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The War-torn Woodlands of Britain: Reconstructing the ecological impacts of historical disturbance

We seek a numerate, enthusiastic student with a passion for understanding how woodland habitats have been shaped by human activity past and present. The proposed research provides a unique opportunity to answer an important question about the legacy effects of land-use on British woodlands. A comparison of survey data from 1971 and 2002 revealed a strong signal of canopy tree ageing and reduced understory plant species richness. The question is why? At the moment our best hypothesis is that widespread extraction of timber during and after World War II left many woodlands unusually open and disturbed. These were ideal conditions for light-loving plant species more typical of gaps in forest canopies. We interpret the 1971 results as indicating the persistent effects of these disturbances but over time declining traditional forest management and succession filtered the understory, favouring fewer, more shade-loving plants. Answering this question is important because it would help properly evaluate the causes and consequences of a dramatic and potentially worrying loss of woodland plant biodiversity. The proposed research will take advantage of a fully-funded, second repeat survey of the 103 woodlands ongoing from 2020 to 2023. In each woodland, we have information on the tree and shrub composition and diameter of stems in 16 random plots. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to research a selection of the woodlands, take tree-cores, age the stems, model the relationship between stem diameter and age, and then use Markov matrix models to back-project the diameter and age-structured data to test whether, indeed, the oldest trees in the current canopy date back to the WWII period. Completing the puzzle will also involve searching for and interpreting historical evidence from a sub-set of the sites.


Enthusiastic and able graduates from a wide range from a wide range of environmental, biological and geographical degree subjects are eligible for this project. If in doubt get in touch for a chat.


Contact either Simon Smart ( or John Healey ( for an informal chat and further information.