Holly Woo

The Open University


Understanding the impacts of urbanisation on ancient woodland


  • Dr Philip Wheeler
  • Dr Sarah Davies
  • Dr Kadmiel Maseyk

PhD Summary

Ancient woodlands are areas that have been continually forested for at least 400 years and have a distinctive, species-rich community of plants and invertebrates. These irreplaceable habitats have declined dramatically in recent decades with the expansion of agriculture, infrastructure, towns and cities. As urban areas expand and envelop woodland remnants, these dynamic, complex ecosystems become exposed to impacts such as pollution, habitat fragmentation, nutrient deposition, and changes in temperature and water availability.

The city of Milton Keynes was built as a “new town” in the 1960s; as it developed and continued to expand, three significant areas of ancient woodland were engulfed within the urban matrix. I am using botanical records from woodland surveys and other historic data to investigate long-term changes in the ground flora that may have occurred in these woods over the last 50 years. By comparing the ground flora, soil properties and dendrochronology of trees in the “urban” woods within Milton Keynes with those in woodland in a more rural setting in neighbouring counties, I hope to be able to see how the woods may have changed pre- and post-urbanisation.

Previous activity

I graduated with a BA in Natural Science (Zoology) in 2005 then did an MSc in Taxonomy and Biodiversity at The Natural History Museum and Imperial College, London, where my research projects focused mainly on ornithology. I studied feeding behaviours of wading birds, conservation of a critically endangered ibis, and looked at how the skeletal morphology of birds of prey relates to their ecology. From 2009-2011, I was awarded an MEXT studentship by the Japanese government to study the ecology of migratory birds of prey at the University of Tokyo, looking in particular at the adaptations of Oriental Honey Buzzards by examining museum specimens and using scanning electron microscopy to look at feathers.

I worked for several years in the museums sector as a specialist in natural history collections management, working in the Botany Department at London’s Natural History Museum, Warwick Museum and Nottingham Natural History Museum. I also offered training and advice to museums across the West Midlands on caring for geology and natural history collections.

I became more and more interested in botany and habitat management through working with historic collections of plants and, after starting a family, I worked for the Field Studies Council and volunteered with conservation groups. I’m now studying for a PhD part-time, fitting research around childcare commitments, while I continue to volunteer with Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and work on an organic farm.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

For me, doing a PhD means doing more of things I enjoy – reading, learning, doing fieldwork – while working towards contributing to the body of knowledge of ecosystems science. Although the research I had done in ornithology took me to interesting places and led to publications, I was drawn to doing a PhD that was more grounded in applied habitat management, which would contribute to practical conservation work and policy decisions.

Why did you choose CENTA?

I wanted to learn a range of new skills through doing a PhD and the CENTA studentship offers a structured training pathway with a range of opportunities and work placements to enable those enrolled to become competent, accomplished researchers. I like being in a network with students from other universities across the Midlands; the research themes offered enable us to work together on topics such as sustainability, climate-change, ecology and conservation.

Future plans

I am developing expertise in woodland ecology and habitat management, but I am also learning more about all areas of environmental science from geology, to climate, biodiversity and policy. The knowledge and skills I am gaining will allow me to continue looking into interesting questions through scientific research, but also to engage more with conservation organisations, urban planners, parks authorities and the public, ensuring that we have the tools, skills and knowledge needed to conserve natural habitats and avert the biodiversity crisis.