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The impact of tracks on peatland hydrological functioning

Prof Joseph Holden (SoG), Dr Richard Grayson (SoG)

Project partner(s): Natural England (CASE)

Contact email:

This is a 4 year fully funded NERC industrial CASE project and is not part of the main DTP competition, please see below for eligibility requirements and details of how to apply.

Globally there is little science literature about impacts of tracks/roads of different designs on peatlands and other wetlands, landscapes with wet, compressible soil. Yet access is increasingly being required for a range of purposes including windfarms, oil sand development, forestry access, wildfire safety, conservation access and game management.

Peatlands cover ~15% of the British Isles. Hence, peatland tracks are a key priority for Natural England, the CASE partner. They are also a priority for upland landowners who seek permission to lay tracks for moorland access. Natural England have consented for many estates to install temporary  mesh tracks for peatland access. However, they have not fully considered their relative influence compared to gravel tracks or other types of peatland road in terms of hydrological pathways and functioning (including flood risk); there is concern about flow accumulation & acceleration downslope and flow diversion which may lead to some peatland locations becoming drier. Furthermore, as legal consents from Natural England have so far been temporary, track removal implications need to be understood; damage upon removal (as vegetation that has grown through the mesh is severely disturbed) could be large.


 A recent PhD project at the University of Leeds studied the impacts of mesh tracks on water tables and peat compression, mainly using an experimental track at Moor House National Nature Reserve (McKendrick-Smith, 2017). However, little is known about wider impacts (e.g. runoff accumulation) of both hard tracks and plastic mesh tracks on peatlands (Natural England, 2014) or long-term effects of mesh track use. Little is also known about whether removal of plastic tracks causes substantial damage.



This project will investigate i) how roads and tracks of different designs influence the hydrology and flood risk from wetland systems; ii) understand the impacts of removing roads and tracks from wetlands; iii) produce innovative methods of road installation and removal to minimize damage and maximize benefits on site and to downstream flood prone or water supply communities.

Study design: The above issues will be tackled via a combined monitoring, experimental and modelling approach providing PhD skills benefits involving: 1) measure and determine how mesh, gravel, timber and unsurfaced roads, across a range of sites, impact flowpaths for water; 2) focussing on Natural England’s Moor House Reserve, a 1.5 km experimental mesh track funded by Natural England & two project partners will be studied to test the effects of different mesh track removal techniques on hydrological flow paths; 3) measure flow velocities arcoss/down different types of tracks for different slope angles and flow accumulation points; 4) use a model to test different spatial track scenarios to test optimal solutions for track location to minimise effects on i) local hillslope hydrological function and ii) downstream flow peaks.

Eligibility & funding

This studentship provides full UK/EU fees and a tax-free maintenance stipend of approximately £14,500 pa for 4 years.  Some funding for research costs is also included.   It is open to UK and EU applicants who meet the RCUK's residency requirements.  Normally this is UK applicants and EU applicants who have been ordinarily resident in the UK for at least 3 years preceding the start of the PhD study.  Further details can be found in Annex 1 of the UK Research Councils Training Grant Guide   

Applicants should have, or be on course to complete a good honours degree (2i or 1st) in related discipline.  A Masters degree is advantageous.

How to apply

Please submit a PhD application including all supporting documents listed here by 8th January 2018. Enquiries about the application process should be sent to Jacqui Manton, Research Postgraduate Administrator (j.manton(at)  Project related enquiries should be sent to Professor Joseph Holden (j.holden(at)

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Civil engineering
  • Earth science
  • Earth system science
  • Environmental management
  • Environmental science
  • Geography
  • Geoscience
  • Hydrology
  • Natural sciences
  • Physical geography
  • Physical science
  • Soil science
  • Sustainability and environmental management
  • Water management