University of Edinburgh Featured PhD Programmes
National University of Ireland, Galway Featured PhD Programmes
University of Exeter Featured PhD Programmes

Can temperate agroforestry systems benefit soil function?

Department of Environment and Geography

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

Click here to search for PhD studentship opportunities
Dr A Varah , Prof M Hodson , Dr R Neilson , Prof Ken Norris , Dr J Dean No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This is an exciting opportunity for an enthusiastic and ambitious student to investigate the potential benefits that agroforestry may confer on soils and their function. The ideal candidate will have an interest in agricultural sustainability and food production.

Keywords: Temperate agroforestry

soil function

soil biodiversity

species interactions


Project background
Intensive agriculture reduces soil biodiversity and soil function, threatening the future of our soils and productivity. This is an unsustainable situation, and yet food demand continues to increase. Agroforestry is a farming system where trees and agricultural crops are grown together in the same field. It is currently not widely practiced in the UK, but interest is growing as emerging evidence suggests that it is more sustainable and can have multiple ecosystem benefits. For example, compared to conventional agricultural fields, agroforestry systems can result in higher biodiversity (Varah et al., 2013), more pollinators (Varah et al., 2020) and, in mature systems, increased soil carbon and nutrient availability (Pardon et al., 2017). However, relatively little agroforestry research focuses on temperate systems – the majority is on tropical and sub-tropical climates and sample sizes are typically very small. This lack of evidence from temperate systems is partly responsible for the low uptake in the UK. Through a combined laboratory and field approach this project will investigate whether temperate agroforestry systems in the UK can mitigate the loss of soil function in currently managed agri-environments.

The project will investigate the impact of UK agroforestry systems on soil function, by:
• assessing functional links between key soil faunal groups and plant productivity
• exploring biological/ecological drivers of soil function
• characterising soil biodiversity and function in agroforestry systems and conventional monoculture production systems (arable, pasture, forestry).

Project benefits and further details
You will be based primarily at the Natural History Museum but will spend periods of time for training and local field work as appropriate at the Universities of York and Liverpool along with the Dundee campus of the James Hutton Institute.

You will benefit from training in field and laboratory techniques relevant to ecology, soil science and the assessment of soil functioning. You will also receive training in experimental design, data collection, statistical analysis using R and scientific communication.

Furthermore, this project offers the chance to carry out timely research that could be useful in informing policymaking as the new Environmental Land Management schemes replace the Common Agricultural Policy once the UK leaves the EU.

Pardon, P., Reubens, B., Reheul, D., Mertens, J., De Frenne, P., Coussement, T., Janssens, P., & Verheyen, K. (2017). Trees increase soil organic carbon and nutrient availability in temperate agroforestry systems. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 247, 98–111.
Varah, A., Jones, H., Smith, J., & Potts, S. G. (2013). Enhanced biodiversity and pollination in UK agroforestry systems. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 93(9), 2073–2075.
Varah, A., Jones, H., Smith, J., & Potts, S. G. (2020). Temperate agroforestry systems provide greater pollination service than monoculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 301, 107031.
Hallam, J., Berdeni, D., Grayson R., Guest, E.J., Holden, J., Lappage, M.G., Prendergast-Miller, M.T., Robinson, D.A., Turner, A., Leake, J.R., Hodson M.E. (2020) Effect of earthworms on soil physico-hydraulic and chemical properties, herbage production, and wheat growth on arable land converted to ley. Science of the Total Environment 713 136491.
Neilson, R. et al. (2020). Measuring the vulnerability of Scottish soils to a changing climate, pp. 1-42.
Van den Hoogen ..., Neilson, R., et al. (+71 authors) (2019). Soil nematode abundance and functional group composition at a global scale. Nature, 572, 194-198

Funding Notes

This project is part of the ACCE NERC Doctoral Training Programme in Ecology and Evolution. Appointed candidates will be fully-funded for 3.5 years. The funding includes:

Tax-free annual UKRI stipend (£15,285 for 2020/21)
UK tuition fees (£4,473 for 2021/22)
Research support and training charges (RSTC)

International candidates (including EU) will be considered however they will need to have adequate funds to meet the difference in tuition fees. International tuition fees for 2021 entry is £22,250.

Not all projects will be funded; a limited number of candidates will be appointed via a competitive process.

FindAPhD. Copyright 2005-2021
All rights reserved.