School of Earth and Environment

The impacts of semi-natural woodland on flooding in the UK

Supervisors: Dominick Spracklen, Piers Forster (SEE, Leeds), Brian Irvine, Mike Kirkby, (Geography, Leeds), Lee Schofield (RSPB)

Contact email: D.V.Spracklen(at) 

Application deadline: 31 January 2017

This fully-funded 3.5 years award is available to UK/EU candidates only and will include tuition fees (£4,250 for 2017/18), tax-free stipend (£14,296 for 2016/17) and research training and support grant. 


Riverine flooding affects more than 100 million people worldwide with annual losses that exceed US $40 billion. In the UK, floods in the winter of 2015-2016 (Figure 1) are estimated to have caused more than £15 billion in damages. Floods may also increase soil erosion and sediment transport resulting in poor water quality and increasing water treatment costs. There is considerable interest in the potential to use natural processes to mitigate flood events and improve water quality. It has been suggested that changes to land management such as reduced livestock grazing and increasing tree cover may reduce flood peaks as well as improve water quality. Livestock grazing reduces vegetation cover and compacts soil, reducing water infiltration. Trees and woodland increase water interception and evapotranspiration rates as well as modifying soil properties. Despite the interest in harnessing natural processes to reduce flood risk many of the important processes are still poorly understood and the evidence supporting changes to land management is ambiguous. There have been relatively few studies on the role of woodlands on flooding within the UK, and much previous work has focused on commercial forest plantations which are likely to have different impacts compared to semi-natural woodlands. This projects aims to address this gap by exploring the role of semi-natural upland woodland on flooding in the UK. The project will use long-term records of rainfall and stream flow across the UK combined with land cover data to assess the impact of different land-cover types on hydrological response. It will examine the effects of upland management of downstream flooding. Case studies of extensive semi-natural habitats within the UK will be examined in more detail and will involve extended periods of field work. The project is in collaboration with the RSPB and United Utilities. The project will support the evidence base on the role of semi-natural habitats in the uplands in altering flood risk.

Figure 1. Flooding in the Lake District during December 2015. This project will explore the role upland woodlands have in altering flood risk.
Figure 1. Flooding in the Lake District during December 2015. This project will explore the role upland woodlands have in altering flood risk.


This project will improve our understanding of the role played by land cover, particularly semi-natural upland woodlands, in altering flood risk in the UK. Specifically, the studentship will: 

a)     Explore the connection between land cover and hydrological response across the UK using long term records of stream flow and rainfall.

b)     Collect new data on the impact of semi-natural woodlands on hydrological response.

c)     Examine effects of upland woodlands on downstream water levels. 

The project includes both the opportunity to analyse existing data and to undertake field work. The first objective would be achieved through a detailed analysis of existing, long-term records of river flow and rainfall in combination with land-cover data. The second objective would be achieved through collection of new data at selected case study sites. One site will be the RSPB/United Utilities estate at Haweswater in Cumbria. Here areas of upland pasture are converting to deciduous semi-natural woodland achieved through tree planting and a reduction in grazing. Overall, the project could evolve in a number of ways, depending on the interests of the student. 


The studentship is a partnership with the RSPB and United Utilities, who manage the selected case study site. The studentship is co-supervised by Lee Schofield, RSPB Site Manager for Haweswater. 

Potential for high impact outcomes 

Flooding causes large damages in the UK and may increase with future climate change. There is considerable interest in using natural processes to control flood risk. For example, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Environment Agency, DEFRA, National Resource Wales and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency are considering a collaborative research programme on “Using natural processes to reduce flood risk”. This demonstrates a real need to better understand how natural processes could be used to control flood risk. In particular, the role of semi-natural woodlands in mitigating flood risk has been little studied and is still poorly understood. This studentship will contribute to the evidence base on the role of semi-natural habitats in the uplands to mitigate flooding. The water@leeds research centre at the University of Leeds offers opportunity to communicate outcomes of research to policy makers. Water@leeds is one of the largest interdisciplinary centres for water research in the world, encompassing expertise from across the physical, biological, chemical, social and economic sciences and engineering as well as the arts. 

Student training and support 

You will work under the supervision of Prof. Dominick SpracklenProf. Piers ForsterDr. Brian Irvine, and Prof. Mike Kirkby. You will be embedded in a vibrant research environment of 15-20 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers working on a wide range of research problems. Our research groups can provide strong technical and scientific support to new PhD students. You will be based in the School of Earth and Environment and have the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse range of researchers within the School of Geography (where Dr Irvine and Prof. Kirkby are based) as well as within the Leeds, Ecosystem, Atmosphere and Forests (LEAF) and water@leeds research centres. 

The project is a partnership with the RSPB. Through this partnership you will gain training and hands-on experience in applying and communicating scientific research and opportunities to interact with staff from the RSPB. You will have the opportunity to be involved in extensive periods of field work based at the RSPB/United Utilities estate in Haweswater, Cumbria. The studentship is co-supervised by Lee Schofield, RSPB Site Manager for Haweswater. Partnership with the RSPB will help to ensure that the results from the research are communicated outside academia. 

The project provides a high level of training in: (i) data analysis and visualization, (ii) field methods; (iii) scientific writing – we strongly support students to write publications during their PhD (see examples from previous students on our web pages above), (iv) communication with policy makers, NGOs and the wider public, (v) application of science for practical conservation. 

The successful PhD student will have access to a broad spectrum of training workshops put on by the Faculty that include an extensive range of training workshops in numerical modelling, through to managing your degree, to preparing for your viva. A full list of training opportunities is available here

This studentship is funded by the United Bank of Carbon, a not-for-profit collaboration between businesses and environmental scientists at the University of Leeds, to protect and restore forests. You will be encouraged to develop these collaborations to maximise the impact of your research. 


A good first degree (1 or high 2i) in a quantitative science (e.g., Environmental Science, Physical Geography, Physics), good analytical skills and an enthusiasm to conduct field work are required.