How can we manage trees and shrubs on farms to increase carbon capture while providing useful resources for livestock health?
Agriculture, and especially livestock production, faces a crisis in trying to balance increased demand for production to feed growing populations, with limited land and an urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and convert to net absorption of carbon dioxide. There is a lack of evidence, and arguably of imaginative thinking, to optimise these trade-offs. Northern Ireland hosts some of the longest-standing sylvo-pastoralism experimental plots as well as highly productive livestock pasture, and is an excellent mesocosm for investigating this problem for temperate climates. While increasing woody vegetation on farms (in the form of hedgerows, hedge trees, isolated trees, orchards or woodlots) is a clear path for more carbon sequestration on livestock pastures, however, it is often perceived as an impediment to the efficacy of livestock farming. Trees on farms can have benefits beyond carbon sequestration: decreasing run-off, enhancing biodiversity, and providing livestock fodder supplementation with specific health benefits such as antiparasitic effects. However, the extent to which these benefits outweigh possible decreases in productivity is not clear, and that is what this PhD project will investigate.
The work will take an interdisciplinary approach, combining ecology, agronomy, and parasitology to ask two main questions: 1) do different configurations of tree cover (in hedges, isolated, in woodlots, wide spaced canopy) have the same effects on biodiversity (approached through indicator species), carbon capture, grass growth and resilience? 2) Can wood management, e.g. coppicing and pollarding, provide on-farm fodder supplementation without trading off carbon capture and biodiversity effects? The project will capitalise on long running sylvo-pastoralism sites (AFBI Loughgall, Olave) and additional sites across Northern Ireland, to run biodiversity survey and tree modelling (Caplat) and evaluate prophylactic parasite management (Morgan). The student will hypothesise that by placing the right trees strategically amongst productive livestock pasture, rather than on marginal land or confined to hedgerows, and managing them to best exploit nature-based solutions, win-win solutions can be obtained that maintain or even increase agricultural productivity while decreasing inputs and accessing wider environmental benefits. For example, models of tree growth potential and phenology might be applied alongside those of parasite transmission dynamics to deliver nutraceutical forages through coppice or pollard at the places and times most supportive of animal health. Outcomes will be enhanced understanding of the multiple benefits of strategic tree planting on productive livestock pasture, and a framework for exploring optimum solutions across UK and European landscapes and under climate change.
Start Date: 1 October 2022
Duration: 3 years
How to apply: Applications must be submitted via https://dap.qub.ac.uk/portal/user/u_login.php
Skills/experience required: Degree in biology or equivalent, with skills in data analysis, and some knowledge of GIS is desirable.
Note: This project is in competition for DfE funding with a number of other projects. A selection process will determine the strongest candidates across the range of projects, who may then be offered funding for their chosen project.