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School of Geography

How does road management influence water flow in upland landscapes

Fully-funded NERC Industrial CASE studentship

Supervisors: Prof Joseph Holden Dr Richard Grayson 
Project Partners (CASE): Natural England
Contact email: j.holden(at)

Start date: from 1 October 2018
Closing date for applications: 23 July 2018

Vehicle tracks

Are you interested in:

  • hydrology or soils?
  • visiting remote upland moorlands?
  • a project that would involve collaboration with a major governmental organisation developing policy and management solutions?
  • joining a large, well-established group of researchers with an international reputation?

This exciting project will be of interest to students who want to conduct a study which involves a mixture of fieldwork in remote upland environments with laboratory investigations. It will be practical and involve combining science with engagement with management and policy organisations ensuring that the project has a very applied component. Unusually this PhD is fully funded for four years and comes with resources to support field and lab work. It is available as a special one-off project studentship providing guaranteed funding for the strongest candidate eligible for the funding (see eligibility requirements below).

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 upland peatlands; ii) understand the impacts of removing such roads and tracks; iii) examine how to minimize damage and maximize benefits.

Example activities could include:

  • measure and determine how mesh, gravel, timber and unsurfaced roads, across a range of upland sites, impact flowpaths for water;
  • 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;
  • measure flow velocities arcoss/down different types of tracks for different slope angles and flow accumulation points;
  • test different spatial track scenarios (e.g. computer mapping approaches) to test optimal solutions for track location to minimise effects on i) local hillslope hydrological function and ii) downstream flow peaks.

Eligibility & funding

This is a fully-funded 4 year studentship providing full UK/EU level fees and a tax-free maintenance stipend of ~£14,777pa. Funding is also available for research costs.  UK students will be eligible for a full award, covering fees and a maintenance grant. EU candidates will be eligible for an award paying academic fees only, except in exceptional circumstances or where residency in the UK has been established for more than 3 years prior to the start of the course.  Further details on residential eligibility can be found in Annex 1 of the Research Council UK Training Grant Guide

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

How to apply

Please submit a PhD application including all supporting documents listed here by 23 July 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)  The start date for the project is 1 October 2018 but a slightly later date may be negotiable - please enquire.