat sequences using X-radiography, organic matter content by loss-on-ignition, granulometry, multi-element analysis by X-ray fluorescence (XRF), and soil/sediment micromorphology.

Palynology: Extraction and analysis of pollen and non-pollen palynomorphs such as coprophilous fungal spores and microcharcoal from soil, sediment, and peat sequences.

Environmental DNA: Analysis of eDNA using DNA barcoding and environmental metagenomics of sampled soil, sediment, and peat sequences.

Scientific dating: Selection and identification of plant macrofossils for radiocarbon dating and analysis of spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs) to date recent sediment/peat.

Key dates for applicants:

November 22, 2023, 14:00 GMT: Online Q&A workshop for all NERC IAPETUS2 applicants about the application process. The link to sign up for the workshop is on the IAEPTUS2 website.

December 11, 2023: Deadline for international and UK applicants to contact Prof Karen Milek ([Email Address Removed]) with an expression of interest in the project.

January 5, 2024, 12:00 noon GMT: IAPETUS2 application deadline.

Information about how to apply:

Biological Sciences (4) Forensic and Archaeological Sciences (16) Geography (17) History & Archaeology (19)

Funding Notes

This PhD is fully funded for 3.5 years by a NERC IAPETUS2 Doctoral Training Partnership award. The scholarship covers a living stipend, fees, and funding for the costs of training and the research itself, including travel expenses and analytical costs. Full details can be found on the IAPETUS2 website, at Both UK and international students are eligible for this funding.
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