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Quantifying the relative importance of extrinsic and intrinsic drivers of individual behaviour and habitat use of hefted sheep on a biodiverse but fragile upland ecosystem.

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  • Full or part time
    Dr S D Twiss
    Dr R Baxter
    Dr Mike Morecroft
    Mr Martin Furness
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

The unenclosed upland areas of the UK are internationally important for wildlife and of high nature conservation value. However, these fragile habitats are subject to various threats including the impacts of climate change, atmospheric pollution deposition, acid rain and grazing pressures. A primary tool for sustainable management of these landscapes is implementing grazing regimes that allow maintenance or recovery of habitats and which support ecosystem services. However, remarkably little is known about the behaviour of the major grazer of UK uplands, domestic hill sheep, and their impact on vegetation mosaics. This project aims to investigate the determinants of group and individual level foraging choices within upland vegetation mosaics and how these vary in relation to sheep age, size, experience (hefting) and extrinsic factors including the spatial distribution of vegetation types, weather and micro-topography. This study will provide valuable information on how these different factors interact and allow a consideration of practical management techniques that can be used to influence the spatial distribution and feeding choices of sheep.
Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve hosts unique Arctic-Alpine plant assemblages with many species existing in climatically marginal locations. This project will involve extensive fieldwork at Widdybank Fell, part of the NNR that contains some of the most biodiverse habitat, and for which pre-existing fine-scale habitat maps exist. Sheep behaviour will be monitored at the level of the individual using a combination of in situ visual observation, supplemented by video recordings, and by using animal borne telemetry; GPS data-loggers will be deployed to provide fine scale movement and location data, with accelerometers to allow for automatic classification of behaviours with respect to time and location. The research will require the development of analytical protocols to classify raw accelerometry data into behavioural categories, including foraging. Behavioural data will be used within a GIS to examine intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of individual sheep behaviour and habitat use. Widdybank Fell is a long established research site and benefits from detailed existing data and ongoing studies on micrometeorology, microtopography and microhabitat. The current study will have the potential to integrate behavioural data with these environmental data within a GIS.
The research will involve extensive field based behavioural observations of individually identified sheep. Potential candidates should be able to demonstrate the ability to conduct prolonged fieldwork in potentially harsh conditions, while remaining dedicated and enthusiastic. Ability to work independently and as part of a team is essential. In addition, candidates will require strong analytical skills, including experience of modern ecological and statistical modelling techniques. Experience with R and analysis of telemetry data is advantageous, but not essential. A UK driving licence (or equivalent) is essential. Further details of the project and candidate requirements can be obtained from Dr. Twiss.
The student will gain extensive interdisciplinary training in fieldwork logistics, behavioural observation, deployment of telemetry devices, and develop analytical skills for both behavioural and telemetry data. The student will also develop critical thinking, communication, and teamwork skills as part of dynamic and interdisciplinary research groups.

Funding Notes

This project is in competition with others for funding - success will depend on the quality and suitability of applicants, relative to those for competing projects. For further information, or to apply, contact Dr. Sean Twiss, [Email Address Removed]. Include: 1) two-page covering letter explaining your reasons for applying and why you selected this project, 2) CV with contact information for two references, 3) Full transcripts of previous qualifications. Only the best applicants will be asked to submit an application to the University. Deadline: 18th January 2019, students should contact Dr. Twiss well in advance for initial consideration. For eligibility requirements:


1. Martin D, Fraser MD, Pakeman RJ & Moffat AM. 2013. Natural England Review of Upland Evidence 2012 - Impact of moorland grazing and stocking rates. Natural England Evidence Review, Number 006.
2. Baxter R. 2017. Report on the Potential Impact of Climate Change on Vulnerable Notified Vegetation Communities and Species of Moor House-Upper Teesdale NNR.
3. Natural England and RSPB (2014) Climate Change Adaptation Manual. Natural England Publication NE 546. Natural England, Sheffield.
4. Williams B, Walls S, Walsh M & Gormally M. 2012. Habitat selection by grazing animals in heterogeneous environments: the case of hill sheep in Western Ireland. Biology and Environment-Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 112B, 267-283
5. Milligan, G, Rose R & Marrs RH. 2016. Winners and losers in a long-term study of vegetation change at Moor House NNR: Effects of sheep-grazing and its removal on British upland vegetation. Ecological Indicators, 68, 89-101.
6. Fraser MD, Theobald VJ, Griffiths JB, Morris SM & Moorby JM. 2009. Comparative diet selection by cattle and sheep grazing two contrasting heathland communities. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment, 129, 182-192.
7. Twiss SD, Cairns C, Culloch RM, Richards SA & Pomeroy PP. 2012. Behavioural Variation in Female Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) Reproductive Performance Correlates to Proactive-Reactive Behavioural Types. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49598. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049598

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