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    Harper students gain ecology experience with Natural England woodland restoration project

    Posted 3 January

    "These are students aspiring to have long term careers in ecology so equipping them with the skills they need in terms of plant ID, data collection, scientific methods and project management is a real bonus for the students and the university."

    The Harper Adams University team - from left: Paul O’Hagan, Nick Covarr, Mark Page, and Lydia Brown - preparing to undertake survey work at Natural England managed site Lathkill Dale in June 2023.

    The Harper Adams University team - from left: Paul O’Hagan, Nick Covarr, Mark Page, and Lydia Brown - preparing to undertake survey work at Natural England managed site Lathkill Dale in June 2023.

    During June and July 2023, Harper Adams University supported Natural England in the delivery of a £5 million woodland restoration project across the Peak District Dales.

    The LIFE in the Ravines project, funded by EU Life, is working to restore the river valleys and hills of the area, which were once covered in a forest of lime, ash and elm trees but now face significant threats, particularly since the recent spread of ash dieback disease.

    Led by Natural England, this partnership project is working to monitor and restore these woodlands and promote a better understanding of why they are so special. It is specifically tackling the threat that ash dieback poses to the Tilio-Acerion ravine woodlands of the Peak District Dales SAC (Special Area of Conservation). 

    The project received £3.6 million in funding from the EU LIFE programme, with an added £1.4 million coming from project partners, including the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, National Trust and the Chatsworth Estate. The project is also working with the Peak District National Park, Derbyshire Dales District Council, the Forestry Commission and the Woodland Trust.

    Ecological surveying work monitoring the long term effects of ash dieback on the woodlands was carried out by Harper Adams Lecturer in Forestry and Woodland, Nick Covarr and Lecturer in Wildlife Conservation and Environment, Paul O’ Hagan. They were supported by three Harper Adams students over the summer of 2023, gathering data to gain an understanding of how these woodlands are changing.

    Nick said: “We were contracted to undertake six weeks of ecological surveying in the incredible ravine woodlands of the Derbyshire Dales. These are beautiful and awe-inspiring woodland habitats in the heart of England”

    “We had two members of Harper Adams University staff and three of our students – two studying Wildlife Conservation and Ecology and one Zoology - who helped us to collect data.”

    “We were recording tree species, densities, heights, diameters and health as well as soil moisture and pH. We also carried out extensive ground vegetation surveys including vascular plants, mosses and lichens. The method we were given by Natural England replicates studies undertaken in 2015, allowing direct comparison of how the woodlands are changing, as a result of ash dieback disease.”

    Ash dieback disease, caused by a fungus lethal to ash trees, arrived in the Peak District in 2015. The ravine woodlands of the Peak District are dominated by ash, so the whole woodland area could be devastated without intervention. The woods already have high levels of infection and have lost mature trees. The loss of ash threatens all the woodland wildlife, from rare beetles and moths to birds such as redstarts.

    LIFE in the Ravines Project Manager, Becky Plunkett said: “The Peak District’s scenic ravines are treasured by locals and visitors alike. LIFE in the Ravines is saving several woodlands, including the iconic five dales of the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve, such as the well-visited Lathkill. All the sites are part of the Peak District Dales Special Area of Conservation, recognised as of international importance.

    “LIFE in the Ravines is helping 900 hectares of woodland survive this threat with a programme of tree planting and woodland management. Small and large-leaved lime and wych elm trees, historically present in the woods, will be planted to step into the spaces left behind when ash trees die.

    “The project won’t give up on ash and is seeking out trees that might be resilient to the disease, to give a helping hand to natural ash regeneration. Planting aspen, willow and other trees will build resilience and add to the diversity of wildlife in the woods.”

    LIFE in the Ravines will pioneer some specialist techniques, including using drones for the first time in the Peak District to aid planting on the steep, rocky slopes of the Dales. The programme will help these special ravine woodland ecosystems survive beyond ash dieback, thrive into the future and help counter other threats such as climate change and flooding. The lessons learnt from the programme will also be useful for others battling ash dieback across Europe, especially in other ravine woodlands in the UK.

    Nick added: “Not only was this a great opportunity to be involved in a long-term scientific project of significant value with Natural England but from our perspective, being able to involve our students was a real highlight.

    "These are students aspiring to have long term careers in ecology so equipping them with the skills they need in terms of plant ID, data collection, scientific methods and project management is a real bonus for the students and the university.”

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