APS 255 Environmental Interpretation Field Course

Level 2
Semester 2
Credits 10
Teaching Staff Professor Jonathan Leake, Professor Colin Osborne
Co-ordinator Professor Jonathan Leake
Restrictions Available only to students studying Ecology and Conservation Biology (BSc and MBiolSci).


This module will explore how to interpret and understand the effects of environmental variables, and human activities, on ecosystems, their ecology and conservation importance.

Part 1: Ecosystems in Landscapes. The first part of the module will focus on the environmental controls operating on upland landscapes, using examples from western Ireland, which share important similarities with UK uplands especially in the Scottish Highlands, the Lake District, and Snowdonia. This component is taught by lectures giving an overview of the geological, climatological, historical, political and economic factors governing land usage and the impact of human occupation on the landscape following the last glaciation. It will include consideration of water and nutrient flows through large catchments spanning from uplands to lowlands, how this is affected by geology, land use and human activities, and the consequences for aquatic ecosystem health, biodiversity and ecosystem services such as recreational fishing. The module will provide training in the interpretation of remotely sensed images of upland landscapes to resolve effects of geology, geomorphology, historical legacy effects of cultivation, and the effects of grazing on present day vegetation and land use, together with interpretation of processes that affect catchments. This part of the course will be assessed by a piece of coursework involving interpretation of the landscape using remote-sensing, together with interpretation of data on catchment properties in a short synthesis report.

Part 2: Site-specific studies using habitat surveys. The second part of the module will focus on methods used for habitat surveying in the field, and will involve practical training in methods for Phase 1 and Phase 2 habitat surveys and habitat mapping, together with systematic recording of plant species using National Vegetation Classification (NVC) methodology. These are standard methods used by conservation agencies and environmental consultancies conducting ecological surveys of sites. We will visit sites in and around Sheffield representing important and contrasted habitats including upland acidic grassland and moorland of low diversity, ancient woodlands, species-rich limestone grassland, and a post-industrial coal mining spoil heap habitat creation site that is now a public greenspace with a diverse range of terrestrial and aquatic habitats. At each location key functional types of plants will be identified- including consideration of the adaptive features of individual species that fit them to their environments, and the environmental variables and management that affect their abundance and distribution will be discussed and interpreted. This part of the module will be assessed by the production of habitat survey maps using the NVC scheme, accompanied by a short report with accompanying figures, tables and diagrams, in which the role of the environment and management in the assembly and maintenance of plant communities will be presented.

Part 3: Research Project. Students will work in groups conducting a research project to collect data to address hypotheses they have developed to explain spatial patterns in vegetation, soil properties or invertebrate communities in relation to one or more environmental variables. They will give an oral presentation on their research to the class, and receive feedback on this prior to them writing a report on this work.


This module aims to:

  • Explain and guide the interpretation of landscape-scale environmental controls on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, including geology, soils, climate, hydrology, grazing, historical and present land use management, using a combination of data sources and remotely sensed images from drones, satellites and Google Street View.
  • Introduce students a range of important habitat types, an understanding of their management and environmental context, and the major functional types of plant species characteristic of these habitats. This includes the adaptive features of the organisms and, for a subset of species, their use as indicators of particular types of environmental conditions.
  • Provide experience in conducting Phase 1 and Phase 2 habitat surveys to characterise habitats, plant communities and to identify features of conservation importance, including species of particular note such as ancient woodland indicator species.
  • Provide experience in developing small group-projects that address an aspect of environmental controls on species or communities. This includes making initial observations in the field, developing hypotheses and collecting appropriate data and conducting analysis and interpretation of these, reporting the findings orally and in a written report.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the module, a student will be able to

  • Demonstrate understanding of some of the main environmental and human management controls on ecosystems in landscapes and how to use a range of remote sensing and mapping tools to interpret how these controls affect present day ecosystems and land use.
  • Conduct Phase 1 habitat surveys, including full documentation and output reports, and be familiar with the Phase 2 habitat survey methodology.
  • Identify, critically interpret, and discuss environmental and management controls on species and ecosystems, through conducting and reporting habitat surveys and a research project.
  • Recognize a wide range of plant functional types (grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, bryophytes, forbs, legumes, ericaceous dwarf-shrubs, shrubs and trees) of a diverse range of habitats, and the types of ecophysiological adaptations that they possess that lead to their habitat preferences, and demonstrate this knowledge in a report.
  • Explain the use of ancient woodland indicator species together with other observations to identify woodland stands of especially high conservation value, such as sites of special scientific interest.
  • • Conduct a field-based observational research project in a small group, and report and interpret the findings including contributing to an oral presentation.
  • • Synthesise information from lectures, external reading, field teaching and their own data collection and analysis of these data, into written reports.

Delivery Method: 6 lectures, an interactive webinar with opportunities to ask questions, 4 days of field work, a half-day guided data analysis and interpretation session, oral presentations by students to peer-group, oral feedback on presentations.

Assessment Method: To be Confirmed

Feedback: Students will receive feedback during the Field Course and written feedback on Reports. For further details please go to Blackboard information on APS255.

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