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Enhancing the environmental sustainability of UK grape growing

   School of Science and the Environment

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  Dr D Westbury, Dr Mary Hanson, Dr K Ashbrook  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Supervisory team

Director of Studies:

Dr Duncan Westbury, School of Science & the Environment, University of Worcester


Dr Mary Hanson, School of Science & the Environment, University of Worcester

Dr Kate Ashbrook, School of Science & the Environment, University of Worcester

Dr Richard Comont, Bumblebee Conservation Trust


We are amid climate and biodiversity emergencies exacerbated by the need to produce more food to feed a growing population. As part of the approach towards the sustainable production of food, UK agriculture is aiming to achieve net zero farming by 2040. Whilst this is a challenging target, it presents numerous opportunities for farmers to not only directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions but engage with actions that will result in greater carbon storage, reduce their reliance on Plant Protection Products (PPPs), and benefit wider biodiversity. There is clearly an urgent need to develop more sustainable and therefore more resilient approaches to food production in the UK.

Wine production in the UK has increased exponentially in recent years which has been coupled with more land being used for grape growing. Importantly, the demand for UK wine is expected to increase further, from 5.9 million bottles being produced in 2017 to 40 million by 2040. We are therefore at a pivotal time for this agricultural sector with regards to its environmental sustainability.

Currently, vineyards require the intensive use of Plant Protection Products (PPPs) to control fungal disease (mildews and grey moulds) and insect pests. The use of such products has implications for human health, biodiversity, and the environment. Due to the ongoing concerns surrounding the direct and indirect impacts of PPPs, there is increasing pressure on growers to reduce their reliance on chemicals, especially as products continue to be withdrawn. In vineyards, an additional control of pests and fungal disease is achieved through the regular cutting of alleyways to keep vegetation short, however this approach also impacts biodiversity above and below the ground and limits the amount of carbon stored in the soil.

Grape growers need to future-proof production by not only having a greater reliance on alternative pest and disease management strategies, but also strategies to capture and store more carbon in the soil. To date, viticulture research in the UK has focused primarily on approaches to maximise the quality and quantity of grapes being produced. We now need research that will take the industry forward with regards to its environmental sustainability. Therefore, as part of a sustainable production system, robust evidence is needed on how grape growers can reduce their reliance on PPPs, support biodiversity, and capture and store more carbon in the soil. A blueprint for the management of UK vineyards is essential if the sector is to proceed with excellent environmental credentials whilst expanding exponentially.

By increasing the plant diversity of vineyard alleyways, the diversity and abundance of Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) is also likely to be increased (van Geel et al. 2015). AMF are deemed essential for the healthy functioning of terrestrial ecosystems as they facilitate nutrient cycling and the supply of nutrients and water directly to colonised plants (Trouvelot et al., 2015). Mycelial connections with grape vines are also expected to increase tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses (Turrini et al. 2017), including water stress (Auge 2004) and disease (Berdeni et al. 2018). Enhancing the abundance and diversity of AMF in cropped areas is therefore deemed an important factor towards ecological intensification (Zhang et al. 2019).

Aims and Objectives

Over a three-year period, the key aim of this study is to investigate the potential for UK grape growers to reduce their reliance on Plant Protection Products (PPPs), support biodiversity and boost carbon capture and storage. The overall objective is to develop a more resilient and sustainable approach to grape production in the UK.

The key objectives are to:

  1. Determine the efficacy of wildflower habitat interventions to support natural enemies in UK vineyards for the control of a range of key pests of grape vines.
  2. Determine the role of wildflower habitat interventions to improve soil health with regards to the abundance and diversity of Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) and soil biota (e.g., earthworms).
  3. Investigate the influence of wildflower habitat interventions on the relationship between soil health (AMF biomass) and vine health.
  4. Determine the potential for wildflower habitat interventions to increase soil carbon storage in the alleyways of UK vineyards, and their contribution to net zero farming.
  5. Investigate the role of wildflower habitat interventions in supporting wider indicators of biodiversity in UK vineyards.

Details of the studentship

The studentship is offered for a 4-year period on a full-time basis starting in January 2023. The studentship is campus based, but the project will involve extensive travel from the University of Worcester to field sites in South East England. During the period of your studentship, you will receive the following:

  • a laptop and other IT equipment and software as appropriate to the project.
  • use of the Research School facilities.

Application Process

To begin the application process for this studentship please go and click ‘apply now’ next to the project you wish to apply for. It is expected that applicants will have the following qualifications / experience:

  • A Masters degree in a relevant discipline e.g., ecology, entomology, soil science, environmental science, biodiversity & conservation, or equivalent professional experience.
  • A First or Upper Second (2.1) Honours Degree.
  • Ability to contribute to the research design of the project.
  • Experience of relevant research methods and skills.
  • Experience of identifying invertebrates using identification keys.
  • Experience of soil sampling and lab analysis.

It is also expected that applicants will be able to demonstrate the following:

  • Ability to identify common grassland plant species.
  • A sound understanding of and interest in both the project and the wider subject area.
  • Proficiency in oral and written English.
  • Computer literacy.
  • Ability to organise and meet deadlines.
  • Good interpersonal skills.
  • Ability to work independently and as part of a team. 

Funding Notes

a tax-free bursary of £15,609 for 3 years.
a fee-waiver for 4 years (expectation that full-time students complete in 3 years. If you enter year 4, the bursary stops but fees are waived).
a budget to support your direct project costs including dissemination costs.


Auge, R.M. (2004) Arbuscular mycorrhizae and soil/plant water relations. Canadian Journal of Soil Science, 84, 373-381.
Berdeni, D., Cotton, T.E.A., Daniell, T.J., Bidartondo, M.I., Cameron, D.D. & Evans, K.L. (2018) The effects of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal colonisation on nutrient status, growth, productivity, and canker resistance of apple (Malus pumila). Frontiers in Microbiology, 9. Trouvelot, S., Bonneau, L., Redecker, D., van Tuinen, D., Adrian, M. & Wipf, D. (2015) Arbuscular mycorrhiza symbiosis in viticulture: a review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 35, 1449-1467.
Turrini, A., Agnolucci, M., Palla, M., Tome, E., Tagliavini, M., Scandellari, F. & Giovannetti, M. (2017) Species diversity and community composition of native arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in apple roots are affected by site and orchard management. Applied Soil Ecology, 116, 42-54.
van Geel, M., Ceustermans, A., van Hemelrijck, W., Lievens, B. & Honnay, O. (2015) Decrease in diversity and changes in community composition of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in roots of apple trees with increasing orchard management intensity across a regional scale. Molecular Ecology, 24, 941-952.
Zhang, S.J., Lehmann, A., Zheng, W.S., You, Z.Y. & Rillig, M.C. (2019) Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi increase grain yields: a meta-analysis. New Phytologist, 222, 543-555
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