beaver dam across river
PhD Cluster

REWILD Research Cluster

Our multidisciplinary research group studies the ecological, environmental and societal costs and benefits of rewilding

rewild circle logo

Rewilding is the large-scale restoration of ecosystems by allowing reinstatement of natural processes and missing species. Our research focuses on understanding the impact of and improving rewilding projects.

Group lead

Dr Lori Lawson Handley


The Challenge

We are experiencing a global climate and biodiversity crisis. In Britain, more than half of our species are in decline and a further 15% are threatened with extinction. Preventing, halting and reversing ecosystem degradation is the aim of the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), as well as a research priority at the international level. Despite concerted efforts from conservation organisations over decades, nature continues to be pushed into smaller pockets as our use of the land becomes increasingly unsustainable, and contributes to the climate crisis.

Rewilding is seen as a key element in tackling the joint nature and climate emergencies, with benefits for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, water quality and human well being. However, rewilding can be highly controversial, with conflicts arising because of the competing interests of different stakeholder groups. The success of projects ultimately depends on whether the ecological, social and other benefits outweigh the costs of species reintroduction and removal of land from agriculture or other types of production. Understanding the costs and benefits of rewilding therefore requires a truly multidisciplinary approach.

The Approach

Our cluster is addressing this challenge by combining innovative approaches from the disciplines of ecology, social science, psychology, and systems thinking, across several University Departments, and working closely with stakeholders to understand the impact of, and improve rewilding projects.

Clare Cowgill and Clare Collins’ projects focus on using cutting edge environmental DNA (eDNA) technology to investigate the impact of rewilding projects on biodiversity. This is providing unprecedented insights into the impact of rewilding approaches on biodiversity in both terrestrial and aquatic systems.

Matthew Morgan and Esther Brooker’s projects focus on understanding public perceptions and community benefits of rewilding in urban and marine contexts respectively. This is critical for maximising both the nature and public benefits of rewilding in these settings. Kristy Adaway is investigating how peoples’ experience influences their opinions of carnivore reintroductions, while also understanding how behaviour of carnivores might influence their reintroduction success.

Charlie Trotman’s project is providing vital information on the relationship between sedimentation rates, community structure and carbon sequestration dynamics in outer-estuary managed realignment sites in the Humber in the context of SSSI designation and rewilding.

Forest river


Our cluster has the following broad aims:

  • Provide a cross-disciplinary understanding of the costs and benefits of rewilding
  • Promote collaboration through exchanging knowledge and research outcomes
  • Engage with local communities in addressing loss of biodiversity
  • Raise public awareness of the role of rewilding in addressing the joint nature and climate emergencies


trees and forestry
Ocean wave
blue carbon storage in estuaries
fox on urban roof
  • Project Details

    Project 1: Uncovering the biodiversity impacts of rewilding on entire ecological communities at a landscape scale using environmental DNA

    PhD Student: Clare Cowgill

    Supervisors: Lori Lawson Handley, James Gilbert, Ian Convery (University of Cumbria), Blake Morton

    Partners: The Natural Capital Laboratory, Forestry England, Trees for Life

    As rewilding becomes more popular, we need to monitor the impacts that large scale projects have on biodiversity and ecological functioning, especially considering the unpredictable nature of rewilding. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is now widely used as a non-invasive tool to monitor freshwater habitats but has rarely been applied for terrestrial ecosystems. We will look at how eDNA collected from different samples in terrestrial habitats, such as from soil, scat, or water, can be used to monitor ecological communities and species interactions. We will then apply this method to different rewilding projects across the UK including Scottish woodland restoration and the beaver reintroduction at Cropton Forest to help monitor their impacts on ecological communities.


    Project 2: Effective biodiversity monitoring of river rewilding projects using eDNA modelling

    PhD Student: Clare Collins

    Supervisors: Jon Bolland, Bernd Hänfling (University of the Highlands and Islands), Lori Lawson Handley, Rob Dorrell, Dan Parsons

    Project Partners: Natural England and Environment Agency

    Rewilding introduces change and whilst the aim of such ecological restoration is to mitigate biodiversity loss, we need community-wide and spatially-explicit data to understand the success or failures of these aims. Environmental DNA metabarcoding is less invasive than traditional biodiversity monitoring methods and more sensitive at detecting rare and elusive species. In rivers, eDNA can travel some distance and therefore modelling the source location of the eDNA will improve the effectiveness of eDNA metabarcoding as a community-wide and spatially-explicit monitoring technique for rewilding projects. We will apply this work to real world river rewilding projects such as the migration of the twaite shad up the river Severn.

    See here for more information on the Unlocking the Severn project, and how this project is contributing to our understanding of fish passage.


    Project 3: Greening Blue spaces in Hull

    PhD Student: Matthew Morgan

    Supervisors: Africa Gomez, Rodney Forster, Charlotte Hopkins

    Project partners: Hull City Council, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

    Access to rivers, lakes and coastal waters (‘blue space’) and green space provide social and health benefits. Urban blue and green spaces are also important for biodiversity, with positive interactions between organisms from both environments. Hull has a wide range of blue spaces: large public park lakes, reservoirs, drains, the River Hull that dissects the city from north to south, and the Humber, that bounds the south of the city. 

    This PhD will assess the benefits for society of urban blue spaces surrounded by green spaces of different value in terms of biodiversity. Three core areas will be investigated 1) how blue spaces influence urban biodiversity; 2) public perception of nature around blue spaces; 3) identify where existing blue spaces could be greened or rewilded to benefit people and nature

    The PhD will develop in collaboration with a network of stakeholders including Hull City Council, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Humber Nature Partnership and others. National and regional databases (NEYEDC, NBN, iRecord) will be interrogated to design and successfully implement the project. The project is one of six within the University of Hull REWILD Research Cluster.


    Project 4: Rewilding the Sea: Perceptions, values and challenges

    PhD Student: Esther Brooker

    Supervisors: Charlotte Hopkins, Gerald Midgely /Amanda Gregory, Neil Burns (Scotland’s Rural College)

    “Rewilding” is a current buzzword in conservation, with intersections over working with natural processes in response to climate driven pressures, yet there is no firm definition of which initiatives constitute marine rewilding, the number of initiatives, nor the effectiveness of rewilding projects. In terms of re-establishing and reintroducing lost and vanishing species, the marine realm has trailed behind terrestrial counterparts, habitat restoration efforts are also more limited in scope. Rewilding the common space of the sea is a complex problem; it is crucial to appraise the governance, policy and implementation challenges prior to widespread uptake of the concept. This PhD will evaluate the current state of nascent rewilding across UK inshore waters and the policy landscape into which marine rewilding fits. Using social science methods that facilitate dialogue and drawing on systems thinking, this PhD will expand on current research with coastal communities to understand the drivers for the “rewilding the sea” concept, the potential for conflict as budding initiatives progress and the feasibility of widespread implementation.


    Project 5: Rewilding Blue Carbon: natural regeneration of saltmarshes and carbon storage in the Humber Estuary through managed realignment

    PhD Student: Charlie Trotman

    Supervisors: Rodney Forster, Rob Thomas

    Project partners: Environment Agency

    Saltmarshes are being increasingly recognised as important blue carbon habitats. Natural regeneration and managed realignment of saltmarshes has been used to create new saltmarsh habitat and reduce flood risk elsewhere across the Humber, and this newly regenerated saltmarsh has the potential to sequester and store large amounts of carbon through estuarine processes. The Humber Estuary has a range of saltmarsh and reclaimed land both natural and restored. These are dynamic habitats with relatively short histories but highly varied histories.

    This PhD will investigate aspects of carbon storage and sequestration in natural, and naturally regenerated (managed realignment) salt marsh around the Humber, and other reclaimed land that is undergoing rewilding. The core areas being investigated will be 1) the historic carbon storage of these sites, 2) the current rates of sediment and carbon accumulation and storage and 3) future carbon sequestration and storage with an aim to understand whether managed realignment increases carbon stocks and over what time period.


    Project 6: Understanding environmental adaptability in wild mammalian carnivores: A multidisciplinary perspective

    PhD Student: Kristy Adaway

    Supervisors: Blake Morton, Charlotte Hopkins, Lori Lawson Handley

    Project partners: The Wildlife Trusts, Forestry England, Forestry and Land Scotland, National Trust, The Land Trust

    The notion of ‘rewilding’ is a controversial topic, particularly in terms of public opinion. Negative public attitudes are often due, in part, to the fact that rewilding signals the re-establishment of wild carnivores to a given landscape, which members of the public do not support (e.g., perceived conflict from farmers or urban residents). Thus, despite carnivores playing a crucial role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, negative public attitudes towards carnivores can limit the success of rewilding programmes (e.g., hunting ‘nuisance’ carnivores and impacting the healthy return of that ecosystem). Very few studies, however, have highlighted differences in perceived versus real conflict between carnivores and people, which makes it difficult to evaluate the true impact carnivores have on local communities. One example comes from red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) which, according to public surveys, notoriously raid bins. When in reality, studies show foxes rarely raid bins. The goal of this PhD is to address this issue through a psychological lens, by using field tests to measure carnivores’ responses to novel food-related opportunities, and by administering public opinion surveys to establish real versus perceived conflict.

  • Outputs & Publications

    Morton, F.B. et al. (2023) ‘Urban foxes are bolder but not more innovative than their rural conspecifics’, Animal behaviour, 203, pp. 101–113.

  • External Partners & Stakeholders

    The REWILD Cluster is proud to work with a number of external academic partners and stakeholders, including:

    • The University of Cumbria
    • The Natural Capital Laboratory
    • Forestry England
    • Trees For Life
    • The University of the Highlands and Islands
    • Natural England
    • Environment Agency
    • Canal and Rivers Trust
    • The Wildlife Trusts
    • Forestry and Land Scotland
    • National Trust
    • The Land Trust
    • Humber Nature Partnership

The Impact

The REWILD cluster is directly evaluating the costs and benefits of rewilding as a potential solution to the biodiversity and climate crises. Working closely with numerous stakeholder partners, including government agencies, will ensure that this evidence has high impact, and is used in decision making. 

  • Members
  • PhD Students

    Kristy Adaway |

    Understanding environmental adaptability in wild mammalian carnivores: A multidisciplinary perspective

    Dr. Blake Morton, Dr. Charlotte Hopkins, Dr. Lori Lawson Handley

    About Kristy

    Kristy completed her BSc in Marine Science at the University of Hull before spending a year working post-graduation as a field assistant with the British Carnivore Project, an on-going study directed by Dr Blake Morton at the University of Hull to explore the minds and behaviour of wild British carnivores. From this experience, she developed a love for animal behaviour, and in 2021, was awarded a fully funded PhD scholarship (supervised by Dr Morton and funded by the University of Hull) to investigate whether studies of animal psychology can be used to benefit conservation efforts, specifically rewilding.


    Esther Brooker |

    Rewilding the Sea: perceptions, values and challenges

    Dr. Charlotte Hopkins, Prof. Gerald Midgely / Prof Amanda Gregory, Dr Neil Burns (SRUC)

    About Esther

    Esther holds an MSc in Marine Environmental Protection (with a BSc with honours in Marine Biology). She has had a varied career in marine policy and research, and currently works part-time for Scottish Environment LINK as Marine Policy and Engagement Officer where her role is to provide scientific support to LINK’s advocacy on ocean recovery in Scotland. Esther’s PhD will explore people’s views and values about ocean rewilding and what factors influence their perceptions and involvement in marine conservation.


    Clare Collins |

    Effective biodiversity monitoring of river rewilding projects using eDNA modeling

    Dr. Jon Bolland, Dr. Lori Lawson Handley, Prof. Rob Dorrell, Dr. Bernd Hänfling, Prof. Dan Parsons

    About Clare

    Clare completed her MSc by Research in Environmental Science looking at microplastics pollution through the gastrointestinal tracts of fish from a remote region in the sub-Antarctic. Clare has over 12 years of experience in the zoo and conservation sector, which has reinforced her passion for protecting biodiversity and the environment. Clare’s project aims to further improve river biodiversity monitoring using eDNA, focussing on understanding river rewilding projects’ impacts on biodiversity.


    Clare Cowgill |

    Uncovering the biodiversity impacts of rewilding on entire ecological communities at a landscape scale using environmental DNA

    Dr. Lori Lawson Handley, Dr. James Gilbert. Dr. Blake Morton, Prof. Ian Convery


    About Clare

    Clare learnt about rewilding whilst working at Lowther Estate as part of her MSci in Ecology and Conservation at Lancaster University, helping to monitor the impacts of their beaver reintroduction and river rewiggling efforts. She’s most at home deep in the woods and has previously worked for the BTO as a woodland surveyor and RSPB as a wildlife fundraiser. Clare’s PhD will explore how environmental DNA can be used to monitor the ecological impacts of different terrestrial rewilding projects across the UK.


    Matthew Morgan |

    Greening Blue Spaces in Hull

    Dr. Africa Gomez, Dr. Charlotte Hopkins, Prof. Gerald Midgely, Rodney Forster


    About Matthew

    Matthew holds a BSc in Marine and Freshwater Biology from the University of Hull and has over 8 years of experience in the conservation sector. His career has mostly involved working with NGOs on long-term research projects. He is passionate about his hometown, Hull, and hopes to shed light on the importance of its blue spaces for urban biodiversity.


    Charlie Trotman |

    Rewilding Blue Carbon: Natural regeneration of saltmarshes and carbon storage in the Humber Estuary through managed realignment

    Dr. Rob Thomas, Prof. Rodney Forster

    About Charlie

    Charlie holds an MSci in Biology from the University of Sussex. Her previous researched has focused on rewilding with large herbivores and their effect on organic carbon storage in soil through mechanisms including grazing and trampling at Knepp Wildlands. Charlie started her PhD in rewilding blue carbon in September 2022 at the University of Hull. She aims to investigate historic, current, and future carbon sequestration and storage of saltmarshes undergoing natural regeneration and nature-based solutions.

  • Group Specialisms
    • Environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis (Dr. Lori Lawson Handley, Clare Cowgill, Clare Collins)
    • Modelling of eDNA transport in lotic systems (Clare Collins, Rob Dorrell)
    • Marine conservation policy analysis (Esther Brooker, Charlotte Hopkins)
    • Collection and analysis of qualitative social data (Esther Brooker, Charlotte Hopkins)
    • Marine management and planning (Esther Brooker, Charlotte Hopkins)
    • Acoustic data analysis (Clare Cowgill, Matthew Morgan)
    • Geospatial analysis (Matthew Morgan, Charlie Trotman, Rodney Forster)
    • Trail camera surveys and analysis (Clare Cowgill, Matthew Morgan, Kristy Adaway, Blake Morton, Charlie Trotman)
    • Human-wildlife conflict (Kristy Adaway, Blake Morton)
    • Carnivore behaviour (Kristy Adaway, Blake Morton)
    • Carbon sequestration and storage of nature-based solutions (Charlie Trotman)


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