My PhD research is entitled “Resilience management of ecological services in National Parks: developing a new evolutionary approach” and investigates the interactions between humans and their environment over the last 300 years in the New Forest National Park.
This PhD represents an opportunity for me to study in depth some of those topics in which I am most interested and about which I have always been very passionate, namely the complex relationships between people and the natural environment which surrounds them, their impacts (both positive and negative) on this environment, and how these natural and societal elements can co-exist in a sustainable manner. It also represents the most recent step in a professional and academic journey which began with my enrolment onto a Zoology degree at University College Cork, Ireland in 1997 and which, in the 10 years following my graduation, also included a masters degree in Ecological Management and Conservation Biology at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, as well as my collaboration (both voluntary and non) on various projects in Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Portugal ranging from wild animal conservation to protected areas management to environmental education and accounting across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
My current work began in October 2011 and has brought me somewhat closer to home, where my focus lies in the New Forest in southern England, a complex, dynamic and diverse Social-Ecological System (SES). The close-knit relationship between the inhabitants of this area and their environment over the last millennium has seen these people live off the land, benefiting from the ecosystem services (ES – the benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems) that it provides. They have in turn shaped and moulded the landscape, profoundly affecting its structure, composition and dynamics, giving rise to the highly diverse and heterogeneous semi-natural landscape that we see today.
We aim to understand how this ecosystem developed over time and of how it and the services it provides react and adapt to environmental and societal changes. Thus, my overarching research question is: How can the New Forest SES support multiple and potentially conflicting uses whilst remaining resilient to (undesirable) environmental and societal changes?
To answer this question, we are examining the interactions between ES flows and drivers of change over the last 250-300 years using long-term (multi-decadal) historical datasets of ecosystem services and their associated drivers, derived from both monitored data and palaeoenvironmental records. This includes a specific focus on how provisioning services such as timber production and cultural services such as commoning (large herbivore grazing) as well as factors such as climate have influenced the New Forest vegetation, and of how such vegetation changes have affected ecosystem service flows, and in particular carbon sequestration and storage, an important regulating service.
This project has given me the opportunity to work with many great researchers, not least of all my supervisors, to develop and improve new and existing skills, and last, but certainly not least, to conduct fieldwork in the beautiful New Forest, where I have spent many days in all kinds of weather, and where I look forward to spending many more rainy days over the coming year.