Can unimproved grasslands deliver natural flood management alongside multiple environmental benefits?

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

Main supervisor: Dr. Richard Brazier (Geography, 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 capacity of farmed landscapes to mitigate surface water flooding has proven to be woefully inadequate in recent years. It is becoming increasingly clear that the way in which agricultural landscapes are managed, with a heavy emphasis solely on food production, cannot provide society with the resilience that is required to combat enhanced levels of flood risk and diffuse pollution that will occur in years to come (Peukert et al., 2014).

Recent work has demonstrated that certain landscapes may mitigate flooding and pollution in a more natural way, storing water at wet times of year and releasing that water during times of drought (Puttock and Brazier 2014) and providing significant economic returns (Cowap et al., 2015). These unimproved grasslands were evident across most of the north west of Europe, but have gradually declined due to agricultural intensification, such that 90% of this habitat has now been lost since 1900. As a consequence, we argue that not only has a wildlife rich, biodiverse resource been lost, but that many catchments have also lost what are now understood to be critical ecosystem services; water storage, flood attenuation, soil carbon and the release of good water quality.

This project will deliver fundamental empirical understanding of the role that unimproved grasslands might play in mitigating flooding, but also providing the ecosystem services that intensive agriculture has removed from our landscape. The research will focus on the Culm Nature Improvement Area, in North Devon, which has recently received, Environment Agency and EU Interreg funding for habitat restoration specifically to create a landscape that is more resilient to climate change and more effective at improving water resources. The project will answer the following two research questions using novel techniques to monitor and model landscape structure and function (DeBell et al., 2015 

  1. Using replicated plot and headwater catchment monitoring, to what extent can unimproved grassland attenuate flood flows, with respect to conventional grassland management and at different stages of grassland recreation and restoration?
  2. Developing large catchment scale models of hydrological response, is it possible to demonstrate that natural flood management with unimproved grasslands can provide an alternative solution to traditional flood engineering approaches?

The PhD student will work closely with academic supervisors at the University of Exeter (Prof Brazier and Dr Anderson), as well as hydrologists at the EA (Dr Richard Smith) and habitat restoration specialists at the Devon Wildlife Trust (Lisa Schneidau). This multi-skilled team of supervisors will ensure that the PhD delivers maximum impact in solving this real-world problem with high quality natural environmental science.

Please see for full details regarding applications.

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South West England