PhD - How does woodland creation influence below-ground biodiversity, and soil and ecosystem functions?

This PhD will examine how woodland creation influences below-ground biodiversity, soil stabilisation, long term carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, and the time-scales required for the development of these processes. In addition, it will enable us to understand how the below-ground soil function and biodiversity relates to overall forest biodiversity, ecosystem services and resilience.

Background and project aims: Approximately a quarter of all living species are found in soils. The soil biota (microbes, fungi and fauna) underpin functions which provide essential ecosystem services such as carbon and nutrient cycling, critical for primary production and human food security. The ectomycorrhizas, the symbiotic organs at the interface between tree roots and fungi, are the main sites of nutrient and water exchange and link between soils and trees, thus a vital part of the belowground diversity and tree resilience. Intensive farming practices often impact negatively on soil biodiversity leading to concerns over agricultural sustainability.

Agri-environment schemes provide financial support to farmers to implement measures that will benefit wildlife and agricultural sustainability. However, currently, little is known about the development of soils functions and biodiversity following restoration efforts such as the creation of woodlands and agroforestry systems.

In this project, the student will examine changes in soil properties and below-ground biodiversity of mesofauna and ectomycorrhizal fungi (ECM) in particular resulting from woodland creation over the last 160 years. Sampling will take advantage of sites that are part of an existing long-term natural experiment to assess the impact of historic land use change on current aboveground biodiversity (The WrEN project; A three-way comparison of farmed land, secondary woodlands (10-150 years from establishment on the former farmed land) and ancient woodlands will be made to test the following hypotheses:

1. Taxonomic and functional diversity of soil biota (mesofauna and ECM) increase from actively farmed land to those under woodlands of increasing age and size.

2. The soil physical structure and its biogeochemical properties and functions change significantly from actively farmed land to those under woodlands of varying characteristics.

3. There are strong linkages between ECM fungal communities, diversity and functions with soil function and above-ground biodiversity.

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