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NERC DTP BC214: The wider ecosystem benefits of managing for soil health on UK farms

Supervisor: Dr Lynn Dicks

Project summary:

Farm practices to enhance soil health in arable systems include reduced tillage, grass leys, cover crops, soil amendments, and returning crop residues to the soil – together referred to as ‘regenerative agriculture’. Evidence from farmer surveys shows promising uptake among English arable farmers (Dicks et al. 2018), and clear potential for them to become conventional farming practice within the next 10 years. While there is ample evidence of benefits to soils, and in some cases, crop yields (Haddaway et al. 2017; Shackelford et al. 2019), little is known about how these benefits interact with other environmental outcomes. For example, what are the effects of reduced soil disturbance and enhanced soil biodiversity on insect and bird species using arable fields, and the ecosystem services they provide? How does enhanced herbicide use in low tillage systems impact soil-dwelling invertebrates? This project will work in partnership with existing Farmer Cluster Groups already focused on soil health, to model, predict and monitor wider biodiversity and ecosystem responses to regenerative agriculture. 

What the student will be doing:

The project will focus on one or more taxonomic groups with a strong ecological link to soil (e.g. as a habitat or feeding resource for part of the life cycle). This could include, for example, ground-nesting bees, ground beetles, spiders, moths, molluscs or ground-foraging birds that feed on invertebrates. We expect the project to compare management types at field or landscape-scale with a replicated paired sampling design, and to monitor outcomes both empirically and through modelling. A number of approaches are possible, according to student’s interest. They include landscape-scale modelling to predict biodiversity and ecosystem service outcomes such as water quality, climate change mitigation, soil erosion, bee populations and pollination services; analysis of available long term datasets for bees, butterflies, moths; direct measurement of biodiversity or ecosystem services delivered by invertebrates or birds, such as pollination and pest regulation in field studies and experiments; exploration of ecological community structure or function responses, through ecological network analysis.


Dicks, L.V., Rose, D.C., Ang, F., Aston, S., Birch, A.N.E., Boatman, N., Bowles, L., Chadwick, D., Dinsdale, A., Durham, S., Elliott, J., Firbank, L., Humphreys, S., Jarvis, P., Jones, D., Kindred, D., Knight, S.M., Lee, M.R.F., Leifert, C., Lobley, M., Matthews, K., Midmer, A., Moore, M., Morris, C., Mortimer, S., Murray, T.C., Norman, K., Ramsden, S., Roberts, D., Smith, L.G., Soffe, R., Stoate, C., Taylor, B., Tinker, D., Topliff, M., Wallace, J., Williams, P., Wilson, P., Winter, M. & Sutherland, W.J. (2018) What agricultural practices are most likely to deliver ‘sustainable intensification’ in the UK? Food and Energy Security, e00148.

Haddaway, N.R., Hedlund, K., Jackson, L.E., Kätterer, T., Lugato, E., Thomsen, I.K., Jørgensen, H.B. & Isberg, P.-E. (2017) How does tillage intensity affect soil organic carbon? A systematic review. Environmental Evidence, 6, 30.

Shackelford, G.E., Kelsey, R., Sutherland, W.J., Kennedy, C.M., Wood, S.A., Gennet, S., Karp, D.S., Kremen, C., Seavy, N.E., Jedlicka, J.A., Gravuer, K., Kross, S.M., Bossio, D.A., Muñoz-Sáez, A., LaHue, D.G., Garbach, K., Ford, L.D., Felice, M., Reynolds, M.D., Rao, D.R., Boomer, K., LeBuhn, G. & Dicks, L.V. (2019) Evidence Synthesis as the Basis for Decision Analysis: A Method of Selecting the Best Agricultural Practices for Multiple Ecosystem Services. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 3.

Specific qualifications desirable for this particular project:

  • A degree in biological or environmental sciences with a strong quantitative component.
  • Maths, at least to A-level.
  • Interest in sustainable agriculture and in developing field ecology skills
  • Experience with GIS

Additional information:

Funding is available for this project via the NERC Cambridge Climate, Life and Earth (C-CLEAR) Doctoral Training Partnership – please refer to their website for more information: