Can temperate agroforestry systems benefit soil function?

Trees growing in lines in exposed soil

Silvoarable agroforestry system in autumn

Investigating the potential benefits that agroforestry may confer on soils and their function.

This is an exciting opportunity for an enthusiastic and ambitious student to investigate the potential benefits that agroforestry may confer on soils and their function.

The ideal candidate will have an interest in agricultural sustainability and food production.  

Project background 

Intensive agriculture reduces soil biodiversity and soil function, threatening the future of our soils and productivity. This is an unsustainable situation, and yet food demand continues to increase.

Agroforestry is currently not widely practiced in the UK, but interest is growing as emerging evidence suggests that it can have multiple ecosystem benefits.

Through a combined laboratory and field approach this project will investigate whether temperate agroforestry systems (where trees and crops are grown together in the same field) can mitigate the loss of soil function in currently managed agri-environments.  


  • Assess functional links between key soil faunal groups and plant productivity.
  • Explore biological/ecological drivers of soil function.
  • Characterise soil biodiversity and function in agroforestry systems and conventional monoculture production systems (arable, pasture, forestry). 

Project benefits 

The student will be based primarily at the Natural History Museum but will spend periods of time for training and local field work as appropriate at the Universities of Liverpool and York along with the Dundee campus of the James Hutton Institute.  

The student will benefit from training in field and laboratory techniques relevant to ecology, soil science and the assessment of soil functioning. They will also receive training in experimental design, data collection, statistical analysis using R and scientific communication. 


Studentships are open to UK and other EU students. Other nationalities (eg EEA countries) may be eligible - students should enquire with the project's respective postgraduate administration to see if they qualify for home fee rates. Up to nine studentships are available to EU students who do not ordinarily reside in the UK. Please note that this may be subject to change pending post-EU referendum discussions. All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

How to apply

Applications for this PhD are processed through the Natural History Museum.

To apply please send the following documents to the Postgraduate Office at

  • Curriculum vitae.
  • Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD position, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications for the research, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans.
  • Names of two academic referees.

More information about the ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership can be found on their website

The deadline for applications is 15 January 2021.

Apply for this project

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to

Read more about the ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership.

Application deadline: 15 January 2021

Any questions?

Natural History Museum

Main supervisor: Dr Ken Norris


The Natural History Museum

Dr Ken Norris 

University of York

Mark Hodson

Natural History Museum

Alexa Varah

James Hutton Institute

Roy Neilson

University of Liverpool

Joshua Dean


Hallam, J., Berdeni, D., Grayson R., Guest, E.J., Holden, J., Lappage, M.G., Prendergast-Miller, M.T., Robinson, D.A., Turner, A., Leake, J.R., Hodson M.E. (2020) Effect of earthworms on soil physico-hydraulic and chemical properties, herbage production, and wheat growth on arable land converted to ley. Science of the Total Environment 713 136491. 

Neilson, R. et al. (2020). Measuring the vulnerability of Scottish soils to a changing climate, pp. 1-42. 

Van den Hoogen, Neilson, R., et al. (+71 authors) (2019). Soil nematode abundance and functional group composition at a global scale. Nature, 572, 194-198 

Varah, A., Jones, H., Smith, J., & Potts, S. G. (2020). Temperate agroforestry systems provide greater pollination service than monoculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 301, 107031. 

ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

Funded by