Professor René van der Wal

Professor René van der Wal

Personal Chair

Professor René van der Wal
Professor René van der Wal

Contact Details

work +44 (0)1224 272256
The University of Aberdeen School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen, 23 St Machar Drive, AB24 3UU Aberdeen - Scotland, UK



Professor of Ecology at Aberdeen University, UK

2007-2015     Reader/Senior lecturer at Aberdeen University (Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability)

1998-2007     Senior Ecologist/Ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Banchory, UK

1993-1998     PhD on herbivory and vegetation succession, Groningen University, NL

1987-1993     MSc Ecology & BSc Biology, Groningen University, NL      


Research Interests

Ecology in Society, Interdisciplinary working, Digital innovation in Nature Conservation

Community ecology, Plant-herbivore interactions, Invasive species, Arctic ecology

Interdisciplinary researcher, notably working with social scientists and computing scientists (e.g. see Ambio special issue on Digital Conservation, specialising in environmental citizen science and outreach research. Expert in arctic community ecology, plant-herbivore interactions and ecosystem ecology (nitrogen deposition impacts, invasive plant ecology, connectivity between above and belowground ecosystem components). 

For publications, see

Current Research

Environmental Citizen Science, Public and Digital Engagement:

  • Citizen science and the enjoyment of nature (as part of Open Air Laboratories

  • Digital technologies and human-nature interactions – the users’ perspective (Irma Arts; JHI/UoA studentship with Anke Fischer & Dominique Duckett (JHI, Social science)

  • Developing digital tools for Citizen Science: towards new ways of learning about the natural (Nirwan Sharma; ESF studentship with A. Siddharthan (Open University, Computing science) & L. Colucci-Gray (Aberdeen University, Education)

Long-term ecological studies:

Research Grants

Currently active grants

Previous grants (selected) 

  • Planting for Pollinators: automated feedback to foster environmental engagement via positive action (NERC engagement pilot grant, PI, 2017) See

  • Blogging Birds - the development of a new nature conservation tool (EPSRC engagement grant, PI, 2014). See

  • Rural Digital Economy Research Hub (RCUK grant with Pete Edwards et. al. (Lead of the Natural Resource Conservation theme, 2009-14)

  • UK National Ecosystem Assessment - Lead Author of the Chapter 'Mountains, Moorlands and Heaths' (2011-12)

  • Understanding determinants of plant invasiveness: a case study on tree mallow Lavatera arborea (NERC, PI, 2010)

  • Collaborative frameworks in land management: A case study on integrated deer management (RELU, CoI, with Justin Irvine et al., 2005-08)

  • Developing methodologies for assessing diffuse deer impacts in the wider countryside (SEERAD, CoI, with Justin Irvine et al., 2008)

  • Restoring biodiversity of island ecosystems; inclusive management to combat alien plant invasion (PI, Scottish Executive; Biodiversity action grant scheme, 2005-07)

  • Do herbivores decrease tundra carbon sink strength by reducing the moss layer? (NERC grant, CoI, with Sarah Woodin & Martin Sommerkorn, 2005)

  • FRagility of Arctic Goose habitat: Impacts of Land use, conservation and Elevated temperatures.(FRAGILE - EU 5th framework, WP leader, with Ad Huiskes et al., 2004-06)

  • Does resource partitioning maintain plant species diversity in nitrogen limited ecosystems? (NERC small grant, CoI, with Richard Bardgett, 2004)

  • How herbivory and light mediate moss-sedge interactions (NERC grant, PI, 2001)

  • Herbivore impact on soil temperature and plant species diversity in the Arctic (NERC grant, PI, 2000)

Currently active studentships

  • See under Research activities

Previous studentships:

  • Optimising the use of volunteers in invasive non-native species management initiatives (Marie Pages-Gold; NERC studentship with Xavier Lambin, Anke Fischer (JHI) and Chris Horrill (RAFTS)

  • Understanding mechanisms of climate change impact on Dotterel – an alpine specialist in decline (Alistair Baxter; NERC competitive studentship with Steven Ewing & Jerry Wilson, RSPB, and Des Thompson, SNH)

  • The role of digital technology in the development of human-nature relationships (Audrey Verma; dot.rural studentship with Anke Fischer, JHI)

  • Effects of climate and land-use change on cuckoos (Chloe Denerley; RSPB studentship with Steve Redpath and Jerry Wilson, RSPB)

  • The use of digital technology in traditional landscapes' (Gina Maffey; dot.rural studentship with Mark Reed, Chris Mellish and Justin Irvine, Macaulay Institute)

  • Enhancing carbon sequestration through grazing management (Stuart Smith; BBSRC studentship with David Johnson, Robin Pakeman, Macaulay Institute, and Sarah Woodin.

  • Changes in snow lie and herbivore population regulation in an arctic Ecosystem (Helen Anderson; College of Live Sciences and Medicine studentship with Sarah Woodin, Jesper Madsen (NERI Denmark and Christiaane Huebner, Svalbard Science Forum).

  • Wilderness restoration and animal reintroduction: ideas, discourses and policies (Koen Arts, ACES studentship with Anke Fischer, Macaulay Institute)

  • Understanding public perceptions of non-native species: values and discourses (Sebastian Selge, ACES studentship with Anke Fischer, Macaulay Institute)

  • Assessing the potential for recovery of degraded montane heathlands (Heather Armitage; SNH studentship with Andrea Britton (Macaulay), Imogen Pearce, Sarah Woodin, Aberdeen Univ.)

  • Anthropogenic influences on carbon dynamics in peatland (Pauline Currey; ACES studentship with Rebekka Artz, Lorna Dawson, Dave Johnson, Chris Freeman, Aberdeen Univ.)

  • Ecosystem engineers of the tundra? The effects of pink footed geese on arctic ecosystem biodiversity (James Speed; NERC studentship with Ingibjorg Jónsdóttir, Sarah Woodin, Aberdeen Univ.)

  • Limits to tree driven changes in soil biodiversity in Scotland (Uffe Nielsen; ACES studentship with Graham Osler, Colin Campbell & David Burslem, Aberdeen Univ.). Uffe currently works as a Post Doctoral Fellow at Colorado University

  • The role of mosses in Arctic vegetation (Jemma Gornall; NERC studentship with Sarah Woodin, Aberdeen Univ, and Ingibjorg Jónsdóttir, UNIS, 2002-04). Jemma currently works as Climate Impact Scientist at the Met Office, Exeter, UK

  • Keystone plant species and ecosystem function: mechanisms by which trees control soil food webs (Aidan Keith; NERC studentship with Graham Osler & Steve Chapman, Macaulay Institute, and David Burslem, Aberdeen Univ. 2004-6). Aidan currently works as Soil Scientist at CEH Lancaster

  • The role of seabirds in orchestrating island food (Dan Wright; NERC studentship with Richard Bardgett, Lancaster Univ. 2003-05). Dan currently works as 6th form teacher in Preston

  • Understanding the mechanisms behind nitrogen deposition impacts on montane Racomitrium heath (Imogen Pearce; part-time CEH studentship with Sarah Woodin, Aberdeen Univ. 1999-2004)

  • How soil fauna influence plant-microbial competition for N in arctic ecosystems (Stephen Dutton; NERC studentship with Richard Bardgett, Lancaster Univ. 2001-02)



Teaching Responsibilities

Current Honours project outlines (please contact me if interested):

New Zealand flatworms and its prey – who is winning the below-ground war? As part of the UK’s largest nature outreach project (OPAL), an opportunity has arisen to investigate how, and over what scale, NZ flatworms suppress earthworms, its obligatory prey. The study will take place in allotments – a habitat which is rarely considered for ecological study but one that brings great opportunities. It will build on existing data from across the UK, forming both a secure and exciting honours project. The student will work from Aberdeen but in conjunction with UK experts of this species at JHI Dundee and with OPAL (Open Air Laboratories).

Unravelling the complexities of bird recording networks across Europe. There is a plethora of data submission systems for birdwatchers to submit their records, all striving for ‘dominance’. Some are national and government backed, others are private initiatives flowing from specific sectors of the birding communities. As a result, it has become very hard to obtain a European picture of bird records and there is an urgent need to map what is out there, what are the data streams (and overlaps), and which factors are behind this increasingly complex digital world of bird (and other species) records.

Can sheep grazing be used to control giant hogweed? This project will centre on a small trial along the Deveron (driving licence required) where sheep have been used to control this infamous invasive plant species. Although apparently successful, the use of sheep as controlling agent has led to the replacement of one invasive with another (nettle), and debarking of planted trees has further undermined their usefulness. The student will continue fieldwork on the plant-soil system to reveal what is driving the observed vegetation changes, and whether alternative/complementary approaches would allow for the development of more sustainable management without the excessive use of herbicide. 

General teaching commitments:

  • 1st year interdisciplinary (6th Century) course 'Sustainability'

  • 3rd year (Biology) course 'Society and Environment'

  • Co-coordinator of the MRes/MSc courses 'Experimental Design and Analysis' and 'Statistics for Complex Designs' (with Alex Douglas, David Lusseau and Thomas Cornulier)