Research PG

BSc (Hons)


Contact Details

Address: Room 917
MacRobert Building
University of Aberdeen
AB24 5UA

Tel: +44 (0)1224 274822
Mob: +44 (0)7965 588696


I graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 2011 with First Class Honours in BSc Ecology and started my PhD in August of the same year.

For my PhD, I research the ecology of reintroduced Red Kites (Milvus milvus) in the UK.  Specifically, I research how the various reintroduced populations have colonised a landscape uninhabited by this species for the last 100-150 years. 

Within the University I work within two interdisciplinary departments, the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability, ACES, and the "dot.rural" digital economy research hub, as well as maintaining a research link with the University of Aberdeen's Department of Law.

More details about my research can be found below and if you have any questions/comments please don't hesitate to contact me.  I use this page to demonstrate my research activities. More information about my wider activities can be found on my LinkedIn page:

Research Interests

Population Dynamics / Spatial Expansion of Populations / Colonisation / Conservation Conflicts / Ecological Impacts of Nature Conservation Legislation / Communicating Evidence to Policymakers

Current Research

PhD Research

For my PhD research I aim to understand the colonisation processes exhibited by reintroduced red kites, Milvus milvus. 

Within the UK red kites were extirpated from England, Northern Ireland and Scotland between 100 and 150 years ago with a small relict population remaining in central Wales.  This population remained at risk of extinction and was not considered able to recolonise the rest of the UK within the next few decades.  Consequently, over the last 25 years, red kites have been reintroduced to 10 sites across the UK and a further site in Ireland.

As part of the monitoring process the majority of the individuals in all releases have been uniquely wing-tagged.  Additionally, the aim has been to record the location and outcome of all nests within each population.

Inadvertently, these reintroduction programmes provide an incredible replicated, natural experiment where the processes of colonisation can be explored.  Research on such processes is of interest as it provides the first scientific assessment of the effectiveness of the red kite reintroductions and it allows for an empirical testing of aspects of the theory relating to colonisation/species range expansion.  With the obvious implications for species range shifts in the face of climate change.

To investigate how the reintroduced red kites colonise a landscape uninhabited by the species for the last 100+ years, I investigate the effects of factors both intrinsic to the populations, e.g. the demographic make-up of the populations, and factors extrinsic to the population e.g. landscape characteristics and local human land uses.  To do this I utilise breeding data and data on re-sightings of marked individuals. 

I also investigate the role of individual behaviours in driving the colonisation processes.  As part of this work I utilise re-sighting data of birds at winter communal roosts and satellite tracking data as >20 birds have been fitted with GPS tags.  This allows for the movements of these birds to be followed through all stages of the natal dispersal process.

Further details about my PhD research will be added at a later date.


Additional Research 1 - Digital Technologies

The driver behind my PhD was the need to understand the ecology of red kites for an interdisciplinary project between computing scientists and ecologists. Consequently, although I work within the School of Biological Sciences, I am also a PhD student within dot.rural and contribute to the Blogging Birds initiative.

Dot.rural is a research hub based at the University of Aberdeen and funded by the Research Councils UK Digital Economy Programme.  The aim of dot.rural is to investigate novel ways in which digital technologies can be used in a rural setting.  Within dot.rural, the Natural Resource Conservation theme investigates how digital technologies can enhance natural resource management; and within this theme the Digital Conservation (DC) project investigates how digital technologies can be used to make nature conservation more effective.

The Blogging Birds initiative aims to demonstrate that digital technologies can be used to make nature conservation public engagement activities more efficient and more effective.

We have created a website that provides blogs about the movements of satellite tracked red kites from the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. Nothing particularly exciting there you'd think?  Well the twist is all the blogs are written automatically by computers using Natural Language Generation Software - to clarify, humans had no hand in the writing of the blogs themselves.  It was all computers!

Check out the blogs to see what computers can do (you will be impressed) and if you have a few minutes please provide feedback by clicking the link on the blogs:


Additional Research 2 - Legal Studies

I suspended my PhD studies to become a staff member of the University of Aberdeen's Law Department between November 2011 and February 2012.  I worked as an ecological Research Assistant with the law academic Dr Aylwin Pillai (Principal Investigator) on a Scottish Government commissioned report.  The report was commissioned through SNH to investigate the use of derogations from EU nature conservation legislation (the Birds and Habitats Directives) and the implications this may have on the management of reintroduced species.  The report not only investigated the legal framework but also suggested best practice from an ecological and sociological view in order to minimise conservation conflicts. 

In addition to co-authoring the report itself, I co-presented our findings to stakeholders at the National Species Reintroduction Forum, NSRF, and co-authored a peer reviewed article on our findings.



I have three supervisors within the University of Aberdeen: my first supervisor is Dr Rene Van Der Wal and I am also co-supervised by Prof Steve Redpath and Dr Advaith Siddharthan.

Research Grants

My PhD is solely funded by the University of Aberdeen's College of Life Science and Medicine and the funding has been made available as a result of the RCUK Digital economy initiative.


Additional Grants:

British Ecological Society Policy Fellowship 2013 - competitive fellowship open to all 2nd and 3rd year ecology PhD students in the UK.  Policy fellows take up a 3 month position at the UK Houses of Parliament as a Scientific Advisor to Parliament.

University of Aberdeen's Principal's Excellence Fund 2012 - financial award to support attendance at the Alter-Net Summer School

Harrogate Brigantes Rotary Club Personal Award - financial award to support attendance at the Alter-Net Summer School

Teaching Responsibilities

I currently demonstrate/tutor on the following undergraduate courses:

BI2008 Diversity of Life

BI2505 Conservation Biology

BI4505 Conservation in Practice

BI4802 Topics in Biological Conservation


Additionally I guest lecture on the following course:

ZO4527 Wildlife Conservation and Management


External Responsibilities

Early Career Researcher Representative for the British Ecological Society's Scottish Policy Group (BES-SPG)


Heptinstall D (2014) Risks from Climate Feedbacks, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, POSTnote 454 

Ponnamperuma K, Siddharthan A, Zeng C, Mellish C, Heptinstall D, van der Wal R (2013) Tag2Blog- Unlocking Location Data of Satellite Tagged Species for Public Engagement, Proceedings of the The Annual Digital Economy All Hands Conference 

Pillai A, Heptinstall D (2013) Twenty Years of the Habitats Directive: A Case Study on Species Reintroduction, Protection and Management, Environmental Law Review, 15, pp. 27 - 46

Pillai A, Heptinstall D, Hammond M, Redpath S, Saluja P (2012) Derogations for Protected Species in European Reintroductions, Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 524


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