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Assessing the condition of the Flow Country peatlands to support their future protection

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  • Full or part time
    Dr R Andersen
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted

Project Description

The Flow Country forms the largest continuous expanse of blanket bog in the world, and is currently the only natural site under review for World Heritage Status (WHS) in the UK. A key element of the evaluation will be the evidence demonstrating that the peatlands of the Flow Country, found across a number of Highland Estates, are in sufficiently good condition to support their essential functions now and in the future.

The Flow Country peatlands are without doubt the most intact peatlands in Britain, but still bear the imprint of thousands of years of human disturbance. Peatlands have been drained for agriculture, burned for fuel and planted with trees for timber. In the last twenty years peatlands have begun to be valued for their role in cooling climate and for their unique biodiversity. Millions of pounds have been invested in restoring peatlands by blocking ditches to re-wet their drained surfaces and encouraging the natural return of bog vegetation. The Flow Country peatlands today are a patchwork of areas which have been degraded to a greater and lesser extent and restored to a greater and lesser extent.

World Heritage Status offers the potential for a dramatic change in the economy of northern Scotland with a large boost in tourism and a renewed focus on conserving this unique landscape. However the WHS application process requires robust data on the condition of the peatlands and their sustainability, which is currently lacking. The primary reason for this lack of data is the huge size of the area, more than fifteen times that of the next largest British WHS.

In this project we will partner with the RSPB and Highland Estates to develop an approach to monitoring peatland condition using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and linking imagery and ecosystem functions (C sequestration, nutrient cycling, hydrology, etc.). Through a series of field campaigns we will develop and test the approach and assess how this data can support the WHS proposal.

Our project relies on a deep understanding of the relationship between vegetation and ecosystem processes, linking plant ecology and biogeochemistry together, which is a global topic, but focused on a key location within the Highlands of Scotland. We are looking for students with background in ecology, applied or environmental sciences, geography or similar. Knowledge of GIS and experience of fieldwork in peatlands would be desirable, but training will be available for any of the techniques that will be used during the PhD.

The supervisory team includes two members of Scotland’s National Peatland Monitoring & Research Group (Dr Roxane Andersen, UHI; Dr Richard Payne, U. York), a GIS and UAV expert (Dr Jason McIlveny, UHI) and an RSPB-based peatland ecologist (Dr Neil Cowie). The team will also be working alongside statutory agencies with the aim to develop a novel tool to address the key policy requirement of better constraints on measurements of the carbon benefits of peatland restoration. The project will be integrated in the Flow Country Research Hub, a national network of > 60 partners. The student will be primarily based at the ERI in Thurso.

Applicants must possess a minimum of an Honours degree at 2:1 and/or a Master’s Degree (or International equivalent) in a relevant subject.

Informal project specific enquiries can be made to: [email protected]

Funding Notes

This studentship is funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme.

The studentship covers fees at the Home/EU rate only, plus a stipend at the RCUK level, for a total of 42 months (including writing-up).

Funding is available for students worldwide, however non UK/EU students will be liable for the difference between home/EU and international fees.

Students must be domiciled in the Highlands and Islands transition region during the course of their study to be eligible for funding.


Andersen, R, Farrell, C, Graf, M, Muller, F, Calvar, E, Frankard, P, Caporn, S, Anderson, P (2016) An overview of the progress and challenges of peatland restoration in Western Europe. Restoration Ecology. DOI 10.1111/rec.12415.

Nwaishi, F, Petrone, RM, Macrae, ML, Price, JS, Strack, M, Andersen, R (2016). Preliminary assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from a constructed fen on post-mining landscape in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, Alberta, Canada. Ecological Engineering 95: 119-128.

Poulin, M, Andersen, R, Rochefort, L, (2013) A new approach for tracking vegetation change after restoration: A case study with peatlands. Restoration Ecology, 21,363-371

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