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QUADRAT DTP CASE: Is a trophic cascade framework useful for predicting the outcome of rewilding in plantation forests?

Project Description

Rewilding is a novel approach to conservation that captures the public’s imagination and focuses on ecosystem processes rather than necessarily restoring a system to its antecedent state. With this lack of reference point, comes inherent unpredictability regarding the outcome of interventions and changes in species composition. Predicting the trajectory of such non-equilibrium ecosystems is made more challenging by strong spatial heterogeneity reflecting different management/ landownership and by the impact of rapid global change. This PhD answers the urgent call for solid evidence to facilitate sound decision-making for rewilding initiatives.

Man-made forest ecosystems dominated by Sitka spruce account for ~20 % of the UK woodland area. Profound changes have taken place in the way these industrial landscapes are being managed, with a new emphasis on promoting public access and adopting management practices that benefit ecosystem functions. Those forests are safe-havens for a rich guild of bird and mammalian predators and now represent outstanding model systems for studying the dynamics of newly-assembled, non-equilibrium trophic networks, with a focus on predation.

This project builds on long term collaborative studies taking place since 1983 in Kielder Forest, a vast plantation forest managed by Forestry England. The area is experiencing a form of rewilding with more land left unplanted, colonisation of goshawks, buzzards, ospreys, most recently pine martens, and a reintroduction of water voles. The system is dominated by the multi-annual cycles of field voles, a keystone prey species.

The student will exploit, and contribute to, an unparalleled long-term study of ringed tawny owls utilising nest boxes. Owl demography and spatial dynamics directly reflect variation in the abundance field voles exploiting transient (clear-felled areas) and permanent grasslands. Tawny owls are meso-predators within Kielder, falling prey to well-established goshawks and newly arrived pine martens (both super-predators). Marten and foxes also rely on field voles in years of peak abundance.

This thesis will take a combined demographic and spatially explicit modelling approach to address research questions regarding the emergent outcome of re-formed trophic interactions. Specifically, we will explore whether simultaneous bottom-up and top-down regulation of a meso-predator arises according to spatio-temporal variation in basal (vole) prey abundance and patterns of predator aggregation. An enriched predator guild may conceivably lead to a juxtaposition of areas where meso-predators enjoy high productivity in peak vole years but low survival because of high predation by super-predators. Conversely, owls may experience high survival but low productivity in areas with low vole and super-predator abundance, such that landscape dynamics is driven by dynamic source-sink patterns. The patchy presence of profitable alternative prey such as water voles may include further complexity.

Training will be provided in e.g. field sampling techniques and design, analyses of population dynamics (spatial capture-recapture, occupancy modelling), and spatially explicit modelling of trophic interactions allowing for the fact that species operate at spatially nested scales.

The student will benefit from the support of Forestry England acting as Case partner and providing opportunities to gain experience in timber production land management, and promoting public engagement in wildlife, and wider ecosystem monitoring.

This project is supported by Forestry England as a CASE partner.


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select the ‘Visit Website’ to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.


Millon A, SJ Petty, B Little, O Gimenez, T Cornulier, and X Lambin (2014) Dampening prey cycle overrides the impact of climate change on predator population dynamics: a long-term demographic study on tawny owls. Global Change Biology 20,1770-1781

Hoy SR, Petty SJ, Millon A, Whitfield DP, Marquiss M, Anderson DIK, Davison M, Lambin X (2017) Density-dependent increase in superpredation linked to food limitation in a recovering population of northern goshawks, Accipiter gentilis . Journal of Avian Biology. 48, 1205-1215

Wittwer T, O'Hara RB, Caplat P, Hickler T, Smith HG (2015) Long-term population dynamics of a migrant bird suggests interaction of climate change and competition with resident species. Oikos 124(9):1151-1159

How good is research at Aberdeen University in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 89.42

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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