Willow Neal

The Open University


Butterflies in The City: Landscape Connectivity and Conservation of Urban Woodland Butterflies


  • Dr. Phil Wheeler
  • Dr. Yoseph Araya

PhD Summary

My PhD project is about butterfly conservation and habitat connectivity in an urbanised landscape. Using Milton Keynes (MK) and its famous grid-road system as a model, I aim to explore the quality and connectivity of the woodland habitats here. I will undertake surveys assessing the woodland habitats butterflies use in MK and the roads which potentially connect them. Ultimately, I want to design a model which will allow land managers to identify the best action in terms of management or new area creation to allow habitat movement corridors or patches to improve biodiversity in cities. More specifically, I am working with the local environmental charity here in MK, The Parks Trust, with a view to help them implement new management plans for biodiversity generally, and butterfly conservation specifically.

Previous activity

Before my PhD I was cover teaching in a secondary school and tutoring for the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) to support children who had reduced learning opportunities due to the restrictions associated with COVID-19. Prior to that, I completed my MSc in Conservation Ecology after leaving my role as Senior Science Technician at a secondary school in Milton Keynes where I worked on my Open University (OU) degree in Environmental Science from 2014-2019.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

I am extremely passionate about the environment and my research area: butterfly conservation. My project takes a step towards marrying sustainable, biodiverse ecosystems with human inhabitation which is an offshoot from my MSc thesis. I am also highly driven by the contribution to science, and how my work will add to a large body of work that attempts to make the future better for the generations to come. I adore spending time in nature, and don’t want to imagine a country without butterflies, rich flower meadows or old tangled woods replaced, instead, by concrete.

Similarly, on a more personal level, I wanted to prove my self-worth. Having not performed well at school, then learning (thanks to my husband, James) that I can achieve things academically, I wanted to challenge myself just how far I can go. PhD is the highest tier of education, and for a GCSE D student to get there says a lot about teaching then, and teaching opportunities offered at the OU and by CENTA now.

Why did you choose CENTA?

NERC is a nationally known research council, and to help them work towards their research goals makes me feel very proud. CENTA’s enhanced research budget and expert training was really attractive to allow me to reach my potential. I grew up poor and had little worthy formal education until I was 30, so to be awarded such a prestigious studentship is truly humbling. Programs like CENTA will take people like me, a gay man with depression from a background of poverty who usually don’t get anywhere near this level of education, to Doctor of Philosophy. CENTA will also equip me with skills that will take me beyond what I thought I was capable of, just as the Open University did back in 2014.

Future plans

My future plans are to continue to do research and teach. After PhD I would be seeking a lectureship, as I am extremely passionate about teaching, particularly disadvantaged students. I am an Associate Lecturer at the Open University already, but the CENTA placements and funding will allow me to both focus on my personal goals as well as branching out and broadening my experiences so I can tie it all together and reach professional aspirations.