NERC GW4+ DTP studentship: Hedges and verges as habitat networks for biodiversity, pollination and nutrient cycling

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

Main supervisor: Prof. Juliet Osborne (Environmental Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter)

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

The verges and hedges that border the UK road system provide a network of potentially valuable habitat for a host of plant, invertebrate and vertebrate species that deliver important ecosystem services in the surrounding landscape.  In particular, flower-visiting insects that pollinate plants and ground-dwelling invertebrates that decompose and recycle organic matter (as part of the carbon and nitrogen cycles) can thrive in such linear habitats. Indeed, these verge and hedge networks can be important for allowing these species to disperse and so persist in highly modified landscapes. However, the intensity with which the verges and hedges are managed, e.g. cutting regime, is likely to affect the value of these habitats for biodiversity and ecosystem function, and also the role that these habitats play in channelling movement across the landscape. This in turn may affect ecosystem service provision in the adjoining farmland matrix.

This project provides a collaborative training opportunity for a PhD student, based at the Cornwall campus of University of Exeter working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and our project partner the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) team. The AONB, who oversee 27% of the Cornwall landscape (covering an area of 958 sq. km), have just established a new initiative to develop pollinator-focussed projects and have a key policy to improve management of Cornish hedges and roads for wild flowers and pollinators.

The aims of this studentship are to:

1) Understand how invertebrates use Cornish hedges and verges and measure their contribution to ecosystem function in the wider landscape.

2) Explore whether these linear features effectively concentrate the populations of both beneficial invertebrates and their natural enemies, increasing the rate of predation or parasitism and consequently affecting ecosystem service provision. 

3) Compare how different management regimes affect the value of hedges and verges for pollinators and recycling invertebrates in particular.

The student will gain a broad understanding of community ecology and ecosystem services, in a primarily field-based project.  Prof James Bullock (CEH) and Prof Kevin Gaston (Exeter), with a wealth of expertise in community ecology, pollination systems, ecosystem services and studying the impacts of environmental management on biodiversity.

Whilst rooted in fundamental ecology, the project has strong application:  management of road edges is undertaken by a few organisations providing an opportunity to change verge and hedge management over large areas by working with a small number of stakeholders.

Please see for full information regarding applications.

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South West England