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Restoring Scotland’s woodlands: where will natural regeneration occur and what will be the consequences for carbon sequestration?

   UKRI CDT in the Application of Artificial Intelligence to the study of Environmental Risks (AI4ER)

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  Prof David Coomes, Dr Mark Hancock  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

The UN has declared the 2020s as the decade of restoration, recognising that natural habitats offers solutions to two environmental crises: the loss of biodiversity and climate change. Exciting large-scale restoration projects are underway in the Scottish Highlands, aiming to bring back native forests, healthy peatlands and floodplains by reducing grazing pressure and restructuring forestry plantations. In particular, Cairngorms Connect ( is working to restore over 600 km2 of habitat in one of the most spectacular upland landscapes in Britain. However, the effectiveness of alternative conservation interventions remain poorly understood and the long-term consequences for carbon storage require critical evaluation

The student will join a large interdisciplinary team at the University of Cambridge's Centre for Landscape Regeneration, which is taking a whole-systems approach to restoring nature to the British countryside. Cambridge was one of four Universities that received funding under NERC's Changing the environment programme, and will work in three landscapes (the fens, the Scottish highlands and the Lake district), evaluating ecosystem services that would be provided under alternative future scenarios and seeking to find affordable solutions that are likely to work for people, climate change mitigation/adaptation and nature.

In collaboration with the Cairngorms Connect partnership, the project aims to improve understanding of forest regeneration processes in the Scottish Highlands. The student will collect data in the field necessary to create a process-based model for simulating expansion of native forest under different scenarios (see Tanentzap 2013). Models will be constructed using data on the recruitment, growth and mortality of trees collected in the field and high-resolution map of habitats and tree locations from drone and satellite imagery. They will also measure the consequences for carbon and methane emissions of reintroducing native woodlands and removing plantations. The models will make predictions about landscape-level native woodland recovery and its knock on consequences over the coming century under different browsing and climate change scenarios. One of the many advantages of working with Cairngorms Connect is the long-term monitoring datasets they will make available, including fixed-point photos dating back to 1950s. Patches of trees will be mapped using these images, and these will be used as initial conditions for simulations running to the present day, which can be compared with field data. The student will work alongside another PhD student with a background in AI and computer science interested in peatland restoration, and a third-year student working on fire ecology.

Funding Notes

This studentship is funded by NERC through the University of Cambridge’s new Centre for Landscape Regeneration. This is a fully funded PhD studentship to commence on 26 September 2022. The studentship will cover domestic tuition fees, up to £19k in research costs and an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,000 for up to four years full-time. Please apply here: ignoring the 6th January deadline (a student was awarded this post but then dropped out).
NERC students interested in AI approaches can become affiliates of the AI4ER CDT, but the Centre for Landscape Regeneration is separate from the CDT.


Coomes, D.A. et al (2021) Nature-based Solutions for Climate Change in the UK: A Report by the British Ecological Society. Chapter 1
Tanentzap, A.J., Zou, J, & Coomes, D.A. 2013. Getting the Biggest Birch for the Bang: Restoring and Expanding Upland Birchwoods in the Scottish Highlands by Managing Red Deer. Ecology and Evolution 3 (7): 1890–1901.
Hancock, M.H. et al. 2009. “Testing Prescribed Fire as a Tool to Promote Scots Pine Pinus Sylvestris Regeneration.” European Journal of Forest Research vol. 128 pp 319.

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