Wildlife Science


Potential PhD topics for 2021 entry to the ESRC South West Doctoral Training Partnership

Dr Sarah Crowley & Professor Robbie McDonald

We are interested in supporting PhD studentship applications from future social science and interdisciplinary researchers to the ESRC SWDTP. We are keen to hear from potential applicants who would like to develop interdisciplinary projects, including collaborative, applied work with our research partners in national and international NGOs.

Potential topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Sustainable management of animals on commons and protected areas. Some species and breeds of non-human animal become synonymous with protected areas, such as New Forest and Exmoor ponies. Other species can establish feral populations after escapes and releases, but rapidly come to define the areas in which they establish, such as wild boar in the Forest of Dean or goats in Lynton and Llandudno. They can be highly valued by local people, as breeding stock, for their ecological roles, as quarry in hunting, and because of long-standing cultural associations. They are also valued by wider publics, as part of creating, maintaining, and symbolising particular physical and cultural landscapes. These animals are often free-ranging across ‘commons’ and protected areas, where management becomes complex because of interacting interests and obligations. Projects in this area could examine how management is negotiated and implemented across social-ecological networks, how disputes arise and are handled, and how people might work towards sustainable futures for these animals.
  • Sustainable management of introduced species. We are interested in how animals out-of-place are managed, or are not managed, and the social-ecological dynamics of the problems they sometimes cause. PhD projects in this area could examine how these dynamics affect food security and biodiversity conservation interests locally and globally, or how introduced species and their management affect different social or demographic groups, and especially how these effects might be gendered. The range of species of interest is broad, but we are particularly interested in animals with histories of close association with, and valuation by, people, such as cats, dogs, donkeys, ponies, horses and camels. This project area could involve fieldwork overseas, particularly in the UK Overseas Territories, or in island communities around the UK.
  • Cats, cat-owners and conservation. In some ecological contexts, cats can have significant detrimental impacts on vulnerable wildlife and biodiversity conservation. Our recent work in this area has integrated ecological and social science approaches to better understand challenges and disputes surrounding the appropriate management of cats. We have identified diverse perspectives of cat owners in relation to their cats’ hunting behaviours, and have explored a range of approaches to cat management that might appeal to different owners. Work in this area could explore further the relationships between people, their cats and the environment, how social disputes around cat management and husbandry might be ameliorated, and how any negative environmental impacts of cats might be mitigated.

If any of these topics, or other similar subjects, are of interest for your future PhD, then please get in touch soon, to discuss how to advance your PhD research training.

Email: Sarah Crowley or Robbie McDonald.

We are inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship on hazel dormouse conservation. The project will focus on dormouse ecology in fragmented, upland and marginal landscapes at the edges of their range. The student will investigate the connectivity, dynamics and resilience of dormouse populations in such landscapes and how best to manage them in the face of climate change, to ensure their conservation at local, regional and national levels.

Fieldwork will comprise investigations of dormouse population biology and habitat use, including at Clocaenog Forest in northeast Wales. Laboratory studies may include analyses of foraging using stable isotopes, population genetics and modelling of dormouse populations. The student will also work with local partners at Chester Zoo, who have maintained dormouse surveillance in the region, and with ecologists and site managers at Innogy Renewables.

The studentship will begin in early 2020, or soon thereafter.

To find out more, visit our ‘Join Us’ page, and click here to apply.

Lead ammunition is still widely used in the UK, despite growing international concern about its environmental and health impacts. However, after centuries of use, things are on the cusp of change, with the ‘lead debate’ at a crossroads (Cromie et al., 2019). Recent research by this team (Newth et al., 2019) has identified diversity in the perspectives and practices of ammunition users and, at this pivotal moment, there is an urgent need to better understand how topographical, ecological and social factors interact to produce, reduce, and remediate environmental contamination.

Driven partridge shooting in Suffolk, UK

Image Credit: Fieldsports Channel.

This interdisciplinary project will investigate spatial and behavioural variation and change in the use, distribution, and impacts of both lead and non-toxic ammunition. Combining innovative approaches from geography and environmental sciences, the student will develop skills in ecotoxicology, ecosystem health assessment and contemporary social research methods, as well as experience working at the science/policy interface. The collaborative CASE partnership will involve working with specialists at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and engaging constructively with ammunition users and shooting organisations in a range of contexts. It also offers opportunities to examine the impacts of both lead and non-toxic shot on different species and habitats (e.g. gamebird and wildlife exposure, wounding rates, and plastic pollution), and investigate the environmental effects and social processes of transitioning from lead to non-toxic ammunition.

For more details about the project and application process please see our ‘Join Us‘ page or click here.

Featured Image: Bert de Tilley


Researchers from the Wildlife Science team are seeking cat owners to become researchers for a new study this spring and summer, designed to test different techniques to reduce the amount of wildlife killed by domestic cats, while maintaining and improving cat health and welfare.

We are looking for cat-owning volunteers from across the South West region to participate in the project. We are specifically keen to find owners whose feline friends bring wild prey back to their homes.

Taking place throughout spring, the project will welcome participants who are willing to help in a number of different ways. Contributors will be asked to keep a basic log of what prey their cats return with, while others will track their cat’s movements through GPS collars, as seen on TV’s Secret Life of Cats.

Photo: Helgi Halldórsson

Helpers will also test a range of techniques designed to find practical ways to reduce hunting, and ideally improve their cat’s health and welfare. These include giving the cats colourful patterned collars that make them conspicuous to birds, fitting existing collars with deterrents such as bells, upgrading their pet’s diets and also introducing so-called puzzle feeders as a different way of providing food.

All methods will be approved by our Project’s Advisory Group, which includes representation from International Cat Care and the RSPCA.

The aim of the project is to reduce the amount of wildlife killed by cats without negatively affecting, and hopefully enhancing, cat welfare. Dr Sarah Crowley said:

“We are excited to be launching this new research that aims to work closely with cat owners to find innovative solutions to the tricky problem of cats hunting wildlife. We know many cat owners are concerned about their pets killing birds, especially, and are looking to identify the most effective and practical ways to limit this behaviour without compromising cat welfare.”

Cats vary in the amount they hunt, with some catching multiple birds and small mammals every week, while many others stay indoors or rarely lift a predatory paw.

Apple First & Second Week Tracking
This map from our pilot study shows two weeks of one cat’s movement (tracked with a GPS collar).

With up to 11 million cats in the UK, some conservationists are nevertheless concerned about the effect even a minority of hunting cats might have on wildlife, especially declining species like house sparrows.

This new project comes after a recent study, involving the same research team, found that while many cat owners dislike their feline companions’ compulsion to catch wildlife, they also feel unable to control it.

Hunting, and the resulting corpses on the kitchen floor, were seen as natural behaviour outside owners’ control. Those who did want to limit hunting felt this was difficult to achieve without locking cats indoors – and hardly any owners wanted this. Professor Robbie McDonald, who leads this research project, added:

“This is a great chance for owners and their families to find out more about the secret life of their cats. Taking part in this major science project will help wildlife and cats by recording valuable data from individual households.”

Cat owners who live in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Bristol or Dorset who wish to take part in the new project should sign up by visiting  www.wildlifescience.org/catowners. It is free to take part. Guidance and all the equipment will be provided.

A new review by members of the Wildlife Science group shows that once-endangered carnivorous mammals such as otters, polecats and pine martens have staged a remarkable comeback in Britain in recent decades.

European otters Lutra lutra. Photo credit: Johnny Birks

Our study found that – with the exception of wildcats – the status of Britain’s native mammalian carnivores (badger, fox, otter, pine marten, polecat, stoat and weasel) has “markedly improved” since the 1960s. The species have largely “done it for themselves” – recovering once harmful human activities had been stopped or reduced. Hunting, trapping, control by gamekeepers, use of toxic chemicals and destruction of habitats contributed to the decline of most predatory mammals in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

“Unlike most carnivores across the world, which are declining rapidly, British carnivores declined to their low points decades ago and are now bouncing back,” said lead author Katie Sainsbury. “Carnivores have recovered in a way that would have seemed incredibly unlikely in the 1970s, when extinction of some species looked like a real possibility.”

To carry out the review we collected survey reports from the last 40 years and compared changes in the species’ distribution extent and population sizes. We also reviewed human activities that have helped or hindered Britain’s native carnivores in recent decades.

Otters have almost completely recolonised Great Britain. Badger populations have roughly doubled since the 1980s. Polecats have expanded across southern Britain from Wales, and pine martens have expanded from the Scottish Highlands. Fox numbers have risen since the 1960s, though an apparent decline in the last decade may be linked with dwindling rabbit numbers. Wildcats are the exception to the pattern of recovery. The species is now restricted to small numbers in isolated parts of the Scottish Highlands. Some estimates suggest there are as few as 200 individuals left. Their decline has largely been caused by inter-breeding with domestic cats, leading to loss of wildcat genes. The status of stoats and weasels remains obscure, partly because they are small and fast-moving so are hard to see and to survey. The best means of monitoring them is from the records of gamekeepers who trap them.

“Most of these animals declined in the 19th Century, but they are coming back as a result of legal protection, conservation, removal of pollutants and restoration of habitats,” said Professor Robbie McDonald, head of Exeter’s Wildlife Science group. “The recovery of predatory mammals in Britain shows what happens when you reduce the threats that animals face. For the most part these species have recovered by themselves.”

Reintroductions have also played a part. Fifty one pine martens were recently translocated to Wales from Scotland and these martens are now breeding successfully in Wales. Otter reintroductions helped re-establish the species in the east of England.

“By involving local communities from the outset, we have been able to secure the return of healthy numbers of pine martens to Wales. Translocations were needed because natural spread, something the Trust has been monitoring in polecats over the past 25 years, will take much longer for the slower breeding pine marten” said Dr Jenny MacPherson of Vincent Wildlife Trust.

Thought must now be given to how growing numbers of these animals interact with humans. Some of the species can pose problems for gamekeepers, anglers and farmers, and work must be done to find ways to prevent conflict and allow long-term co-existence as the species expand their ranges and numbers.

The paper, published in the journal Mammal Review, is entitled: “Recent history, current status, conservation and management of native mammalian carnivores in Great Britain.” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mam.12150

Read an article about the research in The Observer Online.

Title image: stoat Mustela erminea by Frank Greenaway

File:Circus cyaneus, Ballaugh Curragh, Isle of Man 1.jpg

Male Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus. Photo: Isle of Man Government. 

Raptor introductions, reintroductions or translocations are rare, and the scientific literature associated with them is usually retrospective, considering in a historical context why they have succeeded or failed. The proposed translocation of hen harriers, Circus cyaneus, to southern England, presents an extraordinary opportunity to study a raptor translocation in its early stages and as it unfolds. The ecological drivers of translocation outcomes are manifold: including population viability; Allee effects; demographic stochasticity; environmental fluctuations; diet and other dimensions of ecological niche; prey population dynamics; breeding success; behavioural interactions; dispersal and natal philopatry. The social drivers are similarly manifold: deliberative practices, means of engagement and communications; existing disputes, wider conflicts and policy differences; complex relationships among individuals and stakeholder groups. Ecological and social processes are likely to interact, both in anticipation of and during the translocation. Incorporating social-ecological approaches will bring new insights into conservation practice in contested arenas.

This PhD will take a broad view of raptor translocations, using the case study of hen harriers in England, to deepen our understanding of the ecological and social drivers of the outcomes of these important conservation actions.

For more details about the project and application process please see our ‘Join Us‘ page or click here.


Wildcats are Britain’s only Critically Endangered mammal. Following centuries of intensive predator control, wildcats are now protected but restricted to a population of about 200 individuals living in low productivity habitat in the Scottish Highlands, where they are threatened principally by hybridization with domestic cats. This project will investigate the potential for, and challenges to, wildcat recovery and restoration outside of their current Scottish refugium, to their former range in Wales and England.

The student will undertake interdisciplinary work towards understanding the ecological and social feasibility and practicalities of wildcat restoration. They will conduct qualitative studies of the challenges of reconciling wildcat conservation with the interests of domestic cat owners, and of potential conflict with farming and shooting interests. Quantitative studies will address the suitability of source populations of wildcats (including captive-breeding), population viability, landscape suitability and means of managing hybridization. Their academic aims will include building a social-ecological network around conservation of iconic species in contested landscapes, alongside delivering applied outcomes of protocols and practices towards reintroductions.

The student will work with partners at The Vincent Wildlife Trust (www.vwt.org.uk), who have recently led the successful restoration of pine martens to Wales, and global conservation leaders, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (www.durrell.org). Project supervisors are Professor Robbie McDonald of the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute (http://www.exeter.ac.uk/esi/people/profile/index.php?web_id=Robbie_McDonald), Dr Steve Carter of the Vincent Wildlife Trust and Dr Rich Young of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Renowned conservationist Professor Carl Jones will be a project advisor.

For more details about the project and application process please see our ‘Join Us‘ page or click here.



Hazel dormouse conservation is a top priority for UK woodlands (Photo by Danielle Schwarz CC BY-SA 3.0)

Despite their strict protection and major conservation efforts, populations of hazel dormice Muscardinus avellanarius in England and Wales continue to decline. Recent analyses by the University of Exeter (Goodwin et al 2017) identified a 72% decline in dormouse populations from 1993 to 2014 and suggested that the species could be categorized as Endangered in the UK. Our recent work (Goodwin et al 2018a, b) has also highlighted the importance of improving woodland management to enhance the conservation status of the species in the UK.

This collaborative CASE studentship will involve fieldwork on dormice and forestry practice. The student will work alongside key conservation organisations to build on recent work on dormouse ecology and to evaluate and improve woodland management practices in order to reverse the fortunes of this most endearing British mammal.

The overall aim of this project is to understand variation in dormouse conservation status, evaluate woodland management and provide evidence for improved practices to support dormouse recovery in the UK. This will be achieved by extensive analysis of dormouse populations and of woodland characteristics, using remotely sensed data, accompanied by intensive surveys of dormice and habitats in a sample of commercial and non-commercial, broadleaf and coniferous woodlands. The student will survey woodland managers to understand practice in relation to conservation regulation and commercial and other management objectives. The student will also have the opportunity to employ molecular genetic techniques to understand dormouse population processes and to develop population models to understand how variation in practice might affect populations in the long term. The student will work at public and private forests across England and Wales, sampling sites at which dormice are thriving and sites where they are in decline. The project will require extended periods of fieldwork away from Cornwall, and periods in the laboratory in Cardiff and at Forest Research.

For more details about the project and application process please see our ‘Join Us‘ page or click here.



Polecats (Mustela putorius) are regularly exposed to pesticides in Britain.

Rodents are a major problem on farms and present a threat to food security as well as human and animal health and welfare. Rats alone cost the UK about £200M a year by consuming and contaminating growing and stored crops. The problem is primarily managed, with varying degrees of success, by using anticoagulant rodenticides.

However, these chemicals are economically, ethically and environmentally problematic because they are markedly inhumane, resistance is a growing problem and their usage leads to widespread exposure of non-target wildlife, including threatened species of birds and mammals. In Britain, studies show that most polecats, barn owls and red kites are now exposed to rodenticides, with implications for their conservation. Guidance is available for the improved usage of rodenticides on farms, but we know relatively little about how this guidance works in practice and what improvements remain still to be made. The use of innovative and, in some cases, non-lethal Integrated Pest Management techniques, holds potential for increasing efficacy while reducing the multiple problems of established practices for rodent control, including the risks rodenticides pose to wildlife.

This CASE studentship will provide training in the science underpinning sustainable agriculture and food security by working towards more effective, economic and humane management of wildlife in the farm environment. The student will undertake evaluations of variation in rodent control practices and outcomes, conduct experiments on current and innovative approaches to rodent management and model approaches and outcomes to enhance best practice. They will adopt an interdisciplinary approach to research on wild animal populations and behaviour and on farmers and contractors and their practices and will work in the field and laboratory. The student will join a large group of interdisciplinary, applied researchers (wildlifescience.org) in Professor Robbie McDonald’s research group at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus and will work alongside Professor Richard Shore at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (ceh.ac.uk) and Alexandra Tomlinson and Ruth Layton at our CASE partners sankalpa (oursankalpa.org).

For more details about the project and funding process please see our ‘Join Us‘ page or click here.



Featured Image: Jean-Jacques Boujot

Dairy farming is a major part of the Cornish economy. Although cattle usually graze outdoors, they tend to be housed in large barns/sheds over winter. At this time their environment can be severely affected by flocks of tens of thousands of starlings that fly into the barns/sheds to take cattle feed. The starlings can severely deplete cattle feed supplies, defecate in the barn and cause a nuisance for farm workers.

We are seeking a research ecologist to lead development of innovative solutions to mitigating the impacts of starlings on the farmed environment, specifically dairy farms. The successful applicant will lead a project gauging the impact of starlings on farms, and will work with partners in the USA to evaluate sonic deterrents to reduce their impact.

For more information visit the ‘Join Us’ page of our website, or apply here.

Featured Image Credit: Walter Baxter.