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Implications of rewilding for hydrological response in upland catchments

Dr Steve Carver (SoG), Prof Joseph Holden (SoG)

Project partner(s): United Utilities (CASE)

Contact email:

Project Summary

Rewilding is rapidly gaining popularity within the conservation sector as a method of protecting wildlife and habitats, yet the implications for biophysical processes across a range of ecosystems are not fully understood. It has often been suggested that rewilding of upland catchments through the reduction (or removal) of grazing, regeneration of native woodland cover, river restoration, etc. can help reduce runoff and sediment yields and so reduce downstream flood risk and associated costs such as water treatment and engineered flood defences. While there is anecdotal evidence to support such claims, there have been few studies directed at providing the required quantifiable evidence required to support wider policy on use of rewilding as a tool to reduce the impacts from increased hydro-meteorological risks associated with climate and land use change. In particular, there is a desire to better understand the differences in hydrological response to rainfall inputs between the Thirlmere and Ennerdale catchments in the English Lake District.

Flood damage in Thirlemere and River Liza, Ennerdale.

There are major questions about whether changes to catchment management have influenced flood response and whether future changes might reduce downstream flood and sediment risks. This project will address this evidence gap through a combination of historical data analysis, remote sensing and hydro-meteorological monitoring in a paired catchment study in the English Lake District. Research will focus on two principal catchments; Thirlmere and Ennerdale, the latter being one of the UK's premier upland rewilding projects while the former has suffered from flooding and associated high sediment yields in recent storms. The project will involve the installation of in-field instrumentation and monitoring equipment to complement existing facilities and records with associated fieldwork within both catchments. Data collected will be used to populate and parameterise predictive models. These will be used to estimate the likely costs/benefits of possible future land use policies (e.g. rewilding, business-as-usual, BREXIT, intensification, etc.) and the possible implications of climate change scenarios on future flood events. Models will be scaled-up across the rest of the Lake District.

Research questions

Potential research questions include:  1) how can existing digital datasets be used to characterise the hydro-geomorphology of the two catchments, 2) how can historic flow records best be used to characterise differences in catchment response to precipitation inputs, particularly for large storm events, 3) how can selected and careful instrumentation of the two catchments help inform current differences in response to future storm events, 4) how can hydrological models be coupled to land use change models to predict catchment response to a reference storm event under a range of possible future land use and management scenarios, and 5) how can these models be scaled up across the rest of the Lake District?

Methodological Approach

To address these questions, a range of interdisciplinary approaches are necessary including secondary data analysis utilising spatio-temporal methods, fieldwork and analysis of catchment data on a range of biophysical variables including topography, hydrology, soils, geology, land cover and management practices, and numerical modelling techniques to predict catchment responses to future land use change scenarios. Participatory GIS methods will be used to survey and collate local knowledge from land managers.        


You will work under the supervision of Dr. Steve Carver and Prof. Joseph Holden and receive specific training in the skills required for this project (e.g. GIS, spatial and time series analysis, earth observation, participatory methods).  You will be based jointly in the River Basin and CSAP research clusters in the School of Geography. You will be working on a topic of significant global relevance of wide scientific and societal interest.  The project will work closely with project partners including United Utilities, The National Trust, Natural England, Forestry Commission, Woodland Trust and Lake District National Park Authority. 

Student Profile

We are looking for a candidate that thrives in a multidisciplinary context.  You should have a good grounding in natural or physical sciences and a strong interest in …..  The successful student must have a bachelors or masters degree in Geography or a related discipline and must be able to demonstrate a range of appropriate skills including ability to work in the field (installation and maintenance of monitoring equipment, sampling and in-field measurement), data handling, GIS & remote sensing, quantitative/numerical analysis, physical and chemical water analysis. 


Flood management and nature–can rewilding help? (2016). ECOS, 37(1), 32-42.

Dadson SJ; Hall JW; Murgatroyd A; Acreman M; Holden J et al. (2017) A restatement of the natural science evidence concerning catchment-based 'natural' flood management in the UK, Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 473, . doi: 10.1098/rspa.2016.0706

Gao J; Holden J; Kirkby M (2016) The impact of land-cover change on flood peaks in peatland basins, Water Resources Research, 52, pp.3477-3492. doi: 10.1002/2015WR017667

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Earth science
  • Earth system science
  • Environmental management
  • Environmental science
  • Geography
  • Geoscience
  • Hydrology
  • Physical geography
  • Remote sensing