6 August 2013

A study of the habitat of the willow warbler, a common bird whose numbers are declining, won an Ecology student a coveted dissertation prize and helped her gain one of LEC’s top degrees this year.

Norwegian Hanna Nyborg Stostad thought she might want to be a researcher when she applied for a project studying tree structure with the Watchtree Nature Reserve in Cumbria, UK. Now she knows that it is her vocation.

“There were three projects available in the nature reserve and this was not my first choice,” said Hanna, who won the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) prize for an undergraduate dissertation completed on a work placement. 

“I wanted to do my own project, not someone else’s,” explained Hanna, who also won LEC’s prize for the highest marks in a Bachelor of Science degree. “The project was about tree structure. I said I would like to study birds for the project, and they said okay.”

 “The best projects are always those which are codesigned with input from all project partners,” said Dr Ruth Alcock, Head of Business and Enterprise Partnerships at LEC, which matches students and graduates with organisations wanting help with a specific project.

The perfect habitat

Watchtree Nature Reserve is the largest man-made nature reserve in Europe. It began as the burial site for nearly half a million livestock after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2011. Since then it has  been transformed into an award winning site containing a range of habitats of conservation importance.

“I studied the willow warbler habitat, measuring the distances between trees, comparing how much canopy there was and how many caterpillars,” said Hanna

Despite the bird’s name, and the common belief that they like specific trees, Hanna’s findings didn’t support that. 

“They didn’t really care about the species of tree, what they cared about was the tree structure. They like a lot of small trees close together, so a young forest or coppices,” Hanna explained. “They even liked the land where the foot and mouth carcasses were buried.”

Business links

Hanna’s prize was sponsored by Inventya, a commercialisation consultancy specialising in science, technology and engineering based products and services which is one of 25  resident companies based at LEC. Tom Wright, from Inventya, who presented Hanna with her prize, also did a work placement through Business and Enterprise Partnerships when studying at Lancaster.

“One of the reasons I came to Lancaster was its good business connections,” Mr Wright said. “I worked for a small business during my placement: it was really good experience and was a big factor with my getting a job at Inventya.  It’s fantastic to see people like Hanna coming through the scheme and doing so well.”

Getting published

Hanna’s findings could help those involved with woodland management, particularly in the south of the UK, where Willow Warbler numbers are in decline. Hanna hopes to get her research published in an academic journal, highly unusual for an undergraduate research project. 

“It gave me a taste of being a researcher. Beforehand I didn’t grasp the scale of doing an actual research study.”

Now Hanna hopes to make a career in research. She has got a place on a joint research and teaching masters in Ecology and Environmental Management at York University, and hopes to go on to do a PhD.

For more information about the Watchtree Nature Reserve

For more information about Ecology Degrees at Lancaster Environment Centre see our courses page