The Ecology and Environment Research Group (EERG)

Research Lead: Dr Duncan Westbury

EERG_bumblebee

The Ecology and Environment Research Group (EERG) focuses on two complementary research themes, the delivery of Ecosystem Services within the farmed environment and Wildlife Management.

Members of EERG continue to develop research programmes that not only bring about significant environmental benefits, but also benefits that have cultural, economic and societal impact. This is achieved through engagement with local and national stakeholders and the promotion of knowledge exchange. EERG actively encourages national and international collaborations to further its research and increase impacts.

 

Ecosystem Service Delivery

Agricultural intensification has been highly effective at increasing food production, but this has been coupled with land use change and the loss of semi-natural habitat. Consequently, there is now an imbalance in the ecosystem services required to support production.

For example, due to habitat loss within agricultural landscapes, farmers are becoming increasingly reliant on the use of managed pollinators (including honey bees, solitary bees, and bumblebees) and Plant Protection Products (PPPs) to increase yields. However, these approaches are not deemed sustainable as they fail to address the underlying drivers of change. Changes in land use have also increased impacts on water resources, in part due to a reduction in the capacity of ecosystems to buffer the extensive use of agrochemical inputs.

Investigations into the development of approaches that underpin the delivery of ecosystems services in the farmed environment is a key area of research for EERG. It is evident that the appropriate management of agricultural landscapes and the strategic deployment of habitat interventions has the potential to deliver multiple ecosystem services whilst promoting sustainable intensification and therefore food security. We aim to develop evidence-based solutions to support agricultural production.

Current Research Activities

Drs Westbury and Ashbrook are currently supervising PhD students Alice Mockford and Zeus Mateos-Fierro.

Alice is investigating the enhancement of pest regulation services by natural enemies in Spanish orange orchards, in conjunction with supervision from Prof. Alberto Urbaneja at IVIA (Spain). The study is funded by Waitrose Plc, Primafruit Ltd, and the University of Worcester.

Zeus’ is studying the sustainable production of sweet cherry by maximising benefits from ecosystem services, with a particular focus on pollination and pest regulation by natural enemies. The project is co-supervised Dr Mike Garratt (University of Reading) and Dr Michelle Fountain(NIAB-EMR). The study is funded by Waitrose Plc, Berry Gardens Ltd, and the University of Worcester.

Dr Westbury is also currently supervising PhD student Charlotte Selvey at University College London, as a member of the thesis committee board. Charlotte is investigating the risks of biodiversity loss in PepsiCo's agricultural supply chains.

Recently Completed Research Projects

Recent Publications

Hicks, D.M., Ouvrard, P., Baldock, K.C.R., Baude, M., Goddard, M.A., Kunin, W.E., Mitschunas, N., Memmott, J., Morse, H., Nikolitsi, M., Osgathorpe, L.M., Potts, S.G., Robertson, K.M., Scott, A.V., Sinclair, F., Westbury, D.B., & Stone, G.N. (2016). Food for pollinators: quantifying the nectar and pollen resources of urban flower meadows. PloS one 11(6).

Garratt, M.P.D., Breeze, T.D., Boreux, V., Fountain, M.T., McKerchar, M., Webber, S.M., Coston, D.J., Jenner, N., Dean, R., Westbury, D.B., Biesmeijer, J.C., Potts, S.G., (2016). Apple pollination: demand depends on variety and supply depends on pollinator identity. PloS one 11(5). 

Hammond K.J., Humphries D.J., Westbury D.B., Thompson A., Crompton L.A., Kirton P., Green C. & Reynolds C.K. (2014). The inclusion of forage mixtures in the diet of growing dairy heifers: Impacts on digestion, energy utilisation, and methane emissions. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 197, 88-95.

Blake R.J., Westbury D.B., Woodcock B.A., Sutton P. & Potts S.G. (2012). Enhancement of buffer strips can improve provision of multiple ecosystem services. Outlooks on Pest Management, 23(6), 258-262.

Wildlife Management

The research theme is focused on the conservation and management of species and their interactions with the environment. This theme includes a number of research strands:

i) Habitat and species management for conservation

ii) The management of problematic species and their impacts.

iii) The use and development of eDNA techniques for the detection and monitoring of notable species in freshwater habitats.

Current Research Activities

Bumblebee populations have declined dramatically in the UK in recent years, with two species going extinct since 1940. Such impacts have mainly been driven by changes in agricultural practice. To help address the increased concern for bumblebee populations, Dr Ashbrook’s research focuses on the use of modelling approaches to inform conservation management. She is currently working with Dr Richard Comontfrom the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to develop species distribution models, which will be used to inform targeted habitat management. New monitoring techniques for bumblebees are also being developed to quantify flower visitation and the use and availability of pollen resources.

Dr Ashbrook is also providing information for evidence-based conservation management to help secure the survival of vulnerable bee species. These include the previously-extinct Bombus subterraneus (short-haired bumblebee) and Bombus sylvarum (shrill carder bumblebee), which is threatened with extinction in the near future. Dr Ashbrook is also interested in the value of using biological records submitted by members of the public to produce high quality datasets for distribution modelling.

Dr Dutton is investigating wild boar ecology and human interactions/conflicts. In addition, he is also studying aspects of rabbit management with Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

Dr Wheeler is currently supervising MRes student Chris Greensmith with Prof. Ian Maddock on optimising eDNA detection of otters in aquatic environments.

In his capacity as a plant ecologist with a wealth of experience in designing new seed mixes to deliver ecosystem services and resources for farmland birds, Dr Westbury is currently an advisor for the new RSPB turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) project which started in 2018. The aim of the project is to refine the species composition and management of “seed plots” for turtle doves that are deployed under agri-environment schemes.

Dr Westbury is also an advisor for the interdisciplinary NERC funded PollerGen project, which utilises his expertise in plant ecology to inform on the distribution and abundance of key grass species associated with hay fever.

MRes student Robin Shotton is currently investigating the use of solar farms by birds under the supervision of Dr Westbury and Dr Dave Buckingham at the RSPB.

Recently Completed Research Projects

  • Dr Ashbrook: Evaluating promotional approaches for citizen-science biological recording: Does the promotion of flagship species generate more high quality data than whole group promotion?  
  • Dr Dutton: “Bat flyways” project with Natural England   
  • Dr Dutton: The social aspects of wild boar in the Forest of Dean. Report for the Forestry Commission
  • MRes student Dominique Cragg studied habitat selection by corn buntings (Emberiza calandra) under the supervision of Drs Wheeler and Dutton
  • MRes student Anna Brohan investigated the value of corridors for the movement of great crested newts (Triturus cristatus), supervised by Drs Dutton and Westbury
  • Vacation bursary student, Jemma Roberts, investigated whether reptilian DNA could be detected in the faeces of captive pheasants following ingestion of naturally found dead reptiles (slow worm and grass snake)

Recent Publications

Machaka-Houri, N. and Houri, A. and Knio, K.M. and Westbury, Duncan (2018) Ecological Interactions of the Sexually Deceptive Orchid Orchis Galilaea. Journal of Plant Interactions, 13 (1). pp. 315-320. ISSN 1742-9145

Westbury, Duncan and Harris, S. and Brown, V.K. and Potts, S.G. (2018) The Influence of Seed Mix and Management on the Performance and Persistence of Sown Forbs in Buffer Strips. Aspects of Applied Biology, 139. pp. 23-31. ISSN 0265-1491

Mateos-Fierro, Zeus and Garratt, M. and Fountain, M. and Ashbrook, Kate and Westbury, Duncan (2018) Wildflower Strip Establishment for the Delivery of Ecosystem Services in Sweet Cherry Orchards. Aspects of Applied Biology: Ecosystem and Habitat Management: Research, Policy, Practice, 139. pp. 179-186. ISSN 0265-1491

Westbury, D.B., Woodcock, B.A., Harris, S.J., Brown, V.K. & Potts, S.G. (2017) Buffer strip management to deliver plant and invertebrate resources for farmland birds in agricultural landscapes. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment, 240, 215-223

Comont, R.C. & Ashbrook, K. (2016). Evaluating promotional approaches for citizen science biological recording: bumblebees as a group vs Harmonia axyridis as a flagship for ladybirds. BioControl. doi:10.1007/s10526-016-9771-y

Ashbrook, K., Taylor, A., Jane, L., Carter, I. & Székely, T. (2015). Impacts of survival and reproductive success on long-term population viability of reintroduced great bustards. Oryx [published online 26 June 2015] 

Gooch, S., Ashbrook, K., Taylor, A. & Székely, T. (2015). Using dietary analysis and habitat selection to inform conservation management of reintroduced Great Bustards Otis tarda in an agricultural landscape. Bird Study 62 (3): 289 – 302

Current opportunities

PhD

Fully-funded PhD studentships with EERG will be advertised here, but also on www.findaphd.com.

Approaches from self-supporting PhD students are accepted all year round. Topics of interest to EERG focus on our two main research themes: i) the delivery of Ecosystem Services, and ii) Wildlife Management.

Please contact Dr Westbury to express an interest along with an outline of your research ideas.

MRes

We welcome any approach from high achieving graduates that would like to consider studying for an MRes in Ecology and Environmental Management at the University of Worcester. Topics currently available are provided below. Please contact the relevant staff member to express an interest.

Current opportunities

Projects that staff within EERG are currently looking for MRes students:

Project title: “Quantifying foraging of British bumblebees by sampling bee pollen”. 
Contact: Dr Ashbrook: k.ashbrook@worc.ac.uk

Project title: “Cotswold drystone walls as habitats and corridors for small mammals”
Contact: Dr John Dutton: j.dutton@worc.ac.uk

Project title: “Threat assessment of wild boar to designated conservation sites in the Forest of Dean”
Contact: Dr John Dutton: j.dutton@worc.ac.uk                      

Please note that funding for such projects is not available and that students would be self-supporting. However, new postgraduate loans are being introduced in the UK for students. See our information on course fees.

Visiting Researchers

The University of Worcester runs a scheme for Visiting Researchers. The scheme is aimed at postdoctoral researchers currently based at another (normally overseas) Higher Education Institution, although it may be extended to PhD students if appropriate. EERG welcomes the opportunity to host visiting researchers, particularly when this will complement research activities of the group. Please contact Dr Westbury to express an interest along with an outline of the research you would like to pursue.