Dr Mark Hancock

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science


I work in partnership with a wide range of research and practitioner collaborators, both within RSPB and externally. Together we carry out science that supports large-scale restoration of key ecosystems in northern Scotland, and the species associated with them.

My work is focussed in the forests and hills of Cairngorms Connect, the UK's largest habitat restoration project; and in the peatlands, rivers and lochs of the Flow Country, one of the world's largest blanket bogs.

My main projects at present are:

  1. testing whether cutting and cattle grazing can be used to replicate natural disturbance processes in native forests
  2. measuring and understanding native woodland expansion by natural regeneration in the presence of deer
  3. developing techniques to restore blanket bogs damaged by afforestation, and quantifying restoration benefits
  4. understanding how brown trout management by angling can be used to benefit aquatic invertebrates and the waterbirds that feed on them.

I co-supervise three PhD students whose projects support peatland restoration, by building understanding of

  1. innovative approaches to brash management
  2. restoration effects on riverine ecosystems
  3. photosynthetic microbes as indicators of degradation and restoration.

External Activities

  • 2014-21: Rivers and Lochs Institute (University of the Highlands and Islands): Advisory Group member
  • 2019 to present: Chair of Cairngorms Connect Scientists' Working Group

Partners and Collaboration

  • Professor Roxane Andersen, Environmental Research Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands
  • Dr. Jens Arne-Subke, University of Stirling
  • Dr Rebekka Artz, James Hutton Institute
  • Prof. Colin Bean, NatureScot / University of Glasgow
  • Prof. David Coomes, University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute
  • Dr. Paul Gaffney, Environmental Research Insititute
  • Kenny Kortland, Forestry and Land Scotland
  • Dr. Nick Littlewood, SRUC
  • Tom McKenna, NatureScot
  • Dr. Nancy Ockendon, Endangered Landscapes Programme / Cambridge Conservation Initiative


Dr Mark Hancock

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

RSPB Scotland, North Scotland Office, Etive House, Beechwood Park, Inverness, IV2 3BW


Google Scholar


Ecosystem services Protected areas UK species Upland Woodland

Selected Publications

Guild-level responses by mammalian predators to afforestation and subsequent restoration in a formerly treeless peatland landscape

Afforestation of formerly open landscapes can transform mammalian predator communities, potentially impacting prey species like ground-nesting birds. In Scotland's Flow Country, a globally important peatland containing many forestry plantations, earlier studies found reduced densities of breeding waders on open bogs, when forestry plantations were present within 700 m. One plausible explanation for this pattern is mammalian predation. We tested whether mammalian predator indices, based on scats (feces), differed between (1) open bog, forestry plantations, and former plantations being restored as bog (“restoration” habitats); (2) restoration habitats of different ages; and (3) open bogs with differing amounts of nearby forestry. We measured summer scat density and size over 14 years in 26 transects 0.6–4.5 km in length, collecting data during 93, 96, and 79 transect-years in bog, forestry, and restoration habitats respectively. In forestry, scat density increased eightfold, reaching values ~6 times higher than those of bogs. On open bogs with over 10% forestry within 700 m, scat densities were 2.9 times higher than on open bogs with less forestry nearby. Results support the hypothesis that mammalian predators might be responsible for the low densities of breeding waders close to forests, on adjacent open bogs. In restoration habitats, scat densities rose 6–10 years after felling but fell to levels similar to open bogs in older restoration habitats, supporting restoration management as a means of reducing mammalian predator activity/abundance. We urge caution around decisions to establish forestry plantations in open landscapes of high biodiversity importance.

20 March 2020
RSPB Authors
Dr Mark Hancock
Klein, Daniela; Cowie, Neil R
Published in
Restoration Ecology 28 (5) 1113-1123
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From a research study to a conservation partnership: Developing approaches to restoring common scoter populations

1.     Like many sea-duck populations, the British breeding population of common scoters Melanitta nigra has declined markedly. In 2009, a study was established to measure factors affecting lake use by breeding scoters, to inform conservation measures. That study, published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems (AQC) in 2016, showed that lakes used by scoters had relatively more shallow water and large invertebrates. Furthermore, lakes with abundant large invertebrates had relatively few brown trout Salmo trutta. These results probably reflect the importance of foraging habitat (shallow water), prey abundance (large invertebrates), and competition for prey (trout abundance) in influencing scoter lake use.

2.     To develop this study, additional research, and scoter conservation measures, we formed a long-term partnership, comprising nature conservation non-governmental organizations, statutory agencies, fisheries managers and the regional hydropower company. The partnership meets regularly to coordinate and review research and develop conservation measures, building on the earlier lake-use study.

3.     At key scoter lakes managed for hydropower, the partnership negotiated a revised water level management regime, favouring shallow water availability in the breeding season. This regime was informed by additional research, showing the value of certain islands for nesting scoters, and water level requirements to maintain these as islands.

4.     In a different key scoter area — an extensive near-natural peatland where recreational angling takes place — the partnership established a trial of increased brown trout angling, with increased fish removal, to determine whether this would increase invertebrate prey abundance and benefit breeding scoters. Both conservation interventions are currently being evaluated by detailed monitoring.

5.     Overall, the earlier study published in AQC, was important in strengthening and informing our researcher–practitioner partnership, as we collaborated within an adaptive management framework to reverse scoter declines. Long-term interdisciplinary partnerships are likely to have an important role to play in general, for the successful conservation of aquatic biodiversity.

18 September 2020
RSPB Authors
Dr Mark Hancock, Trevor Smith
Robson, Hannah J; Stephen, Alastair; Byrne, Paul; MacLennan, Alison; Klein, Daniela; Mitchell, Carl; Griffin, Larry R; Hilton, Geoff
Published in
Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 30 (9): 1770-1774
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Restoration of afforested peatland: immediate effects on aquatic carbon loss

•We investigated short-term aquatic carbon losses following bog restoration.

•There were no significant changes in aquatic carbon concentrations or exports.

•Seasonally increased DOC concentrations may be associated with restoration.

•Restoring small catchment portions (e.g., ≤12%), should minimise aquatic carbon losses.

10 November 2020
RSPB Authors
Dr Mark Hancock
Gaffney, Paul PJ; Taggart, Mark A; Andersen, Roxane
Published in
Science of The Total Environment 742
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Vegetation response to restoration management of a blanket bog damaged by drainage and afforestation

Does restoration management of a formerly afforested blanket bog lead to the vegetation, and the environmental conditions it indicates, becoming similar to intact bog?
A 147-ha blanket bog in Scotland's Flow Country, afforested in the 1980s but undergoing restoration since 1998.
Vegetation in the restoration area was surveyed in nine, 1.6–6.4-ha plots, in 1998, 2003 and 2011. Each plot was matched to nearby plots that were either intact bog or remained afforested. Principal Response Curves were used to highlight the main axes of vegetation variation and test whether plant community trajectories in the restoration area differed from intact bog. The following restoration outcomes were assessed: floristic similarity to bog vegetation; and moisture, fertility and acidity, as inferred from vegetation using Ellenberg indicator values.
In the 6 years after restoration began, vegetation developed towards bog-like conditions. In the subsequent 8 years, overall vegetation change stalled, and spatial variability increased, reflecting diverging trajectories in wetter and drier parts of the site. Ellenberg's F-values implied significant re-wetting in the restoration area, reaching moisture levels similar to intact bog. Other restoration outcomes progressed in wetter microsites and areas (furrows and flat ground), but stalled in drier locations (plough-ridges and steeper slopes).
Overall moisture conditions, as indicated by plants, have recovered. However, restoration progress has stalled in drier areas, where additional management may be needed. Long-term vegetation monitoring has helped clarify barriers to recovery and the management needed to overcome them. The value of such monitoring schemes in guiding restoration should be reflected in their wider implementation, within an adaptive management framework.

22 January 2019
RSPB Authors
Dr Mark Hancock
Klein, Daniela; Andersen, Roxane; Cowie, Neil R
Published in
Applied Vegetation Science
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Burning and mowing as habitat management for capercaillie Tetrao urogallus: An experimental test

In Scots pine Pinus sylvestris forests, the important ecological effects of natural fires could be emulated using prescribed fire. Species that may benefit from fire effects include capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, a large forest grouse. A key component of forest habitats for capercaillie is the ericaceous shrub, bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus, which is eaten by capercaillie, and supports abundant arthropods, taken by young chicks. We carried out an experiment testing whether prescribed burning would be a valuable technique for capercaillie habitat management.

The study took place at Abernethy Forest, the largest ancient native pinewood in Britain, and a key capercaillie site, holding c 8–20% of the British population. Prescribed fire in woodland is highly novel in Britain. We therefore also tested mowing, which might replicate some fire effects more cheaply and safely. Twenty-five experimental blocks were established within open pine stands with ground vegetation including bilberry, but dominated by heather Calluna vulgaris. Each block held three 700 m2 plots, randomly assigned to control, mow and burn.

Vegetation, arthropods and capercaillie dung were monitored over a 7-year period, including 1 year prior to treatment. Mean bilberry cover, initially around 12%, increased in mown and burnt areas, but there were also increases in controls, following unusual natural die-back of heather.

By the sixth season after treatment, bilberry cover was significantly higher in burnt and mown areas than controls, averaging 27% (95% confidence intervals 24–30), compared to 20% (19–21) in controls. Biomass of spiders, an important dietary group for capercaillie chicks, as measured by pitfall trapping, was significantly higher in burnt and mown plots than controls, by about 56% (38–76). However, biomass of caterpillars, often considered a more important dietary group, did not show clear differences between treatments.

An alternative analysis was used to ‘statistically remove’ natural heather die-back; this enhanced the treatment differences in bilberry cover and spider biomass. Capercaillie dung counts suggested that burnt, and especially mown areas, had more summer capercaillie usage than controls. Capercaillie conservation at sites similar to Abernethy is likely to benefit from either prescribed fire or mowing, because these techniques increase bilberry and spider abundance.

This study illustrates the value of collaboration between researchers and land-managers, in developing and testing novel management techniques. We support the idea that ‘dominance reduction’, delivered through managed disturbance, offers a general principle to guide land-managers wishing to maintain biodiversity, particularly where key species, like capercaillie, are strongly associated with sub-dominant plant species like bilberry.

08 May 2011
RSPB Authors
Dr Mark Hancock, Dr Ron Summers
Hancock, M.H., Amphlett, A. Proctor, R., Dugan, D., Willi, J., Harvey, P. & Summers, R.W.
Published in
Forest Ecology and Management
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