Rewilding Scotland: Reconciling biodiversity conservation with ecosystem services provision

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Terry Dawson

Department of Geography, KCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Nathalie Pettorelli

Biodiversity and Macroecology Theme, IOZ

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Additional Supervisor(s):
Gary Polhill (James Hutton Institute)

Project Description:

The wildlife of Scotland is in serious decline, mainly as a result of habitat fragmentation and degradation. Rewilding – the restoration of land to its natural uncultivated state – is a progressive approach to conservation that encourages natural processes to re-establish degraded ecosystems to create more diverse habitats and increase wild biodiversity. However, rewilding is not without controversy. Deer are perceived as one of the biggest obstacles in the restoration of woodlands, contributing to the failure of the natural processes of regeneration through browsing tree shoots, leaves and saplings. Whilst deer eradication programmes and fencing could theoretically create optimum conditions for natural forest regeneration, the total exclusion of deer, which are keystone species for forest ecosystems, creates an artificial environment dominated by a dense scrub, and often non-native, understorey. A certain deer population density can be beneficial however, by increasing plant diversity including wildflowers of conservation interest for example. Research is needed to provide clarity on the social, economic and environmental effects of rewilding projects specifically examining the wider biodiversity and environmental impacts (which may be positive or negative), effects on deer populations and wider issues relating to rural income and equitably distribution of benefits to local communities. Adopting a social-ecological approach, this project will:
1. Conduct biodiversity assessments (tree species, understory composition, deer populations) across different habitats within and outside the rewilding project designated area.
2. Evaluate the broader ecosystem services generated by the rewilding project (carbon sequestration, water resources management) and for neighbouring estates and land.
3. Examine the trade-offs and land management decisions on biodiversity and social-economic impacts on local communities using agent-based models and future scenarios.

Policy Impact of Research:

The policy impact of this project will be to contribute to (i) better understanding of the social-ecological processes that underpin the wellbeing of the local communities living within or at the edge of the rewilding project, and (ii) benefits to wider society through improved governance of natural resources, protection of species of conservation importance and more sustainable management of ecosystem services.

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