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Wildfire Impacts on Biodiversity and Natural Capital

Project Description

The summer of 2018 was marked by a series of large wildfires in Scotland and in the rest of the UK. The future frequency of weather which allows wildfires to spread is expected to increase due to climate change, whilst at the same time there is debate concerning the long-term future of grouse moor management in both England and Scotland. It has been suggested that prescribed burning (muirburn) may reduce the severity and spread of wildfires because it reduces the fuel load available, but this has been little tested. However, we are missing information about the current impacts of wildfire in Scotland from which we can assess the impacts of increased wildfire occurrences, or indeed the possible benefits of muirburn in reducing the severity of wildfire impacts.

We envisage that the project will take a survey and an experimental approach to understanding the impact of wildfire on upland habitats. A paired approach, looking at individual wildfires and a nearby, similar area, will be used to establish general patterns of impact on vegetation, soil seed banks (a key measure of resilience to future fires) and soil carbon. Other parameters could be assessed depending on the skills or interests of the student. By assessing wildfires of different ages, rates of recovery can be assessed using a “chronosequence” approach and contrasted to the established regeneration patterns seen after the cooler fires used in prescribed burning.

An experimental approach could be used to compare the short-term impacts of simulated wildfire and good practice muirburn, and so be used to help assess if muirburn could be an effective means of protection for upland ecosystems. Such an approach would assess vegetation recovery, impacts on the bryophyte community, seed banks, soil carbon and soil erosion risk.

The information gained from the wide-scale and experimental studies will provide essential information to understand how wildfire affects and will affect the natural capital of upland areas of Scotland.

The PhD studentship offers an exceptionally strong training package in the design and running of ecological survey and experiments. The student will benefit from opportunities for networking, training and interacting with a strong cohort of ecological and environmental PhD students provided by the new Doctoral Training Programme “QUADRAT”, within the School of Biological Sciences at Aberdeen University. The student will also benefit from working in the Ecological Sciences group in Aberdeen and as part of the Postgraduate School at the James Hutton Institute. Between the two institutions the student will have access to a wide range of training opportunities as well as access to a wide range of expertise, including statistics.

The project will be supervised by Profs. Robin Pakeman and Alison Hester at the James Hutton Institute and by Dr. Sarah Woodin at the University of Aberdeen.

Informal enquiries to

Funding Notes

The studentship is fully funded by the Macaulay Development Trust and will be registered at the University of Aberdeen., Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent).Funding is available for European applications, but Worldwide applicants who possess suitable self-funding are also invited to apply.The studentship will pay Tuition fees at UK/EU rate for 2019/20 this will be £4,337. A maintenance stipend of £15,043, paid monthly in arrears, will also be provided.


Albertson, K., Aylen, J., Cavan, G. & McMorrow, J., 2010. Climate change and the future occurrence of moorland wildfires in the Peak District of the UK. Climate Research, 45, 105-118.
Allen, K.A., Harris, M.P.K. & Marrs, R.H. 2013. Matrix modelling of prescribed burning in Calluna vulgaris-dominated moorland: short burning rotations minimize carbon loss at increased wildfire frequencies. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 614-624.
Davies, G.M., Kettridge, N., Stoof, C.R., Gray, A., Ascoli, D., Fernandes, P.M., Marrs, R., Allen, K.A., Doerr, S.H., Clay, G.D. & McMorrow, J. 2016. The role of fire in UK peatland and moorland management: the need for informed, unbiased debate. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 371(1696), p.20150342.
Legg, C.J., Maltby, E. & Proctor, M.C.F. (1992) The ecology of severe moorland fire on the North York Moors: seed distribution and seedling establishment of Calluna vulgaris. Journal of Ecology, 80, 737-752.
Maclean, J.E., Mitchell, R.J., Burslem, D.F.R.P., Genney, D., Hall, J. & Pakeman, R.J. 2018a. Understorey plant community composition reflects its invasion history decades after invasive Rhododendron ponticum has been removed. Journal of Applied Ecology, 55, 874-884.
Maclean, J.E., Mitchell, R.J., Burslem, D.F.R.P., Genney, D., Hall, J. & Pakeman, R.J. 2018b. Invasion by Rhododendron ponticum depletes the native seed bank with long-term impacts after its removal. Biological Invasions, 20, 375–384.
Pakeman, R.J., Small, J.L., Le Duc, M.G. & Marrs, R.H. 2005. Recovery of moorland vegetation after aerial spraying of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn) with asulam. Restoration Ecology, 13, 718 - 724.
Santana, V.M., Alday, J.G., Lee, H., Allen, K.A. & Marrs, R.H. 2016. Modelling carbon emissions in Calluna vulgaris–dominated ecosystems when prescribed burning and wildfires interact. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0167137.

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