Understanding recent land-use change in Snowdonia to plan a sustainable future for uplands: integrating palaeoecology and conservation practice

Paul Hughes, Mary Edwards, University of Southampton

The UK’s sustainable future rests on a holistic appraisal of rural landscape function/land use and the state of critical ecosystem services [1].  In upland Britain, important concerns include moving towards net-zero carbon targets for land-use, increasing the forest estate, and maintaining or enhancing biodiversity while supporting upland farming. Planning is better informed by knowledge of recent change in the upland system related to the large-scale social and economic transformations of the 20th Century. This project focuses on Snowdonia, a mountainous region of North Wales that includes the extensive Snowdonia National Park. Here, a range of human impacts (for example, deforestation, moor burning, afforestation, fluctuating levels of grazing pressure, and pasture improvement - including the addition of nitrogen) have affected the landscape-scale mosaic of vegetation cover and inputs and outputs of carbon, nutrients and pollutants to upland waters and downstream locations. The link between land use/farming/forestry practices of the past c. 150 years and carbon storage potential in peat/quality of inland waters can be demonstrated using modern palaeoecological techniques applied to peat and lake sedimentary records. The work would contribute to the development of upland land-management strategies in partnership with Natural Resources Wales (Bangor).


Multiple palaeoecological techniques will build a picture of past landscape condition and change. Peat profiles and lake-sediment cores will be the source of palaeo proxies for land cover, erosion, burning, nutrient cycling and land use. Time series of palaeodata will be dated using Bayesian age-depth modeling approaches (14C dates, pollen markers, 210Pb and 137Cs). 

Patterns of change within target plant communities, for example, in upland peatland landscapes, will be addressed via the analysis of pollen, grazing-related fungal spores, charcoal, and plant macrofossil composition and linked to carbon storage and land management treatments (e.g., restoration programmes).  For upland lakes, the same proxies will be allied with biomarkers that indicate switches in functional dominance of aquatic species, sediment properties that reflect erosion, fire history and fluxes of nutrients and pollutants. Such catchment-scale records indicate likely patterns of downstream sediment and nutrient/pollutant transport. Analysis of sediment DNA (sedaDNA) may yield insights into the details of biodiversity change [2], thus complementing records of biodiversity developed from pollen and macrofossil analyses. Ordination and linear modeling will assess potential drivers of landscape change (fire, dust loading (nutrients and pollutants), soil moisture availability etc).

Interviews/discussions with NRW landscape managers on new policy development, cost, effectiveness and feasibility of strategies will inform the project and anchor it to policy and practice.


University of Southampton

The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at SoGES.  Specific training will include the following:

- Field experience – with supervisory team and NRW – including management briefing and training on conservation practice, field site knowledge and history. Further advice on interview techniques available via SoGES.

- Paleo proxies – some skills might be expected, but others can be learned in SoGES (e.g. macro and microfossils) or NOC (e.g.  organic geochemistry and 210PB sample prep/ICPMS.) If DNA is used, candidate will take international metabarcoding course.


Eligibility & Funding Details: 

Please see https://inspire-dtp.ac.uk/how-apply for details.


Background Reading: 

[1] Welsh Government (2015). The Nature Recovery Plan for Wales: Setting the course for 2020 and beyond. 50 pp.  (https://gov.wales/nature-recovery-action-plan-2015)

[2] Pansu, J. et al (2015) Reconstructing long-term human impacts on plant communities: an ecological approach based on lake sediment DNA. Molecular Ecology 24, 1485–1498