Links between soil degradation and farmland biodiversity declines


Links between soil degradation and farmland biodiversity declines


Project Description


Dr James Gilroy (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia) – Contact me

Dr Blaise Martay (British Trust for Ornithology)

Dr Simon Butler (School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia)


Project 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.


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.


  • 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.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2022. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 12th January 2022.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers 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. Please note ARIES funding does not cover visa costs (including immigration health surcharge) or other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship click on the “Apply now” link below.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.

Applications are open

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