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Links between soil degradation and farmland biodiversity declines (GILROY_UENV22ARIES)

   School of Environmental Sciences

About the Project

Primary Supervisor - Dr James Gilroy

Secondary Supervisor - Dr Blaise Martay (British Trust for Ornithology)

Supervisory Team - Dr Simon Butler (UEA BIO)

Scientific Background: Soils underpin the structure, composition and productivity of ecological communities, and yet the impact of anthropogenic soil degradation on biodiversity remains poorly studied. In Europe, declines in farmland wildlife have coincided with rapid and widespread soil degradation, including significant losses of soil carbon. Farmland birds – a key indicator group for biodiversity trends – depend heavily on plants and invertebrates that are highly sensitive to soils, suggesting a potential causative link between soil degradation and bird declines. Using both long-term datasets and novel field data collection, this studentship will examine the links between agricultural practices, soil properties and farmland biodiversity, generating new insights that will help inform strategies for sustainable agriculture.

Research Methodology: Using cutting-edge spatial analysis techniques and high-resolution remote-sensed soil maps, you will examine soil-bird relationships at a range of scales using long-term data for farmland birds in the UK and Europe (UK BBS, PECBMS and EBBA2). These analyses will take advantage of novel earth-observation data to account for effects of habitat structure (e.g. LIDAR), land management and agrochemical use (e.g. CEH Crop+), generating an unprecedented insight into the environmental drivers of farmland bird declines. You will also conduct field studies on farms across East Anglia to examine the mechanistic links between soils, invertebrates and birds, testing the hypothesis that soil degradation is an important driver of aboveground farmland biodiversity declines.

Training: Supervisors at UEA and the BTO will provide one-to-one training in a range of transferable research skills including advanced data science in R, machine-learning, Bayesian modelling and GIS. You will also be trained in theoretical and practical aspects of ecological research, including study design and hypothesis testing, scientific writing, data visualisation and science communication. You will be actively encouraged to develop your own ideals for research alongside the core project aims.

Person Specification: We seek an individual with a good life sciences degree, relevant experience either in avian/invertebrate ecology, agroecology or spatial modelling, and a strong interest in advancing scientific understanding of human impacts on our natural environment. Having a UK driving license is desirable. Please contact primary supervisor James Gilroy for further details.

For more information on the supervisor for this project, please visit the UEA website 

The start date is 1 October 2022

Funding Notes

This project is funded by ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2022.

Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship covering fees, stipend (£15,609 p.a. for 2021-22) and research funding. International applicants (EU and non-EU) are eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships.

ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and £2,500 for external training, travel and conferences.

ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience. Our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.

For information and full eligibility visit View Website


1) Wardle, D. A., Bardgett, R. D., Klironomos, J. N., Setälä, H., Van Der Putten, W. H., & Wall, D. H. (2004). Ecological linkages between aboveground and belowground biota. Science, 304(5677), 1629-1633.
2) Wagg, C., Bender, S. F., Widmer, F., & Van Der Heijden, M. G. (2014). Soil biodiversity and soil community composition determine ecosystem multifunctionality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(14), 5266-5270.
3) Tsiafouli, Maria A., Elisa Thébault, Stefanos P. Sgardelis, Peter C. De Ruiter, Wim H. Van Der Putten, Klaus Birkhofer, Lia Hemerik et al. (2015) Intensive agriculture reduces soil biodiversity across Europe. Global change biology 21 (2): 973-985.
4) Gilroy, J. J., Anderson, G. Q., Grice, P. V., Vickery, J. A., Bray, I., Watts, P. N., & Sutherland, W. J. (2008). Could soil degradation contribute to farmland bird declines? Links between soil penetrability and the abundance of yellow wagtails Motacilla flava in arable fields. Biological Conservation, 141(12), 3116-3126.
5) Gilroy, J. J., Gill, J. A., Butchart, S. H., Jones, V. R., & Franco, A. M. (2016). Migratory diversity predicts population declines in birds. Ecology letters, 19(3), 308-317.

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