From farmland to wildland: an ecological journey


There has a been a rapid shift in the last decade to embrace large scale and long term restoration initiatives that seek to revitalize degraded ecosystems and boost habitat heterogeneity by restoring the lost functionality associated with predators and larger herbivores, otherwise known as trophic rewilding. Reintroducing some of the more charismatic native mammals on the usual rewilding wish list is currently outside the scope of such projects in the UK. However, certain forms of management used alongside domesticated functional analogues, including some breeds of pigs and ponies, can go some way to replicating these effects. These approaches now feature increasingly in efforts to rewild conventionally managed farmland, inspired by success stories such as Knepp (Tree, 2017) and the shortcomings of agri-environment schemes.

Transitional agricultural landscapes represent something of a ‘Goldilocks zone’ for rewilding opportunities in the UK – neither high value productive lowland or unproductive upland, yet ubiquitous and therefore ripe for re-establishing lost functionality alongside low intensity farming. Robust evidence is now needed to assess if the rewilding of such systems can be used as an effective tool in biodiversity recovery and what tradeoffs this poses for delivery of different ecosystem services.

This project aims to quantify the effects of rewilding agricultural land on both terrestrial biodiversity and associated ecosystem service supply. Specifically, the objectives of this project are to;

i) Assess how indicators of terrestrial biodiversity (focussing on plants and invertebrates) change over the initial 3-4 years of land use change compared to adjacent controls.
ii) Compare local and farm scale multi-diversity and ecosystem service proxies between a rewilded farm vs. adjacent conventionally farmed areas.
iii) Provide an evidence base on how rewilding such landscapes may affect biodiversity and ecosystem service potential at larger spatial scales to inform future land management decision making.

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Image Captions

landscape_view.jpg. Typical view of sheep pasture on the focal estate prior to suspension of grazing. Photo: Nigel Willby

beaverriparian zone.jpg Beaver-influenced riparian zone on the focal estate. Photo: Nigel Willby


This project exploits the unique opportunities presented by the rewilding of 166 ha of a farm in Angus that will commence in 2021. We have a history of working at this site extending for almost 20 years and excellent relationships with estate management. The estate covers a typical range of land uses, including sheep and cattle pasture, arable for production of fodder crops, coniferous and broad-leaved tree plantations, and wetlands restored in the 1990s through reverse drainage schemes. It also contains the highest density of beaver dams in the UK, following the release of animals in 2002 as part of a wetland restoration demonstration project. Landscape change has been tracked since this time (Law et al., 2017). From 2021, beavers will be complemented by low density conservation grazing using free-ranging cattle, ponies and pigs, with all sheep being removed and crop cultivation ceasing. The site is extensively instrumented and the project can draw on a wealth of supporting data and knowledge assembled via our long-term research and a succession of PhD studentships.

During the final year of traditional farm management we obtained baseline soil and vegetation samples from across the site covering the full range of contemporary landcovers. The present study will focus on spatial contrasts in terrestrial biodiversity and ecosystem services from different focal land covers (soil and vegetation compartments from rewilded landcovers e.g. wildflower meadows, low-density grazing, new and old wetlands, mixed forestry), and how they change temporally, both seasonally and with progression of rewilding. Areas from which grazing has been experimentally excluded will also be considered to evaluate the effects of this. Provisionally we will include plants and different groups of invertebrates (spiders, carabids, bees and Lepidopterans) as biodiversity indicators, with proxies of pollinator value, decomposition rates, food production, pest control, invasion and carbon storage being used to assess performance of key ecosystem service (or disservice). Unchanged land uses from other parts of the estate and adjacent organic and conventional farmland will be used as references thus providing a highly robust BACI design that has been largely missing from other case studies. The studentship will also enjoy access to data collected as part of other projects and via citizen scientists, plus advice and support from an enthusiastic estate management team.

The primary objective of data collection is to help quantify changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services on a typical agricultural estate under alternative management regimes. The specific focus of experiments and emphasis and timing of sampling will be determined as the student develops their focus and key hypotheses. Possible themes to be explored include: (1) single versus additive effects of changes in landuse practices; (2) role of herbivores and their faeces in stimulating change and heterogeneity within land cover types; (3) changes and contrasts in trophic level interactions and evidence for higher trophic level effects; (4) legacy effects of previous land cover types.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature review; learn biological sampling methods and plan sampling design; stakeholder liaison, Training needs assessment (e.g. statistical or identification courses). Implement sampling regime.

Year 2

Sampling campaign. Processing and identification of samples Stirling labs. Collation with existing data. Advanced statistical training. UK workshop/conference presentation of interim findings. Outreach to build support for project.

Year 3

Data exploration, analysis and interpretation of full dataset. Integration of additional external datasets.

Year 3.5

Paper and thesis writing. International conference attendance to present results. Briefings on key findings for non-academic audience.

& Skills

The student will benefit from training covering a mix of field, lab and advanced analytical skills. Development will be supported through IAPETUS specific provision and external courses. Example courses include; statistical analysis with R, media training; insights to industry; leadership skills; conference skills (e.g., networking, poster and oral presentation skills); Geographic Information Systems; and grant writing. The research findings will be published as journal articles led by the research student in leading ecology journals. Given the strong public interest in rewilding we expect that such articles will attract a high media interest. The student will also present results at conferences including the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Student Conference, British Ecological Society annual conference, as well as to local and regional stakeholder groups to bring the project to a wider audience. The student will benefit from inclusive and productive lab groups and PhD cohorts at Stirling and Newcastle and will have the opportunity to engage with related large research projects at both institutions.

References & further reading

Andriuzzi, WS & Wall, DH (2018) Soil biological responses to, and feedbacks on, trophic rewilding. Phil Trans Roy Soc (B) 373 (1761)

Law A, Gaywood MJ, Jones KC, Ramsay P, Willby, NJ (2017) Using ecosystem engineers as tools in habitat restoration and rewilding: beaver and wetlands. Science of the Total Envt 605, 1021-1030

Tree, I (2018) Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm. Picador.

Willby, NJ, Law A, Levanoni O, Foster G, Ecke, F (2018) Rewilding wetlands: beaver as agents of within-habitat heterogeneity and the responses of contrasting biota. Phil Trans Royal Soc B 373 (1761)

Further Information

Serious applicants are strongly advised to make an informal enquiry about the PhD well ahead of the final submission deadline.

For further information and informal enquires please contact Professor Nigel Willby;

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