How quickly can agri-environment schemes lead to nature recovery?


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Project overview

“Nature recovery” is a galvanising goal for 2050, but very difficult to achieve, especially under climate change. The restoration of significant areas of nature-rich habitat will be needed, and agri-environment schemes (AES) are a central policy to deliver this restoration. There are targets for the areas of habitat to restore, but the time taken for biodiversity to recover is highly uncertain. Recovery depends on local site factors such as the build-up of soil carbon, as well as the process of colonisation from the existing nature-rich habitat, and neither of these time-dependent factors are currently included in large-scale scenario models. Therefore, this project will quantify how quickly agri-environment schemes implemented now could lead to nature recovery at landscape and national scales. It will use grasslands in Wales as an exemplar ecosystem type.

You will work within the research group of Dr Jenny Hodgson at the University of Liverpool. Dr Hodgson and her postdocs have a large grant to explore new methods to achieve ‘robust conservation for a dynamic world’, and this PhD aligns to their ongoing research. The project is also co-supervised by Dr Simon Smart at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Dr James Latham at Natural Resources Wales (NRW), and in partnership with the Botanical Society of the British Isles. Together, this team has access to a wealth of biodiversity data and existing models that can be linked together to predict the future configuration of habitats, and whether plant species will be able to take advantage of increased habitat availability (for example see Bede et al 2023 and Smart et al 2019 in references below). A holistic understanding of the impact of restoration at a national scale, accounting for the co-dependencies between sites as well as the gradual soil changes wrought by management, has never been possible before. The insights we uncover will be directly relevant to policymakers, helping them to assess the amount of action it will take to meet the key headline goals they have adopted for 2030 and 2050. By collaborating with NRW and the Welsh Government, we will maximise the influence our results can have.

More specifically, we will use spatially explicit modelling to ask:

  • How long does nature recovery take under optimistic assumptions of agri-environment scheme uptake, existing semi-natural habitat protection and climate change?
  • Does the recovery of rare species take much longer than the recovery of the dominant species that define the habitat?
  • To which of the external drivers is nature recovery most sensitive?

The best candidate for this project will have GIS skills and an aptitude for modelling, combined with knowledge of ecology (the processes that contribute to species survival). Familiarity with one programming language, preferably R, and experience of running simulations are desirable. During the project you will benefit from advanced training in computational methods alongside teamworking with conservation professionals. Opportunities are likely available for a placement embedded within NRW or the Welsh Government.

Essential and desirable criteria


  • Knowledge of ecology
  • Aptitude for modelling
  • GIS skills


  • Familiarity with one programming language, preferably R
  • Skills in running simulations

How to apply

Notes and details of how to apply are available here:

All applicants to ACCE must complete the ACCE personal statement proforma. This is instead of a personal/supporting statement or cover letter. The proforma is designed to standardise this part of the application to minimise the difference between those who are given support and those who are not. Candidates should also submit a CV and the contact details of 2 referees.

Part-time study options

All ACCE PhDs are available as part time or full time, with part time being a minimum of 50% of full time. Please discuss potential part time arrangements with the primary supervisor before applying to the programme.

Project CASE status

This project is not a CASE project. While individual applicant quality is our overriding criterion for selection, the ACCE DTP has a commitment for 40% of all studentships to be CASE funded - as such, CASE projects may be favoured in shortlisting applicants when candidates are otherwise deemed to be equal or a consensus on student quality cannot be reached. This will only be done as a last resort for separating candidates.


Open to students worldwide

Funding information

Funded studentship

NERC ACCE DTP programme starts from October 2024.
UKRI provide the following funding for 3.5 years:

  • Stipend (2023/24 UKRI rate £18,622)
  • Tuition Fees at UK fee rate (2023/24 rate £4,712)
  • Research support and training grant (RTSG)

Note - UKRI funding only covers UK (Home) fees. The DTP partners have various schemes which allow international students to join the DTP but only be required to pay home fees. Home fees are already covered in the UKRI funding, meaning that successful international candidates do not need to find any additional funding for fees.



1.Travers, T.J.P., Alison, J., Taylor, S.D., Crick, H.Q.P. & Hodgson, J.A. (2021) Habitat patches providing South-North connectivity are under-protected in a fragmented landscape. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288, 20211010.
2.Threadgill, K.R.D., McClean, C.J., Hodgson, J.A., Jones, N. and Hill, J.K. (2020), Agri-environment conservation set-asides have co-benefits for connectivity. Ecography, 43: 1435-1447.
3.West, B., Jones, D. L., Robinson, E. L., Marrs, R. H., & Smart, S. M. (2023). Model-based assessment of the impact of agri-environment scheme options and short-term climate change on plant biodiversity in temperate grasslands. Ecological Solutions and Evidence, 4, e12233.
4.Smart, SM, Jarvis, SG, Mizunuma, T, et al. Assessment of a large number of empirical plant species niche models by elicitation of knowledge from two national experts. Ecol Evol. 2019; 9: 12858– 12868.