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Andrea Britton Applied Plant Ecologist

Photograph of Andrea Britton
Lichens are an important part of biodiversity in the UK, yet they go largely unnoticed

What the job involves

As a plant ecologist at The James Hutton Institute, my role is to research the influence of natural and man-made factors in the environment on the dynamics of plant communities and the consequences of this for ecosystem functioning and for habitat management and conservation.

I have a particular interest in the ecology of mountain vegetation, especially lichens and lower plants, and much of my current work focuses on mountain environments. Lichens are an important part of biodiversity in the UK, yet they go largely unnoticed. They have many uses and, due to their sensitivity to air pollution, their presence or absence can tell you a lot about the air quality in a particular location.

Nitrogen pollution is currently a major issue for natural and semi-natural communities across the globe and climate change will be a big challenge for the future. Since 1999, I have been involved in conducting long term experiments based in the Cairngorm Mountains, to investigate the response of heather dominated alpine heathland to these far reaching impacts.

My colleagues and I monitor a whole range of different indicators including the variety of plant, moss and lichen species to be found in the vegetation and their growth each year. We also measure effects on the chemical composition of the plants and the soil and the quality of the water which drains from the heathland. To investigate the potential effects of climate change on the alpine heathland ecosystem we established a new study in 2004 using mini greenhouses to increase air temperature by 1-2°C, mimicking the predicted temperature increase for Scotland by the 2050s.

An understanding of how mountain ecosystems function and how they respond to stresses in the environment like pollution and climate change is important to enable conservationists, land managers and policy-makers to make informed decisions about the management of our mountain areas. The research that we do will help to make sure that we get the best possible outcome in an uncertain future.

Getting there

A bachelor’s degree in Ecology, Conservation and Environment at York University inspired an interest in plant community ecology, particularly the interaction of plants with their environment, vegetation conservation and management. I followed this up with a year working for a local Wildlife Trust undertaking hands-on conservation work and appreciating the importance of engaging with the public if you want to achieve successful outcomes. I’ve tried to bring this appreciation with me into my academic career, ensuring an applied focus to my work and spending time on knowledge exchange projects alongside purely scientific work.

After my year with the Wildlife Trust I moved to Liverpool University to undertake a PhD on lowland heathlands. My PhD project looked into the effects of nitrogen deposition and climate on the dynamics of lowland heathland habitats, which in some areas had changed into grasslands due to the effects of pollution. We also looked at options for restoring the heaths, and reducing the dominance of grasses. Soon after finishing this project I started work at the Institute and switched my attentions from the lower to the upper altitudinal limit of heathlands setting up a research programme on alpine heathland ecosystems about which little was known. My colleagues work on a wide range of disciplines including soil science, hydrology, hydro-chemistry and catchment management and effective collaboration has meant that the alpine ecology research programme has developed to take a holistic view of ecosystem functioning in the mountains. Our studies now incorporate vegetation, soils and water and extend beyond the original alpine heathlands to investigate the dynamics and functioning of a range of important alpine habitats.

Best bits

Undoubtedly one of the best parts of this job is being out working in the mountains - being able to contribute to the conservation of these iconic habitats while getting first hand experience of the plants and animals that live in this harsh but beautiful environment. I enjoy the challenge of unravelling how these ecosystems function and understanding how species interact and respond to their environment, although much of the understanding comes later, at the computer in my office, rather than out on the mountainside!

Worst bits

The difficulties go hand in hand with the good bits; working in remote areas without access to power and where often the only means of access is by a long walk in can be a problem for some studies. Often we have to carry in all our equipment, as well as our own gear. This slows things down a lot compared to working in more accessible habitats. The end result, with data in a graph or table, doesn’t always seem to reflect the physical effort that went into getting it!

Related roles

The complexity and cross-cutting nature of modern ecology means that job roles at The James Hutton Institute are diverse: from Population and Community Ecologists to Spatial and Landscape Ecologists as well as those with taxonomic specialisations e.g. lower and higher plants, invertebrates, birds and mammals.

Whilst our research programme is primarily based in Scotland, our expertise and experience is highly relevant to biodiversity conservation and sustainable development across the globe. As a result our scientists are increasingly involved in international research.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.