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.