Project Description

A full project description can be found on Find a PhD. Please see below for additional information about this project:
The project seeks to understand how patterns of land use affect the spatial dynamics of a top predator that is the subject of conflicts between different interest groups. It fits squarely within NERC’s remit and its research areas of
  • Population ecology – Understanding of population dynamics, including trophic interactions. Demography of populations. Extinction processes. Spatial processes and metapopulation dynamics
  • Behavioural ecology
  • Community ecology and iv. Conservation ecology
The outlined project will specifically investigate
  •  the relationship between changes in the landscape of fear and ecosystem interactions across species
  • the absence/presence of humans to establish how the presence of a super predator affects species on different trophic

Under the QUADRAT theme Biodiversity, it addresses the issues of

  • Modelling the effects of environmental change (here afforestation) on species distribution and persistence
  • identifying the intrinsic and extrinsic processes that shape demography and dynamics of natural populations
  • Quantifying the nature of species interactions.
Under the QUADRAT theme Environmental management, it deals with
  • a species that is flagship for predator rewilding
  • Explore the implication of rapidly growing ecotourism activity on sensitive species
  • land use, specifically conifer forest management.
Dispersal is a crucial information gathering stage in the life cycle of organisms, sampling the world in search of suitable sites to reproduce. Dispersal behaviours can have profound implications for demography, and hence applied species management. Many species have facultative protracted dispersal spanning an entire year or more, allowing them to gather information about opportunities over multiple seasons. However, individuals of these species can make more rapid, and potentially less-informed, decisions on where to settle and reproduce, especially in areas with vacant territories.
However, the information available to dispersers may be unreliable because of seasonally changing conditions. For instance, some sites may appear attractive when visited by prospectors, but become suboptimal at later timepoints within the annual cycle through high mortality due to e. g. disturbance of breeding attempts or persecution of adults. Such temporal ecological traps can produce maladaptive habitat selection, reducing the fitness of ill-informed dispersing individuals and creating attractive demographic sinks that reduce the growth of the entire population.
Our student will use unparalleled demographic monitoring and satellite tagging data to characterise the rules and implications of dispersal in the goshawk, a flagship species for rewilding in the UK. Goshawks had effectively been extirpated as a breeding species but are gradually recovering following reintroductions in the 1960s, with commercial conifer plantations acting as demographic sources, generating a surplus of juveniles that need to disperse within the more dangerous wider landscape with its potential ecological traps. Working alongside public and private sector forest managers and dedicated amateur and professional ornithologists, our student will test the hypothesis that ecological traps arise because of sharp temporal mismatches between information gathering by dispersers and subsequent deleterious events affecting demography:
  • Goshawks’ favoured nesting areas (closed canopy forests with low disturbance) are becoming scarcer owing to the prevailing age-structure of trees in northern UK forests. Forestry operations (felling and thinning) outside the breeding season can displace breeding pairs, and in saturated areas, alternative sites are limited.
  •  Illegal persecution in the vicinity of grouse moors and pheasant pens (where naive captive-reared pheasants are tempting prey) is most prevalent during nesting and post-fledging stages (adults and chicks/juveniles killed) rather than dispersal. Dispersing individuals may thus be recurrently attracted to areas of high mortality.
  • Recreational outdoor activities in high amenity value forests are increasing sharply, including mountain biking, walking and running. The disturbance caused by such activities peaks during holiday periods that coincide with goshawk breeding rather than dispersal.
The student will rigorously evaluate the relative contributions of forest management, survival outside managed plantations and disturbance to the dynamics and future viability of the UK goshawk population, providing evidence to shape landscape-scale conservation policy. The project will thereby train a new scientist in state-of-the-art quantitative analytical approaches to shed light on the trade-offs that unavoidably arise between conservation and economic activities and the dynamic of a protected species in heterogeneous landscapes.
The project is part of a collaboration with Forestry and Land Scotland, Forestry England and Tillhill Forestry who manage vast tracks of land for timber production with an emphasis on improving ecological practice across their managed land and with dedicated raptor workers.  The student will use and contribute to exceptional demographic and satellite tracking data to rigorously evaluate the relative contributions of forest management to the dynamics and future viability of the UK goshawk population, providing evidence to shape landscape-scale conservation policy. The project will thereby train a new scientist in state-of-the-art quantitative analytical approaches to shed light on the trade-offs that unavoidably arise between conservation and economic activities and the dynamic of a protected species in heterogeneous landscapes.
The following assets will be leveraged by the project
– Exceptional monitoring effort, on a vast scale, by raptor specialists to ensure trees are not felled during the breeding season near known nest sites and monitor perceived vacant suitable areas   for new occupation.
– Data from GPS satellite tags fitted to large number of juvenile goshawks will allow for examination of the landscape exploration behaviour of individuals and, for those that survive to reproduction, their settling rules.
– Data on breeding success that can be related to forest structure, recreational activity (Open access data on tracks used by mountain bikers and runners using the app which enables the characterisation of spatial and temporal variation in levels of disturbance experienced by goshawks.  Variation in disturbance was particularly acute during the COVID19 related lockdown that resulted in no outdoor leisure activity until June 2020.
– Data on proximity to sites of gamebird release – the sources of conflict leading to unintentional disturbance and illegal persecution.
– A new monitoring method using camera traps placed at plucking posts combined with artificial intelligence to identify individuals based on their unique plumage patterns developed by an ongoing PhD student.
– Parentage assignment from genotyping of moulted feathers with locations of the parents’ nest and the settled offspring’s nest contributed by an ongoing PhD
Essential skills
This PhD is suitable for a student enthused by population and behavioural ecology and their application to inform practical management issues; an interest in conservation and natural resource management and an excellent ability to interact with practitioners and committed citizen scientists. S/he must be eager to gain valuable field experience, willing to travel away from Aberdeen and to make a substantial time investment collecting field data, including by capturing and handling animals. S/he will be able to demonstrate an aptitude with statistical analysis of data and be committed to become trained in the use of state-of-the-art quantitative ecology and agent-based modelling. The student must have a full driving licence.
Desirable skills
  • Some prior experience with field work and work with animals (possibly holding a bird ringing licence)
  • Willingness to gain training and certification in tree climbing
Photos by Katie August, University of Aberdeen.


Xavier Lambin

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Xavier Lambin
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Paul Caplat

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Paul Caplat
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Thomas Bodey

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Thomas Bodey
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Kenny Kortland, Forestry and Land Scotland:
John Gallacher, Tillhill Forestry:


  • Delibes M, Gaona P, Ferreras P (2015) Effects of an Attractive Sink Leading into Maladaptive Habitat Selection. The American Naturalist 158: 277–285.
  • Gundersen G, Johannesen E, Andreassen HP, Ims RA (2001) Source–sink dynamics: how sinks affect demography of sources. Ecology Letters 4: 14–21.
  • Hoy et al (2017) Density-dependent increase in superpredation linked to food limitation in a recovering population of northern goshawks. J Avian Biol.




This PhD answers the urgent call for solid evidence to manage coexistence of a flagship species of predator rewilding alongside commercial and recreational forest management, including the aspiration to increase afforestation. Man-made forest ecosystems dominated by Sitka spruce account for ~20 % of the UK woodland area. Profound changes have taken place in the way these once purely industrial landscapes are being managed, with a new emphasis on promoting public access and adopting management practices that benefit ecosystem functions as well as a sizeable, planned expansion of afforested areas to meet carbon storage targets. These forests are safe havens for a rich guild of predators, and now represent outstanding model systems for studying the dynamics of newly assembled, non-equilibrium trophic networks, with a focus on predation.

The goshawk is one of several Schedule 1 species that cannot be disturbed by forestry activities during the breeding season, and this imposes some constraints to the industry on the location of harvesting activities. An applied deliverable will be to co-design a pragmatic monitoring scheme that would allow forest managers to discharge their legal duty to avoid disturbance to protected goshawks.

Because rewilding captures the public’s imagination, and because the study species is charismatic, there are substantial opportunities to engage the public with the research findings, and thus broad scope for public engagement. Several of the raptor monitoring schemes already in place involve volunteers and citizen scientists. They are one of many different audiences that the PhD candidate could engage with, and incorporating their knowledge and firing their enthusiasm is an essential component of such long-term ecological study.

Proposed Timetable

The student will spend approximately 5 months per year (March to July of years 1,2,3) in The Borders area of Scotland, Trossachs and Kielder Forest embedded with FLS, FE and Tillhill Forestry with data collection on territory occupancy and breeding success constrained by seasonality and within the constraints of the program of training provided by QUADRAT DTP. Training and implementation of varied data analysis will take place in the remainder of the year.

Background reading, and analyses will start from the outset using existing data on goshawk breeding success and existing GPS tracking data. Fieldwork will also contribute to building on these data sets. S/he will also access forest inventory data and public outdoor recreation data and link these to breeding success data.

Following completion of fieldwork in year 3, a greater emphasis will be placed on progressing simulation modelling of dispersal and sink dynamics, led by supervisor Dr Paul Caplat at QUB.

As a CASE supported project, the student will work day-to day with FE, FLS and Tillhill Forestry staff including ecologists and land managers. There is no internship planned, but this regular contact will allow the student to gain valuable hands-on experience of how science and industry can function for mutual benefit.


  • biodiversity
  • environmental-management


CASE Partner: Forestry and Land Scotland

Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) has a broad statutory mandate that includes timber production to help sustain the forestry sector, encouraging and facilitating recreational activity, and supporting tourism. Reconciling protected species conservation with these potentially conflicting objectives requires well-founded, scientific evidence. In fact, such knowledge is crucial if FLS is to effectively fulfil its statutory duty to further the conservation of biodiversity, as required under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.

This PhD study will yield an improved understanding of demographic drivers for this recovering species. This will significantly enhance the ability of FLS to manage the expanding goshawk population and to more effectively deploy targeted and cost-effective mitigation. FLS expends significant resources on this species, without having an over-arching plan. The fact that this PhD will provide evidence to shape a substantiated landscape-scale conservation policy is a highly attractive incentive for FLS to support this project.


CASE Partner: Forestry England

Forestry and land management, nature conservation and ecosystem service provision. Our management aims to create and sustain forests and woodlands which are attractive as well as productive, useful to the community and pleasant places for people to visit, rich in wildlife, both plant and animal, and where the natural and cultural heritage is safely conserved. It also aims to generate sufficient income to pay for these activities and provide a financial return on investment. FE has great interest in how ecosystem processes change in our working forests. The long-term study of goshawks and tawny owls FE supports since 1983 demonstrated the biodiversity value of plantation forests. The proposed project will also directly inform the actions and decisions made by forest estates and state forests as to the trade-offs between costs and benefits of ecosystem restoration involving predators.


CASE Partner: Tillhill Forestry

Tilhill Forestry is the UK’s leading forestry and timber harvesting company. We offer a broad range of market leading professional consultancy and contracting services to woodland and forestry owners. Forestry, timber harvesting and the emerging biomass sector draw on our strong association with the forest industry in the UK. Established more than 60 years ago, Tillhill Forestry is a national company operating from a network of offices throughout Great Britain, with a turnover in excess of £100 million.

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