Meet Sophie Tudge – The Applied Ecologist


In this new series, The Applied Ecologist is amplifying the staff and student voices from the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability to showcase their diverse, interdisciplinary body of work and to help inspire the next generation.

In this post, we share research by Sophie Tudge.

Meet Sophie Tudge

© Sophie Tudge

I’m a PhD student from the Centre for Environment and Sustainability. I am currently  researching the biodiversity footprints of different land uses within the agricultural and forestry industries as part of the PREDICTS project.

What are you working on right now?

The overarching goal of the PREDICTS project is to predict how land-use and land-use intensity changes, driven by demands for different types of product, will influence biodiversity. I have been working on different geographical scales, from global land-use models to ecological field surveys in the UK, and testing how biodiversity may – or may not – recover after land-use changes.

An important theme within my research is biomass and its role in supplying renewable energy. Recently, I have been trying to predict the changes in biodiversity that would occur around the world if bioenergy from terrestrial biomass was scaled up massively. I have been using biodiversity data held within the PREDICTS database, which is organised so that you can easily test the effects of land-use changes on biodiversity. It can also be used to estimate the ecological effects of converting existing agricultural land to plantations of energy crops.

This piece of work has required a lot of data manipulation, searching the literature for suitable land-use data and land-use change projections, and working with geospatial data in R.

Who in the Centre are you working with?

In the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, my supervisors are Dr Zoe M Harris and Professor Richard Murphy. They are both super knowledgeable about the sustainability aspects of using biomass for bioenergy, the different feedstocks that are available and how the biomass industry is operating in the real (non-academic) world.

I am also collaborating with the PREDICTS team, who are based in the Biodiversity Futures Lab at the Natural History Museum. Specifically, Dr Adriana De Palma and Professor Andy Purvis have been providing invaluable support with biodiversity modelling, and I have been using their Biodiversity Intactness Index approach to get my measurement of biodiversity.

Why is this project important?

To me, this work is of paramount importance for the future of our planet. We are in the midst of a biodiversity and climate crisis, with agriculture playing a huge role in both.

Bioenergy is definitely a possible alternative, among many others, to traditional fossil fuel energy. But many questions remain about its environmental sustainability, and we need to get the facts right if we are to push for more land use and management aimed at generating more biomass for energy.

For example, is there a chance that we can make bioenergy “nature-positive” by planting a mixture of native energy crop grasses and trees on a piece of land – interspersed with arable crops, pasture or areas set-aside for natural habitats – helping to restore nature and create productive landscapes with multiple uses? Or could we simply end up swapping one large-scale monoculture of crops for another monoculture of exotic trees or grasses that restore nature on paper, for example, by meeting woodland creation criteria, but not in reality.

What are the future implications of your research project?

The PREDICTS project will help to highlight locations where planting energy crops might be better for biodiversity than others, hopefully helping to refine large-scale plans for bioenergy production, land use and conservation. However, working at a global scale obviously means much more work still needs to be done at smaller scales to really assess the feasibility of planting energy crops in these locations. For example, are farmers in these different areas actually willing to make changes to their practices? What incentives and facilities are in place to make it work?

On the biodiversity side, the Biodiversity Intactness Index is great for getting an overall estimate of biodiversity and for predicting whether an action would have a positive or negative impact on biodiversity. However, it lacks some fine-scale detail that would be needed to make field-scale decisions.

For example, a possible next step could be to identify a suitable location for energy crop planting according to the global map, and then look in more detail at the species found in that location. Are any threatened species present, and would planting energy crops be harmful or beneficial to these particular species?

It is likely that not all species will respond in the same way to planting energy crops, so a more detailed analysis of the current local biodiversity and the potential for biodiversity changes after planting would be great for these field-scale decisions. 

More information about the PREDICTS project

Find out more about the PREDICTS project, my work, and follow me on Twitter.

Discover more posts from the Centre for Environment and Sustainability blog series.

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