Project Description

Overarching Aim: By assessing future management practices and identifying the most impactful behaviours the project intends to inform how farms across Northern Ireland could accelerate the move towards net carbon zero operations.  Working within three large farming and soil health project/networks (ARCZero, Soil Nutrient Health Scheme (SNHS) and AgriSearch), established for calculating whole farm carbon stocks, annual emissions and soil fertility baselines, this study will access a detailed/high resolution collective of soil (organic) carbon, nutrient indices, remote sensing (LiDAR) and physiochemical soil sustainability indicators, within a framework of benchmarked current practices encompassing dairy, beef and lamb farming types, geolocated across the dominant agri-scapes of NI, which includes native Irish woodland and hedgerow habitats.  

Well-tested models, populated by spatial datasets of climate, soil characteristics, land use and land management, will be harmonised against in-field measurements, which will include mixed species swards to project likely changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) content. By using all these data and information streams together/simultaneously/concurrently, soil monitoring, reporting and verification is more impactful/effective/economical (Smith et al., 2020). Although, providing regional/provincial representation of a region of interest (Northern Ireland), analysis will be embodied in global modelling frameworks.  

The developed models of SOC will be used to prioritise soil carbon mitigation actions within NI, but will also overlay/intertwine with supply chain sustainability action plans for UK retailers. Here placement opportunities will enable alignment of on ground recommendations for land management within considerations of ethical material sourcing, reducing supply chain carbon emissions and zero waste, with a focus on soil carbon sequestration (McGuire et al., 2022). 

Research support will include training in integrated modelling approaches, model development and validation, scenario design and the methodology for sensitivity analysis. Opportunities for in-depth, and both practical and fundamental learnings across multiple NI farm enterprises exist. So, to will skills in soil sampling, methods of analysis and measurement QC. The project involves working with multiple stakeholders, from individual farm businesses through to multinational corporations and government organisations, there will be plenty of scope to attend workshops, farm walks, and other communication outreach events. The supervisory team cover a wide breadth of expertise, which mirrors the scope and ambition of the project.  

Essential & desirable candidate skills

Essential: Soil science and agriculture background, contribute to the design of experiments and demonstrate ability to led data analysis work.  

Desirable: Relevant experience of Irish agriculture/soils and the agri-industry sector.  

Supervisors

Nigel Scollan

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Nigel Scollan
Email: Nigel.Scollan@qub.ac.uk
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Pete Smith

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Pete Smith
Email: pete.smith@abdn.ac.uk
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Paul N. Williams

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Paul N. Williams
Email: p.williams@qub.ac.uk
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Professor John Gilliland (QUB). PI- ArcZero. Accelerating Ruminant Farming Towards Carbon Zero (www.arczeroni.org) 

John is currently Director of Agriculture & Sustainability at Devenish Nutrition. He chaired the Sustainable Agriculture Land Management Strategy Northern Ireland (on behalf of DAERA) and has held many other appointments including Director of the Oxford Farming Conference, Chair of the UK’s Rural Climate Change Forum and an Expert Industry Advisor (agriculture) on the EU Commission’s Soil Health & Food Mission Board Assembly. 

Dr Ryan McGuire: Ryan is a senior research fellow with the Food Futures project, where he has been leading the development of informatics modelling (machine-learning) derived single-indicator metrics for farm sustainability focusing on carbon balancing, farm gross margin and farm-family wellbeing.  

References

McGuire, R.; Williams, P. N.; Smith, P.; McGrath, S. P.; Curry, D.; Donnison, I.; Emmet, B.; Scollan, N. Potential Co-Benefits and Trade-Offs between Improved Soil Management, Climate Change Mitigation and Agri-Food Productivity. Food Energy Secur. 2022, 11 (2). https://doi.org/10.1002/fes3.352. 

Smith, P.; Soussana, J. F.; Angers, D.; Schipper, L.; Chenu, C.; Rasse, D. P.; Batjes, N. H.; van Egmond, F.; McNeill, S.; Kuhnert, M.; et al. How to Measure, Report and Verify Soil Carbon Change to Realize the Potential of Soil Carbon Sequestration for Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Removal. Glob. Chang. Biol. 2020, 26 (1), 219–241. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14815. 

Impact

Soil management is critical for the agricultural sector in Northern Ireland (and beyond) to realise carbon neutrality goals. To date there has been comparably little detailed study of soil organic carbon in the region. However, under new project initiatives, with high density sampling, this is changing.  These novel datasets will provide unique insights into not only the current soil carbon soil stocks, but will be integrated with past and present land use history and site information (geological/soil pedogenesis) and climate data.  

NI despite its small size, contains some of the most diverse geology of anywhere in the United Kingdom and Ireland. 

Ranging from the oldest Precambrian rocks dating back almost one billion years, right up to soft Quaternary sediments from the end of the last glaciation 13,000 years ago, there is representation from all major geological time periods. Geodiversity, or the variety of rocks, minerals, fossils, landforms, and soils, is something still poorly understood in terms of soil carbon sequestration and carbon stability. Layered on top of this are differences in farming practices and a temperature/maritime climate, with mild, wet but changeable weathers, which produce a landscape of extremely rich diversity. Different farming enterprises from different regions need specific advice/guidance on best practices for soil carbon sequestration. Not just in terms of topsoil accumulation, but sustainable, deeper horizon deposition. Those farm sites with already pre-existing high levels of SOC, need to maintain and nurture the stocks.  

The impact of this project will also stem from the connections/collaborations with three key stakeholder enterprises: Beef, dairy and sheep sectors. It will unlock, the drivers/interests each have in prioritising SOC management and inform analysis of the datasets to ensure purposeful and relevant interrogations/conclusions/recommendations.  

Proposed Supervision

Professor Pete Smith (FRS, FRSE, FNA, FEurASc, FRSB, F I Soil Sci.): Pete’s main areas of expertise are in modelling greenhouse gas / carbon mitigation, bioenergy, biological carbon sequestration, global food systems modelling and greenhouse gas removal technologies. Pete is a member of the First Minister’s Council,  which advises the Scottish government on international best practices for tackling the climate emergency and ecological decline. 

Professor Nigel Scollan: Nigel is also a world-leading expert in animal agriculture and associated supply chains and is the current Director of the Institute for Global Food Security and Professor of Animal Science at Queens University Belfast. His research is primarily related to designing improved systems for ruminant livestock, through the use of improved nutrition and genetics to enhance the sustainability and efficiency of the production systems. 

Professor John Gilliland: John is currently Director of Agriculture & Sustainability at Devenish Nutrition. 

He chaired the Sustainable Agriculture Land Management Strategy Northern Ireland (on behalf of DAERA), and has held many other appointments including Director of the Oxford Farming Conference, Chair of the UK’s Rural Climate Change Forum and an Expert Industry Advisor (agriculture) on the EU Commission’s Soil Health & Food Mission Board Assembly. 

Dr Ryan McGuire: Ryan is a senior research fellow with the Food Futures project, where he has been leading the development of informatics modelling (machine-learning) derived single-indicator metrics for farm sustainability focusing on carbon balancing, farm gross margin and farm-family wellbeing.  

Dr Paul N. Williams: Paul is a plant rhizosphere biogeochemist, Director of the Agricultural Technology degree programme at QUB, and co-lead for an ROI EPA funded Biocities project on urban biowaste conversion and all-island biobased economies. He is also the Ireland Editorial advisor for the ACS journal “Environmental Science & Technology”.

Proposed Timetable

Year 1  

  • Induction/orientation/stakeholder & supervisor meetings.  
  • Literature review (2-3 months as required). 
  • Drafting of research proposal plan.  
  • Training in:  
  • soil sampling and laboratory methods used in the datasets.  
  • carbon modelling and multivariate data analysis methods (Part-I) (Aberdeen placement – 1 month).  
  • informatics modelling (machine-learning) derived single-indicator metrics for farm sustainability. 
  • Preliminary data analysis of SOC measurements using multivariate techniques – interdependency of soil chemical vs. soil chemical parameters.  
  • CASE placement (1 month) – AgriSearch (www.agrisearch.org) 
  • General DTP training and skills development. Taking online courses, if necessary, for additional support. 
  • Presentation at the PGR student symposium. 
  • Initial Review and Differentiation (QUB). 

 

Year 2  

  • Further Training in:  
  • carbon modelling and multivariate data analysis methods (Part-I) (Aberdeen placement – 1 month). 
  • informatics modelling (machine-learning) derived single-indicator metrics for farm sustainability. 
  • Perform SOC modelling work (using all data produced). 
  • Specific training as required (scientific writing, etc) 
  • CASE placement (1 month) – AgriSearch (www.agrisearch.org) 
  • Presentation at the PGR student symposium and/or participation in a national or international conference. 

 

Year 3 

  • Training in carbon modelling and multivariate data analysis methods (Aberdeen placement – 2 month). 
  • Perform SOC modelling work (using all data produced). 
  • CASE placement (1 month) – AgriSearch (www.agrisearch.org) 
  • Presentation in PGR student symposium and/or in national/international conference. 

 

Year 4   

  • Complete modelling and data analysis.  
  • Writing up of thesis.  
  • Presentation in PGR student symposium and/or in national/international conference. 

QUADRAT Themes

  • environmental-management

Partners

A CASE Partnership has been agreed with AgriSearch  

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