Fen Farming Futures: Benefits and drawbacks of sustainable farming on organic soils

A field of crops growing in rows under a blue sky dotted with clouds

A field crop, image by Susan Page

This project will study alternative management options for the intensively farmed peatlands of the East Anglian Fens.

Project highlights

  • The project will offer the opportunity to study alternative management options for the intensively farmed peatlands of the East Anglian Fens, now recognised as being the largest source of land-based greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, and to work with local farmers and Cambridgeshire County Council (major land-owner in the Fens and CASE partner). 
  • It will combine an extensive programme of field measurements with in-depth analysis of peat geochemistry and peat microbial communities. 
  • The project aims to produce the first comparison of peatland under business-as-usual versus sustainable ‘regenerative’ farming by exploring differences in soil greenhouse gas emissions, soil chemistry and biology, to establish how these are affected by land-use. Data will be used to provide science-based evidence for climate change mitigation schemes.

Project overview

In England, lowland peat occupies around 960 km2 and stores large amounts of carbon. 

Nearly all lowland fen peatland has been drained to provide some of the most fertile agricultural soils in the UK. However, drainage has resulted in the loss of peat (with rates of ~1 cm/yr under intensive agriculture) and associated high CO2 emissions.

Until recently, there had been limited scientific focus on the greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes from lowland peatlands, but recent studies involving several of the supervisors have highlighted their scale, with intensively farmed lowland peatlands now known to be the largest land-based source of GHG emissions in the UK.

To date, almost no research has been undertaken on agricultural management options to reduce C loss and GHG emissions, whilst also improving soil health.

This project provides a unique opportunity to study the effects of implementing more sustainable farming management practices on soil and climate security. 

An improved understanding of the strategies available for fenland farmers will provide important insights as to whether alternative agricultural management strategies on peat soils can provide emissions mitigation and other co-benefits, in comparison to conventional land management.

This will provide data which will help inform landscape-scale feasibility planning for reduced GHG emissions, improved biodiversity, and ecosystem CO2 uptake by the CASE partner, Cambridgeshire County Council who are a major agricultural land-owner in the Fens.


The PhD will measure soil respiration in situ using a Licor 8100 field CO2 and H2O analyser, at replicated sites under conventional and modified agricultural management in the Fens. Samples will be collected for characterisation of peat physical, hydrological, geochemical and microbiological properties to gain mechanistic understanding of controls on GHG fluxes and influence of different farming techniques on soil health.

Organic geochemical analyses will be undertaken at UoL, including pyrolysis GCMS and FTIR, with comparisons to data from other lowland peat land sites. 

Taxonomic richness and microbial community structure will be analysed via high-throughput DNA sequencing and bioinformatics at the NHM, and compared to existing sequencing data from other temperate peatland sites.

The student will also work with the CASE partner (Cambridgeshire County Council) to analyse and interpret Earth Observation (EO) data, allowing upscaling of site-based observations in relation to the potential for large-scale land-use change.

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to a half day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.

The student will have full access to UoL and CENTA training programmes. At the project outset they will co-develop a training plan, which will be regularly reviewed, to ensure they gain the skills required for successful PhD completion.

The student will acquire specialist skills in soil GHG measurement (UoL and CEH), microbiology (NHM), organic geochemistry (UoL) and EO data analysis and data upscaling (UoL in collaboration with CCC).

They will also have the opportunity to undertake placements with CCC. Partners and collaboration (including CASE): The UoL and CEH supervisors have a long track record of collaboration, including three previous CENTA PhDs and major UK/international peatland projects. UoL, NHM and CEH are also currently collaborating on a recently established project.

The student will be embedded within this experienced team, working alongside other researchers and stakeholders and will spend time working at the UoL and NHM laboratories, acquiring additional skills and experience.

During field work and placements they will have the opportunity to interact and work with local specialists, farmers and further stakeholders (e.g farm advisors, CCC specialists on land management).

Possible timeline

Year 1

1) Literature review of science area and of previous relevant peatland research

2) acquisition of skills in soil respiration measurements working with UoL staff and researchers at UK research sites

3) analysis and comparison of data with UoL/CEH data collected during the recently-completed Defra- and BEIS-funded lowland peat/wasted peat projects

4) geochemical analysis of initial peat samples

5) initial training in and preliminary analysis of EO data to identify opportunities for data upscaling

6) experimental design and logistical planning for main field campaign.

Year 2

1) Finalisation of field campaign planning

2) extended field measurement and sampling campaign

3) analysis of geochemical samples at UoL, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics analyses of microbial communities of peat samples at NHM and comparison with DNA sequencing data collected as part of other relevant projects

4) continued analysis of EO data to support upscaling of results; 5) placement with CASE partner CCC

6) commence preparation of manuscripts for journal submission based on analysis of existing data and/or early results.

Year 3

1) Analysis and write-up of soil respiration data (1st data chapter)

2) analysis and write-up of peat organic geochemistry data (2nd data chapter)

3) analysis and write-up of peat microbiology data (3rd data chapter)

4) analysis of relationships between land management, peat properties and soil respiration data, including upscaling of data to enable calculation of potential for changes in farmland management to mitigate soil GHG emissions and improve soil health (synthesis chapter)

5) preparation of manuscripts for journal submission

6) completion of PhD thesis.

How to apply

Details about how to apply for this project can be found here. We suggest you also read our helpful document about applying for a PhD.

For more information on the CENTA DTP, including eligibility, please visit the CENTA website

Further reading

Matysek, M., Leake, J., Banwart, S., Johnson, I., Page, S., Kaduk, J., Smalley, A., Cumming, A., & Zona, D. (2021) Optimizing fen peatland water-table depth for romaine lettuce growth to reduce peat wastage under future climate warming. Soil Use and Management.

Evans, C.D., Peacock, M., Baird, A.J. et al.(2021) Overriding influence of water table on the peatland greenhouse gas balance. Nature, 593 (7860), 548-552.

Ritson, J. et al (2020) Towards a microbial process-based understanding of the resilience of peatland ecosystem service provisioning – a research agenda. Science of the Total Environment. 

Leifeld, J., Wüst, C. & Page, S. (2019) Intact and managed peatland soils as a source and sink of greenhouse gases 1850–2100. Nature Climate Change, 9, 945–947. 

Lowland Peat Project

Lowland Peat Action Plan 

Apply for this project

Application deadline: 11 January 2023

Lead supervisor

Dr Joerg Kaduk

University of Leicester

Museum supervisor

Dr Anne D. Jungblut

CASE Supervisor

Cambridgeshire County Council

Other supervisors

Prof Susan Page

University of Leicester

Dr Arnoud Boom

University of Leicester

Prof Chris Evans

UK CEH Banog

CENTA offers joint PhD training partnerships involving the Universities of Birmingham, Leicester,  Warwick, Loughborough, Cranfield and The Open University and four NERC research organisations.

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