Jan 3RD

Moulton College Associate lecturer successfully defends PhD thesis

Moulton College PhD student and Associate Lecturer, Emily Howard-Williams successfully defended her thesis on Friday 14th December in a 3-hour viva with her examination team.

The examination team consisted of external examiner Dr Tom Reader of the University of Nottingham and internal examiner Prof Jeff Ollerton of the University of Northampton. The thesis is entitled ‘The Validation of Novel Ecological Survey Methods for Use in Describing Harvest Mouse Micromys minutus Autecology’. A proud achievement having worked on it for seven years part-time!

The harvest mouse is under threat due to the destruction of its habitat, modern farming methods and pesticides. Emily’s project aimed to shed some light on the ecology of this declining and elusive wild mammal. It is hoped the results of this study will help land managers conserve this species and ensure its long-term survival in the British countryside and as such, the project received national coverage from BBC Wildlife magazine and The Guardian newspaper. 

Together with ex-student Dr David Wallis, director of Ecometry, and Moulton College Senior Lecturer at Dr James Littlemore she devised a species reintroduction scheme here in Northamptonshire with innovative technology to monitor animals post-release using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). She released 150 micro-chipped rodents into the grounds of the agricultural college and tracked each one during its lifetime for her PhD research. "We hope to discover some interesting data and find out a lot more about them because they are so elusive.” She said at the time. The main aim was to see if re-introduction is a valid conservation tool and also to find the best habitats and how the mice disperse in farmland.

In addition to the RFID monitoring, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) awarded an ecological grant towards the innovative project to determine whether using sniffer dogs is an effective approach in tracking harvest mice. This stage of the research involved training Tui, a flat-coated retriever in detecting the scent of harvest mice, making tracking their presence in the countryside easier and more efficient. Typically found in cereal fields, reed beds and hedgerows, PTES believes that harvest mice have declined in the past 40 years. 

Harvest mice create nests, woven amongst tall grasses or reeds, giving skilled trackers clear indicators of their presence. However, this can be a complex and time-consuming exercise, even for the most expert eye, and nests, as well as other signs, can be challenging to locate. With the aid of a trained dog, Emily’s team were able to survey sites more rapidly, with a lower margin for error. A similar method was used successfully in New Zealand to seek out kiwi birds.

To date, there have been no reliable studies to quantify the harvest mouse’s decline, and it is unclear as to exactly how many are currently left in the UK. With the help of Tui, who was bred from working gun dogs, Emily’s team wanted to shed some light on one of the most iconic species of the British countryside.

On awarding the funding Nida Al-Fulaij, Grants Manager from PTES, concluded, “We all know that dogs have an amazing sense of smell. The UK enlists the help of sniffer dogs at airports, music festivals and in the army, so why not also use them for conservation purposes to find harvest mice. The trained eye may miss a harvest mouse nest, but a trained nose is much more likely to pick up on a familiar scent and alert the handler to the presence of recent harvest mouse activity in that area. We are very excited to be funding this project and look forward to seeing what the results reveal about harvest mice populations in the UK”.

Moulton College provides a range of fantastic opportunities for degree level and post-graduate study in conjunction with The University of Northampton to find out more information or to apply, click here or for Countryside Management courses specifically click here.