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Conflict and coexistence in the Scottish uplands: Human Disturbance and Habitat Use by Red Deer

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  • Full or part time
    Dr J Irvine
    Dr A Eastwood
    Dr Jed Long
  • 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

Increasingly, human activity threatens wildlife. Studies have generally focused on quantifying the threat from disturbance to the viability of endangered species. However, there is also anecdotal evidence that disturbance can impact more abundant wildlife that are managed for hunting. For red deer in Scotland, research into the impacts of disturbance has mainly focused on short-term movements1 rather than the consequences of cumulative exposure for habitat use. This project will a) test the risk-disturbance hypothesis2 by quantifying the impact of hill walkers on red deer and disentangle this from the effects of livestock reduction, culling pressure and supplementary feeding and b) test the effect of information provision on the behaviour of humans. The project will provide a stronger empirical understanding of human disturbance to support a more adaptive, evidence-based approach to managing this mobile, common-pool resource.

Aims/Objectives: The student will test the prediction that human activity will lead to short term shifts in the distribution of deer whereas changes in the stocking rate of livestock competitors such as sheep will lead to longer term seasonal shifts in habitat use. Specifically, (i) To quantify red deer space during periods of intensive use by hill walkers compared to periods of low use, on an area of open range where deer can move freely. (ii) To quantify the ranging behaviour of hill walkers and relate this to the distribution of deer and associated livestock. iii) To investigate the effect of information provision on land management activities in the study areas on route choice. Outputs could include a practical tool allowing predictions of both range use and population dynamics to explore how deer distribution is affected by different factors.

Methods/Approach. The study will focus on the case study area used in the pilot project(3) which is appropriate because i) it experiences high level of use by hill walkers; ii) there has been a demonstrable change in deer use over time and iii) there is good data on changes in sheep management. First, the student will use DeerMAP(5) and the available management data on deer counts (historical data is already collated) to predict the distribution of deer under a situation of minimal disturbance. Second, the student will map the relative use of deer across the areas using data from camera trapping and vantage point counts. Third, the student will quantify human traffic across these sites using, in year 1, questionnaires, focusing on the routes taken, duration and numbers combined with people counters at strategic points on the main path (ethics approval will be sought). Access to the Munros is largely via a car park (usage data already exists), making it possible to monitor human usage. In year 2 hikers will be equipped with returnable GPS units to capture actual routes taken to coincide with days when herbivore and people counts are being recorded from vantage points. Fourth, the observed and predicted deer distribution will be analysed quantify any mismatch and identify the habitats affected by the mismatch. In addition human traffic spatial patterns will be compared with observed deer and sheep distribution taking into account prevailing wind direction at concurrent times. Fifth, the student will incorporate the disturbance factors into DeerMAP so that the model can be used to explore the consequences of disturbance in other situations. Cull data will be combined with observational data and data drawn from the literature to construct demographic models of deer population growth using cutting edge techniques to separate sampling error and population trends. In year 3, there will be the opportunity to test the response of walkers to the provision of management information in terms of how it influences their route choice and ranging behaviour.

Training opportunity: The project will provide excellent training in researching conflicts over natural resource management in a socio-ecological system. The approach to the analysis will provide experience in quantifying the trade-offs between the multiple benefits ecosystems provide (e.g. deer stalking, venison, recreation, livestock production and grazing). The training this PhD provides will be relevant to a research career focusing on understanding environmental conflicts and the role of adaptive management in socio-ecological systems. In addition, the experience will open up the possibility of a career with land owning conservation NGOs and/or government agencies responsible for natural heritage.

Funding Notes

The studentship is funded under the James Hutton Institute/University Joint PhD programme, in this case with the University of St Andrews. Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent).Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed in Jan/Feb 2017. A more detailed plan of the studentship is available to candidates upon application. Funding is available for European applications, but Worldwide applicants who possess suitable self-funding are also invited to apply.


1. Sibbald et al. 2011. Eur. J. Wildl. Res. 57: 817-25.
2. Frid & Dill. 2002. Conservation Ecology 6: 11.
3. http://www.bds.org.uk/index.php/research/current-research-projects/13-current-projects/142-detecting-changes-in-deer-numbers
4. Irvine, et al. 2009. Journal of Applied Ecology 46, 344-352

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