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Finding The Right Tree For The Right Place: How Can The Carbon Benefits Of Tree Planting Be Maximised?

Postgraduate Training

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Dr Ruth Mitchell , Dr L Street , Dr Elena Vanguelova No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)
Dundee United Kingdom Ecology Soil Science

About the Project

Tree planting is a major part of the UK government’s plans to meet its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, recent work has shown that in the initial decades following tree planting there can be substantial losses of carbon from the soil which may be equal to or greater than the above ground gains in carbon stored as tree biomass.

Recent modelling work (Matthews et al., 2020) mapped potential changes in ecosystem carbon storage following woodland creation. The study predicts that conversion from semi-natural land to woodland can result in net carbon loss for the first 20 years and, in some scenarios, it may be 80 years or more before woodlands provide a carbon benefit. The predicted carbon losses result from soil disturbance, which might suggest these losses can be avoided if forests establish by natural regeneration. However, recent experimental work has also shown that soil carbon losses can occur even with minimal soil disturbance during tree establishment on heather moorland (Friggens et al., 2020). These losses are unexplained but may be due to functional changes that occur in the soil microbial community during tree colonisation.

Currently, it is uncertain how and where woodlands can contribute to climate mitigation within the timeframe of national commitments to reach net zero emissions by 2045. Therefore, it is critically important to understand how soil carbon dynamics change in the early stages of woodland expansion on different soil types and the carbon sequestration potential of different tree species.

This project will improve our understanding of soil carbon storage in the first decades of woodland establishment, addressing the following key questions:  

Q1. How do different tree species influence rates of soil carbon gain or loss in the early years of planting?

Q2. Is there an interaction between soil type and tree species in the rate of soil carbon change?

Q3. Does natural regeneration result in a slower rate of soil carbon change than planting?

Q4. What are the key mechanisms controlling soil carbon loss or gain after trees establish?

The successful candidate will use a range of laboratory, fieldwork and mapping approaches as well as access to unique long-term experimental sites: the James Hutton Institute MOORCO experiments (long-term planted plots of birch and pine) and Forest Research’s Short Rotation Forestry Plots and Scottish Forestry Alliance and Woodland Carbon code sites to answer these policy relevant questions and deepen our fundamental knowledge of the mechanisms of soil carbon dynamics. The student will be registered at Edinburgh University but be able to access facilities at the James Hutton Institute and Forest Research. The student will be based at either Edinburgh or Aberdeen but spend time at all three institutes.

This project will help develop the candidate’s skills in critical thinking, lab and fieldwork, data management and analysis, writing and communication. Potential applications emanating from the project are diverse, ranging from soil ecology and woodland management to government tree planting policy. The candidate would therefore be well prepared for a future career in research within academia, government and non-government agencies and in policy/science interface roles.

Candidates must have a First, Upper Second Class Honours or a Master’s degree with Merit, in ecology/biology/environmental science. They should also have:

  • An interest in woodland and soil ecology
  • Strong time and data management and interpersonal skills.
  • Evidence of good verbal and written communication skills.
  • A full UK driving licence

In addition to the above, it is desirable that candidates also have:

  • Experience with labwork and fieldwork
  • Knowledge of statistics in programmes such as R
  •  Experience of using GIS data manipulation and analysis.

Funding Notes

This sudentship is fully funded by the Macaulay Development Trust for a period of 3.5 years and registered at the University of Edinburgh. Candidates must have a First, Upper Second Class Honours or a Master’s degree with Merit, in ecology/biology/environmental science. Funding is available for UK applicants who qualify for 'home' fees. EU citizens with settled status should contact Dr Street as they may be eligible. Details on international fees are available at Please apply for this project using the email link below and upload a current CV. You will then be sent an applicaiton form for completion.


FRIGGENS, N. L., HESTER, A. J., MITCHELL, R. J., PARKER, T. C., SUBKE, J. A. & WOOKEY, P. A. 2020. Tree planting in organic soils does not result in net carbon sequestration on decadal timescales. Global Change Biology, 26, 5178-5188.
MATTHEWS, K. B., WARDELL-JOHNSON, D., MILLER, D., FITTON, N., JONES, E., BATHGATE, S., RANDLE, T., MATTHEWS, R., SMITH, P. & PERKS, M. 2020. Not seeing the carbon for the trees? Why area-based targets for establishing new woodlands can limit or underplay their climate change mitigation benefits. Land Use Policy, 97, e104690.
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