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Soil and Ecosystem Ecology Lab

Field sites

We carry out research across a number of different field sites around the UK and across the world. We study the local ecosystem to determine soil health and how this affects the local flora and fauna.

Alpine grasslands, Austria

Alpine grasslands store large amounts of carbon and nutrients, harbour much biodiversity, and provide food, fodder and clean water. However, they are also experiencing rapid climate and land-use change. As part of a NERC funded project with colleagues from the University of Innsbruck, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), and Technical University of Munich/ Helmholtz Center, Munich, we have established a network of high-alpine field sites across three valleys in Austria. We aim to test how climate and land use change affect soil microbial community composition and functioning, and the consequences for biogeochemical cycling. Our main site at Vent (2470m) has a snow and vegetation manipulation experiment that has been running for 3 years.

Two people in snow suits sit in snow on a mountain in Austria.

Alpine grassland (Uttendorf, Austria), one of the 30 grassland sites used in this project.

The aim of the project is to develop and test a unified trait-based framework for predicting soil microbial community response to extreme climatic events and the consequences for soil functioning. We will identify the traits responsible for microbial response to extreme events and link these to microbial effects-traits, underlying metabolic processes predicting soil functioning.

Colt Park Meadows, Ingleborough

To the north of Manchester is an extensive area of carboniferous limestone known as the Yorkshire Dales. The area has been farmed for centuries and, as a result, the landscape is composed of a mosaic of species rich meadows, upland grassland and moorland on higher ground. Ingelborough National Nature Reserve is typical of this area, and provides us with a range of habitats for our research.

Solar panels sat on wooden frames in a meadow.

However, most of our research has been focused on a long-term grassland diversity restoration experiment at Colt Park, set up in 1989 by Roger Smith of Newcastle University. We have been using the site to test how grassland diversity restoration influences ecosystem services, especially the storage of carbon in soil, and how soil biota influence plant diversity restoration. We are currently exploring how grassland diversity restoration influences the resistance of soil processes to drought, which is likely to become more frequent in this area.

DIGFOR UK grassland network

As part of a Defra funded project, DIGFOR, we established a large-scale network of 180 grasslands across England, covering different grassland and soil types, and levels of management intensity, ranging from unimproved, traditionally low intensity management, to low-moderate intensity management, to agriculturally improved intensively managed grassland.

A white house nestled among rolling, green hills.

We have used this network to determine how land management regulates soil microbial communities and ecosystem processes across grassland types, and to determine the role of plant traits as drivers of microbial communities at the landscape level. We are currently using a sub-set of these grasslands as part of a EU funded project called EcoFinders, to test how land management influences soil food web complexity.

Glacier forelands

The forelands of retreating glaciers provide an ideal natural laboratory to study how plant and soil communities develop over time.

A wide-angle shot of a valley carved out by glaciers with snow-capped mountains in the background.

To this end, we have been using a range of glacier forelands in the European Alps to test how microbial communities develop and gain resources during primary succession, and how changes in microbial community composition during succession impact on nutrient cycling. Sites include the Odenwinkelkees and Rootmos Glaciers in the Austrian Alps, and the Damma Glacier in Switzerland.

Hambleton

Hambleton in Yorkshire is used by Fay Voller and David Johnson to research specialist and generalist ectomycorrhizal fungi. 

Tall, thin trees clustered together with green ferns around their bases.

Hambleton is one of around 360 Long-term Experiments managed by Forest Research on a wide range of topics.  In terms of tree species present there are plots which contain birch and pine as monocultures and birch and pine mixtures in two different ratios (1:1 and 3:1 mixtures) which were planted in 1961.

Moor House National Nature Reserve

We have a long tradition of carrying out research on blanket peat at Moor House National Nature Reserve, in the North Pennines, England. The site is cold and wet, with a mean annual temperature of about 6°C and mean annual rainfall of 2012 mm, and the peat is covered by heathland vegetation dominated by Calluna vulgaris.

Small hexagonal polythene enclosures dotted across a moorland.

Our main research interest here is to understand how land use and climate change influence peatland carbon dynamics. We use two field experiments at this site. The first is a long term grazing and burning experiment, which was set up in 1954, and the other a factorial plant removal and climate change experiment, which was set up in 2009. Using this experiment, we recently discovered that changes in vegetation composition alter the impact of climate warming on greenhouse gas emissions from peatland.

Pinus sylvestris forest, near ├ůsele Sweden

This forest is an even-aged stand of Pinus sylvestris (scots pine) in which a replicated fertilisation experiment has been conducted by Skogforsk (Swedish Forestry Research Institute) for ~30 years. The site has extremely low background nitrogen (N) deposition levels, and this is reflected in the understory vegetation which comprises N-sensitive Vaccinium spp. and lichens. 

A wide-angle shot of Pinus sylvestris trees in a sparsely planted woodland.

We are currently using this site as a basis for experiments on ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungal functioning across different levels of N availability. This includes (1) testing how trade-offs in ECM fungal N resource use and competition, interacts with inorganic N availability to drive patterns of mycorrhizal fungal diversity, and (2) exploring how this shift in ECM communities and N availability influences pine growth and defence trade-offs.

ReDEAL project: restoring degraded African landscapes

ReDEAL is a two year BBSRC funded project which aims to understand the challenges and biological mechanisms of restoring grasslands degraded by overgrazing. Working in the Kericho region, Western Kenya, University of Manchester team members Dr Ellen Fry and Professor Richard Bardgett are collaborating with Lancaster University, the University of Kabianga and CGIAR to deliver project outcomes based on plant-soil interactions.

A wide-angle shot of African farmland.

Dr Fry co-ordinates Work Package 2, which consists of a trait screen of native grassland species to help inform decision making in restoration outcomes, and also a plant community experiment that will test the impact of different plant communities on ecosystem function and soil health. These studies take place in a bespoke greenhouse at the University of Kabianga. Dr Fry and Professor Bardgett are also involved in Work Package 1, which is a comprehensive survey of sixty sites across Western Kenya, looking at degraded, transitioning and equilibrium grasslands. Their role is to characterise the soil nutrients and microbiology in each of these states. The project will run until March 2021.

Selside Meadows

In 2012, we established a new field experiment at Selside meadows, close to Colt Park in the Yorkshire Dales.

Green trees among a rolling valley of green hills.

The experiment was set up on a species-poor, agriculturally improved grassland, and involved sowing a range of plots with different mixtures of plant species to test how various trait assemblages impact soil carbon sequestration. The ultimate aim of the work, which is funded by BBSRC, is to determine optimal grassland communities for carbon storage and the stability of carbon fluxes under climate change.