Holocene perspectives on the ecology of moorland burning in northern England

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Geography and Sustainable Development


This project aims to place current moorland burning practices into the context of long-term ecosystem dynamics to improve our understanding of how moorland ecosystems respond to changes in burning regime. New palaeoecological data sets will be generated from a region that is understudied from this perspective, the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Sites elsewhere in northern England will also be chosen in order to take advantage of concurrent studies on modern peatland ecology and fire (e.g. in the northern and southern Pennines). Large-scale peatland restoration projects are planned for these regions and there is an urgent need to fully understand the ecological implications of these projects. In order to do this, the long-term perspective on ecosystem function is essential. Palaeoecological analysis of peat deposits, involving a range of proxy techniques, will be used to reconstruct selected environmental parameters, including burning intensity (charcoal), vegetation composition (pollen and plant macrofossils), and surface wetness (testate amoebae). Analysis of documentary evidence will add detail on the trajectory of ecosystem change for the last 50-500 years. These approaches will enable the student to test the following central null hypotheses: 1) That current short-term (50-500 year) trajectories of moorland ecosystem change are within the range of variability for the Holocene; 2) That planned reduction in burning extent, frequency and intensity will not lead to changes to the vegetation composition and peatland hydrology in the areas studied. The results will meet an urgent need for an improved research base to aid the development of practical management policies and will make a significant contribution to the international scientific effort to understand the role of fire in determining ecosystem function. This project therefore represents an excellent training opportunity which addresses both blue-skies and applied dimensions of the field and could lead to a career in either academic research or land management and policy. The project is tractable (several potential appropriate sites have already been identified) and provides opportunities for the student to develop the project in different directions according to their interests and development of ideas in conjunction with the project partner. Collaboration with the Conservation and Policy Department of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) will ensure the results are used to inform management and restoration policy, and allow the student to gain hands-on experience in moorland conservation and policy development. The YDNPA will also provide practical support for fieldwork in addition to specialist training, project supervision, and a year-long internship position for the student. Close involvement with practitioners will benefit the project outcomes in terms of both the scientific findings and the impact of the work, and will also contribute significantly to the student's career preparation. The Host Institution (HI) will provide generic skills training attuned to RCUK requirements and the project supervisors will provide scientific and technical training in the principles and practice of palaeoenvironmental interpretation. Supervision and support of postgraduate research students is well organised, providing an excellent support network and framework for assessment of progress through the Research Support Group system. The HI will provide the student with an excellent range of facilities including high-quality laboratory and office space, world-class analytical facilities, a dedicated PC and access to vehicles; the YDNPA will also offer access to its facilities including field equipment and vehicles for use in the field, in addition to providing for the student's office requirements during the internship periods.


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