Project highlights

  • Novel research a UK wetland priority habitat which is a focus for conservation management.  
  • Fantastic opportunity to shape the project to your interests but focusing on interactions between ecological processes above and below-ground. 
  • Exciting work on internationally important long-term ecological experiments (50 years of data). 


Coastal dune slacks are highly biodiverse wetland habitats and a UK conservation priority. They support charismatic priority species such as natterjack toads and orchids and provide a range of ecosystem services. But coastal dune slacks are under threat: habitat loss and deterioration of ecological condition have reduced the quantity and quality of dune slack habitat. Active management such as conservation grazing facilitates recovery and increases resilience of plant communities to environmental change, but we still do not have a full understanding of other ecological processes and patterns. In this project you will develop new understanding of how habitat restoration influences aboveground-belowground interactions. 

Coastal dune slacks are dynamic systems where conservation management usually involves altering successional trajectories through managed grazing, mowing and remobilisation of sand. The impacts of these processes and management on belowground processes are not well known, despite this being a key component of ecosystem function and resilience. Grazing is likely to have direct and indirect effects on plant-soil interactions, as animals are selective in their grazing behaviour. This selective behaviour will also result in local changes to the soil environment and nutrient composition. We would expect these impacts to translate belowground, where they might alter microbial composition and soil structure, affecting rates of decomposition, nutrient transformation, and greenhouse gas emissions.  This project offers an exciting opportunity to contribute to existing long-term experiments (e.g. Ainsdale Dune Slacks LTE and the global NutNet or DRAGNet) allowing access to roughly 50 years of data. In addition, unique experiments can be developed.  

The aim is to investigate how management impacts on above-belowground interactions in dune slack habitats. The objectives are flexible to reflect the students interests but may include:  

  1. Determine management impacts on below-ground processes (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions) and/or communities (e.g. microbial) through mechanisms such as altered plant nutrient dynamics, litter quality and decomposition.  
  2. Determine the contribution of changes in community composition vs species traits on belowground processes e.g. by undertaking selective removal experiments. 
  3. Identify, with dune managers and policy makers, ways to integrate below-ground processes into management plans. 

Photograph of a group of herdwick sheep grazing on brown scrubby grass near grassy sand dunes.

Figure 1: Herdwick Sheep grazing a dune slack at Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve, Merseyside. 


Loughborough University


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Dr Jonathan Millett, Loughborough University: [email protected] 


Dr Maud van Soest, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology: [email protected] 

Dr Helen Glanville, Loughborough University: [email protected] 

Dr Ciara Dwyer, Lund University, Sweden: [email protected]  

Dr Aidan Keith, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology: [email protected]  

How to apply


These methods are indicative, and the actual approach will be finalised with the student. This project is expected to use one or both existing long-term experiments. Ainsdale Dune Slacks Long Term Experiment, Merseyside was established in 1974 and comprises grazing exclosures within four dune slacks. Ainsdale Dunes Slacks Disturbance Experiment was established in 2021 and comprises 15 large plots within one dune slack. In this experiment replicated manipulation of disturbance consists of reducing disturbance through grazing exclusion or increasing disturbance through direct disturbance of the soil. These plots are respectively part of the NutNet and DRAGNet global research networks. 

This project will involve measuring plant and soil processes within plots in one or both experiments, plus potentially plots at additional sites along environmental gradients. The project may also involve manipulating plant communities in the Ainsdale Dunes Slacks Disturbance Experiment through selective removal, to measure plant and soil responses. 

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 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.  

This project will provide a fantastic platform to gain multidisciplinary training, including in experiment development, greenhouse gas measurement, plant surveys, plant community analysis and soil science methods. The candidate will join the vibrant research communities at Loughborough University, UKCEH and Lund University (Sweden), where they can network with colleagues and peers. They will have the opportunity to present their results at the annual Loughborough and UKCEH conferences plus at least one international research conference. The successful candidate will be encouraged to disseminate their results to stakeholders such as Natural England at the study sites. Undertaking a NERC PhD offers opportunities to undertake fellowships with UKRI. 

Partners and collaboration

This project will involve working closely with the Natural England team at Ainsdale Dunes NNR as well as UKCEH, and may involve working with other organisations involved in dune management (e.g. National Trust, Natural Resources Wales). There is also the opportunity to work with our international collaborators involved with the NutNet and DRAGNet as well as Lund University. 

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Dr Jon Millett ([email protected]) or Dr Helen Glanville ([email protected]).

To apply to this project: 

  • You must include a CENTA studentship application form, downloadable from: CENTA Studentship Application Form 2024. 
  • You must include a CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three) who can comment on your academic abilities. 
  • Please submit your application and complete the host institution application process via: The CENTA application form 2024 and CV can be uploaded at Section 10 “Supporting Documents” of the online portal. Under Section 4 “Programme Selection” the proposed study centre is Central England NERC Training Alliance. Please quote CENTA 2024-LU1 when completing the application form. 
  • For further enquiries about the application process, please contact the School of Social Sciences & Humanities ([email protected]).

 Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Literature review; introduction to sampling techniques; finalisation of research questions and approaches. Summer – first fieldwork season (year 1 measurements).

Year 2

Laboratory analysis; second field work season (year 2 measurements); conference in the UK. 

Year 3

Continuation of lab work; if required last field work at the start of year 3; international conference; Focus on thesis submission and defence. 

The student will be encouraged to work on the thesis and manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals throughout the duration of the project.  

Further reading

Dwyer, C., Millett, J., Jones, L., Bartholomeus, R.P., Van Willegen, L., Chavasse, A. and Pakeman, R.J. (2022) Patterns of variation in plant diversity vary over different spatial levels in seasonal coastal wetlands. Diversity and Distributions, 28, 1875-1890. 

Dwyer, C., Millett, J., Pakeman, R.J. and Jones, L. (2021) Environmental modifiers of the relationship between water table depth and Ellenberg’s indicator of soil moisture. Ecological Indicators, 132, 108320. 

Dwyer, C., Pakeman, R.J., Jones, L., van Willegen, L., Hunt, N. and Millett, J. (2021) Fine‐scale hydrological niche segregation in coastal dune slacks. Journal of Vegetation Science, 32, e13085. 

Millett, J. and Edmondson, S. (2015) The impact of 36 years of grazing management on soil nitrogen (N) supply rate and Salix repens N status and internal cycling in dune slacks. Plant and Soil, 396, 411-420. 

Millett, J. and Edmondson, S. (2013) The impact of 36 years of grazing management on vegetation dynamics in dune slacks. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 1367-1376. 

Rhymes, J., Jones, L., Wallace, H., Jones, T.G., Dunn, C. and Fenner, N. (2016) Small changes in water levels and groundwater nutrients alter nitrogen and carbon processing in dune slack soils. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 99, 28-35.