Hydroscape:connectivity x stressor interactions in freshwater habitats

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Department Name: Water Resources (Lancaster)


All types of ecosystems exhibit connectivity at some level. However, connectivity is the quintessential property of aquatic systems. Connectivity matters in freshwaters because it is the means by which energy, materials, organisms and genetic resources move within and between hydrological units of the landscape (the 'hydroscape'). Hydrological connectivity is a particularly effective vector for multiple climatic, biological, chemical and physical stressors, although other forms of connectivity also link freshwater ecosystems. Our proposal addresses the fundamental question of how connectivity and stressors interact to determine biodiversity and ecosystem function in freshwaters.
Connectivity is multifaceted. It may be tangible - water moves downhill or over floodplains, or more subtle - terrestrial organic matter is incorporated into aquatic food webs. Animals and people naturally gravitate to freshwaters, thus providing additional dispersal vectors that can carry propagules to isolated sites. Connectivity may be passive or active and occurs across scales from the local to the global. Freshwater scientists recognise the fundamental role of connectivity in key paradigms such as the river continuum and flood pulse concepts. Land-water connectivity is also the founding principle behind catchment management. However, in reality, a long tradition of focusing on individual stressors, sites, taxonomic groups or habitats, has led to a highly disjointed view of the most intrinsically interconnected resource on the planet. While the need for an integrated approach to water management is universally acknowledged, an understanding of this most fundamental part of the infrastructure of freshwaters is lacking. This is a serious obstacle to meeting critical societal challenges, namely the maintenance of environmental sustainability in the face of multiplying human-induced stresses. Without a more integrated view of the freshwater landscape we struggle to answer basic questions. These include (i) how do organisms, nutrients and energy move naturally within and between landscapes? (ii) how is this basic template altered by different stressors, singly or in combination? (iii) how has widespread alteration of land cover and of the basic infrastructure of freshwaters that largely drives connectivity, redistributed pressures and modified their effects? (iv) how should reductions in stressors and changes to connectivity, that are now widely implemented, be prioritised when seeking to restore biodiversity and ecosystem function?
Our primary aims are to (1) determine how hydrological, spatial and biological connectivity impact on freshwater ecosystem structure and function in contrasting landscape types, and (2) use this understanding to forecast how freshwaters nationally will respond to (i) multiple, interacting pressures and (ii) management actions designed to reduce pressures and/or alter connectivity. We will achieve these aims by working at different spatial (landscape vs national) and temporal (sub-annual to decadal vs centennial) scales and using a combination of complementary well established and more novel molecular and stable isotope techniques. We will combine existing data sources (e.g. archived sediment cores, biological surveys and the millions of records held in national databases) with targeted sampling to maximise cost effectiveness and achieve a cross habitat and ecosystem wide reach.
Landscape scale thinking has become the new mantra of nature conservation and environmental bodies but the knowledge needed to ensure resilience to climate change and to underpin large scale conservation and restoration of aquatic landscapes is currently lacking. In this regard an understanding of how biodiversity and ecosystem function respond to the changing connectivity x stressors arena in freshwaters is critical. The outputs of the proposed research will deliver the integrated understanding of the hydroscape that is now required urgently.

Planned Impact

Our project bridges the gap between policy/management needs and state-of-the-art scientific research on the impacts of connectivity and multiple stressors on freshwater ecosystems. Outputs will provide the scientific evidence base and regulatory guidance needed to support the future sustainable management of freshwater landscapes at the local, national and international scale.
Our results will be useful to organisations engaged in waterbody restoration, biological conservation, the control of invasive species and diseases of wildlife and humans. At the national scale, these include organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, GB Non-Native Species Secretariat (NNSS), water utility companies, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Plantlife, Buglife and the Rivers Trusts, with all of whom we have long established working relationships. More locally, organisations such as the Norfolk Ponds Project, Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, Norfolk Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group, Natural England, Norfolk Rivers Trust, Broads Authority (a project partner), River Glaven Conservation Group, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Eden Rivers Trust, Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre, Forth Fisheries Trust, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Buglife Scotland, and many other similar organisations will also benefit from a better understanding of the links between connectivity and environmental stressors. In particular, we expect the results of this work to challenge the widely held belief that re-connecting isolated waterbodies and removing obstructions to fish migration are essential features of restoration projects. For example, in highly impacted systems, the adverse effect of the spread of invasive species and/or pollution caused by such re-connections may be greater than any benefit provided by links to refugia that can provide biological source material for recolonisation.
At the local level, our research outputs will help water managers improve biodiversity and habitat quality in a sustainable way. This will result in greater amenity value, with local businesses benefitting from more visitors and increased income, and increases in native biodiversity and water quality, which will help meet conservation objectives. Residents, visitors and local schools will gain a better understanding of the links between environmental stressors, connectivity, biodiversity and ecosystem function, especially through their combined impact on ecosystem service provision.
At the UK level, the results will provide environmental and conservation agencies (e.g. EA, SEPA, SNH, NRW, NE, Defra, RSPB) and policy makers with a better understanding of the processes involved in achieving the sustainable management of freshwaters and their catchments. In particular, appreciating that measures aimed at restoring a particular site may be impacted by connectivity across the freshwater landscape.
At an international level, the results are expected to inform the implementation of the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy, which aims to "halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services". More specific international beneficiaries are the Directorate General for the Environment (DG Environment) in relation to informing Water Policy (Water Framework Directive) and Biodiversity Policy (Europe 2020). The proposed work on heavy metals pollution links directly to the EU Environmental Quality Standards Directive (2008/105/EC), which has the "aim of ensuring that existing levels of contamination in biota and sediments will not significantly increase....". We are also focusing on trace metals that are currently listed as 'Priority Substances' or 'Priority Hazardous Substances' under the Water Framework Directive.


10 25 50

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/N00597X/1 12/11/2015 30/11/2019 £747,249
NE/N00597X/2 Transfer NE/N00597X/1 01/12/2019 31/07/2020 £47,270
Description Submitted an article to the Freshwater Biological Association FBA News which is published three times a years for FBA members. It describes the aspirations and scope of Hydroscape.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Environment
Title UK checklist of freshwater species 
Description UK Checklist of freshwater species is a new collation of all the species (apart from algae) known to be found in association with fresh waters in the United Kingdom. The checklist was put together between 2015-2017 by Iain Gunn (CEH Edinburgh) in collaboration with Laurence Carvalho (CEH Edinburgh), Chris Raper (Natural History Museum (NHM)), Gavin Siriwardena (British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)) and Ian Winfield (CEH Lancaster). The checklist was compiled, primarily, under the auspices of the NERC Highlights Hydroscape project (NEC05609). The aim for compiling the checklist was to allow querying of freshwater species data in the Biological Records Centre (BRC) but to also to query freshwater species data from the BRC via the UK Lakes Portal (https://eip.ceh.ac.uk/apps/lakes/) , as well as to update the freshwater species list supplied to the UK Species Inventory (UKSI) partners, such as Recorder 6, National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas and iRecord. The freshwater invertebrate component of the checklist was updated by Iain Gunn predominantly based on the 2011 version of the Mike Furse (ex-CEH Dorset, now retired)/Peter Maitland (Fish Conservation Centre) invertebrate code list compiled by Cynthia Davies (ex-CEH Wallingford, now retired) and Francois Edwards (CEH Wallingford). All these present and past colleagues are listed as joint authors of the dataset. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact To facilitate research within the project but of wider use to the scientific community. 
URL https://doi.org/10.5285/57653719-434b-4b11-9f0d-3bd76054d8bd
Description Collaboration with Natural England and local scientist 
Organisation Natural England
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Enhanced scientific knowledge of the operation of the Norfolk Broads to inform subsequent management decisions.
Collaborator Contribution Discussion with local staff member from Natural England in the Norfolk Broads who is happy to provide logistic support as is a local scientist- retired from Environment Agency but still very active.
Impact None yet.
Start Year 2016
Description Cumbrian Lakes Research Forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Over 40 delegates from 15 organisations attended to hear about the research being carried out on Cumbrian lakes from NERC funded grants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Presentation of results to International conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Phil Taylor (and co-authors Law, A.; Baker, A. and Carvalho, L) presented "HYDROSCAPE: A NEW SUITE OF CONNECTIVITY METRICS FOR ASSESSING ECOLOGICAL RESPONSES AT THE LANDSCAPE SCALE" at the ASLO conference 10-15 June, Victoria, BC, Canada. This was in a special session on "Broad scale patterns and process in limnology" organised by our Hydroscape US partners at Michigan State University.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018