Project highlights

  • Contribute to a greater understanding of the impacts of agricultural practice on biodiversity
  • Increase our understanding of the links between agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystem services
  • Develop cutting-edge data science, spatial analysis and remote sensing skills

 

Overview

Agricultural intensification and expansion are major drivers of the current global biodiversity crisis. It is therefore essential that we understand the nuances of the relationship between agricultural land-use, biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides in order to mediate the effects of increasing global demand for food. While there is much work on enhancing ecosystem services on farmland, less is known about how to support a broad range of biodiversity. Indeed, while we have some understanding of the impacts of agriculture on some species and functional groups, we do not have the broad taxonomic understanding that is required if we are to avoid the unintended consequences of managing landscapes for a single or narrow range of outcomes. Even less is known about how biodiversity directly contributes to farmland production, meaning it can be devalued by farmers.

Biodiversity can be measured in a wealth of ways. An increasingly supported measure of biodiversity is that of functional diversity: the range of ways by which organisms influence ecosystem functioning. Understanding how changes in biodiversity driven by agriculture affect functional diversity is crucial for many reasons. Firstly, understanding the effects of environmental change on functional diversity provides greater generality and predictability than focussing on species’ identities alone. Secondly, the most affected species may be providing similar or unique ecological functions, leading to a loss of that function. Finally, functional traits provide the link between biodiversity and ecosystem resilience and function, and therefore ecosystem services.

The aim of this project is to gain an understanding of the relationship between agricultural land-use – in the context of the wider landscape – and functional diversity, covering a wide range of functions and taxonomic groups via the following questions: 1) which functional groups are most impacted by agricultural land-use?; 2) are communities in agriculturally intensive landscapes more functionally homogenised (and less resilient) compared to other land-uses?; and 3) how can we design agricultural landscapes to avoid loss of functional diversity and ecosystem services? The project will lead to new insights and syntheses concerning how multiple species are impacted by agriculture and how these impacts alter ecosystem functioning.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Host

University of Birmingham

Theme

  • Organisms and Ecosystems

Supervisors

Project investigator

  • Laura Graham (University of Birmingham)

 

 

Co-investigators

  • Tom Matthews (University of Birmingham)
  • James Bullock (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)
  • Matthew Heard (National Trust)

How to apply

Methodology

The research will consist of four parts: (1) development of functional diversity metrics which provide a link between functional diversity and ecosystem functions; (2) measuring agricultural landscape structure and intensity in meaningful ways; (3) application of these metrics to a national or multi-national case study to understand the links between agricultural landscape structure and functional diversity; (4) development of agricultural land-use scenarios which reflect both policy decisions, and forward looking ‘future nature’ approaches.

You will have the opportunity to combine UK-based fieldwork on National Trust sites, with a (macroecological) study – using the PREDICTS database – into global effects of agriculture on functional diversity.

Training and skills

You will receive training in cutting edge ecological modelling and remote sensing techniques. You will also benefit from the range of applied and theoretical ecology expertise of the supervisory team. The fieldwork component of the project will allow you to develop specific ecological survey techniques. Additionally, you will be part of the growing Ecology & Biogeography group at the University of Birmingham, which has a number of researchers across all career stages in the general field of ecology. Through external collaborations you will have the opportunity to build your network.

Partners and collaboration

The PhD project has two external partners. Prof. James Bullock at UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and Prof. Matthew Heard at the National Trust. Both have a wealth of expertise in functional and landscape ecology, with links to defining forward-looking policy-relevant research questions. The link with UK CEH will provide you with access to data from the Biological Records Office, and the ASSIST and AgLand projects. The link with National Trust will provide you with access to their sites across the UK.

Further details

Laura Graham (University of Birmingham, l.graham@bham.ac.uk)

Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal, https://sits.bham.ac.uk/lpages/LES068.htm, by midnight 11.01.2021. Please first check whether the primary supervisor is within Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or in Biosciences, and click on the corresponding PhD program on the application page.

This application should include

  • a brief cover letter, CV, and the contact details for at least two referees
  • a CENTA application form
  • the supervisor and title of the project you are applying for under the Research Information section of the application form.

Referee’s will be invited to submit their references once you submit your application, but we strongly encourage applicants to ensure referees are aware of your submission and expecting a reference request from us. Students are also encouraged to visit and explore the additional information available on the CENTA website.


This is a CENTA Flagship Project

These have been selected because the project meets specific characteristics such as CASE support, collaboration with our CENTA high-level end-users, diversity of the supervisory team, career development of the supervisory team, collaboration with one of our Research Centre Partners (BGS, CEH, NCEO, NCAS) or student co-designed project. These characteristics are a CENTA priority. Studentships associated with Flagship projects will be provided exactly the same level of support as all other studentships.

Possible timeline

Year 1

Familiarisation with concepts of functional ecology, spatial data analysis and agricultural scenarios. Development of functional diversity metrics and landscape structure metrics. Visit to field sites.

Year 2

Field data collection / big data analysis to gain understanding of the link between functional diversity and agricultural landscape structure and intensity.

Year 3

Development of agricultural scenarios and application of these to the field data and/or macroecological data.

Further reading

Coops, N.C., Wulder, M.A., 2019. Breaking the Habit(at). Trends in Ecology & Evolution 0. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2019.04.013

Finch, T., Gillings, S., Green, R.E., Massimino, D., Peach, W.J., Balmford, A., 2019. Bird conservation and the land sharing-sparing continuum in farmland-dominated landscapes of lowland England. Conservation Biology 33, 1045–1055. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13316

Finch, T., Green, R.E., Massimino, D., Peach, W.J., Balmford, A., 2020. Optimising nature conservation outcomes for a given region-wide level of food production. Journal of Applied Ecology 57, 985–994. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13594

Graham, L.J., Spake, R., Gillings, S., Watts, K., Eigenbrod, F., 2019. Incorporating fine-scale environmental heterogeneity into broad-extent models. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 10, 767–778. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13177

National Trust (2020) National Trust Land Map. Available at: https://nationaltrust.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=a7a56518c10845daab1950239e041447 (Accessed 8th October 2020)

Oliver, T.H., Isaac, N.J.B., August, T.A., Woodcock, B.A., Roy, D.B., Bullock, J.M., 2015. Declining resilience of ecosystem functions under biodiversity loss. Nature Communications 6, 10122. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10122

Redhead, J.W., Powney, G.D., Woodcock, B.A., Pywell, R.F., 2020. Effects of future agricultural change scenarios on beneficial insects. Journal of Environmental Management 265, 110550. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2020.110550

Spake, R., Bellamy, C., Graham, L.J., Watts, K., Wilson, T., Norton, L.R., Wood, C.M., Schmucki, R., Bullock, J.M., Eigenbrod, F., 2019. An analytical framework for spatially targeted management of natural capital. Nature Sustainability 2, 90–97. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0223-4

Woodcock, B.A., Garratt, M.P.D., Powney, G.D., Shaw, R.F., Osborne, J.L., Soroka, J., Lindström, S. a. M., Stanley, D., Ouvrard, P., Edwards, M.E., Jauker, F., McCracken, M.E., Zou, Y., Potts, S.G., Rundlöf, M., Noriega, J.A., Greenop, A., Smith, H.G., Bommarco, R., van der Werf, W., Stout, J.C., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Morandin, L., Bullock, J.M., Pywell, R.F., 2019. Meta-analysis reveals that pollinator functional diversity and abundance enhance crop pollination and yield. Nature Communications 10, 1481. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09393-6

Woodcock, B.A., Harrower, C., Redhead, J., Edwards, M., Vanbergen, A.J., Heard, M.S., Roy, D.B., Pywell, R.F., 2014. National patterns of functional diversity and redundancy in predatory ground beetles and bees associated with key UK arable crops. Journal of Applied Ecology 51, 142–151. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12171

COVID-19

Although there is the option for a fieldwork component to the project, given this fieldwork is UK-based, it fits within current restrictions due to COVID, and all relevant Health & Safety measures will be taken. Should restrictions tighten, the research can focus on the global macroecological analysis instead.