Natural Flood Management volunteering inspired my academic research career path

At a recent virtual conference hosted by Colne & Calder Rivers Trust, our Prof In Practice, Jonny Grey, crossed paths with Sam Townsend, a final year undergraduate in Geography at the University of Huddersfield. His interests revolve around aquatic macroinvertebrates and Natural Flood Management, which may well strike a chord with many of our members too. So, we’ve opened the WTT blog to Sam as our earliest Early Career Researcher to date.

My final research project for my undergraduate degree is closely tied to my volunteering with Slow the Flow Calderdale. I have been inspired by building leaky woody dams at Crimsworth Dean Beck, Hardcastle Crags with Slow the Flow, and now, as part of my academic studies, I am researching the effects of such leaky dams on macroinvertebrate populations. Aquatic macroinvertebrate monitoring is a critical tool to help indicate river water quality and ecosystem health. The introduction of woody debris into river systems can provide more food sources for aquatic macroinvertebrate populations and, subsequently, fish (and bird) populations, so I hope you find the following of interest. I would also like to share my interests in geography and natural flood management (NFM) and how I became involved with Slow the Flow, and considering how I can utilise everything I have learnt from academia for my future career.

Figure 1
Sam Townsend, sampling for macroinvertebrates using a kick-net as part of his dissertation project

To begin with, where has my enthusiasm for Geography has come from and how that has led me to joining Slow the Flow? I decided to study Geography at A Level when my teacher, Dr Daniel Whittall, was discussing the 2015 Boxing Day Flood and its unprecedented impact on Hebden Bridge. Whilst talking through a number of flood management strategies, he mentioned Slow the Flow’s pilot project; using wood from the Hardcastle Crags Woodland Management scheme as leaky woody dams, in a soft engineering strategy – creating a healthier woodland, and helping to mitigate flood risk downstream in the Calder Valley.

Figure 2
Volunteers building leaky woody dams at Crimsworth Dean Beck, Hardcastle Crags (Sam Townsend, 2021)

At the same time, I was also seeking volunteer opportunities to strengthen my university application, and I thought volunteering for Slow the Flow would be a complementary match for the skills I wanted to develop and be able to demonstrate.

Volunteering for Slow the Flow was very easy; I met the trustees and other volunteers (locals and professionals from organisations such as the Environment Agency) on alternate Sundays at Hardcastle Crags, all with the common goal to make a difference to flood management. The National Trust rangers give a tool and safety talk to make sure everybody is comfortable using the equipment. When we arrive at the site for the day, we are split into groups and assigned tasks that suit our abilities, whether that is lifting logs to build dam structures, using loppers to create brash, or Himalayan balsam bashing. From being involved in this work on the ground, I knew that I wanted to pursue further study focussing on NFM.

Figure 3
Tool and safety talk from National Trust Rangers (Sam Townsend, 2021)

When applying for university, the University of Huddersfield offered the specialist modules I wanted to study, including hydrological sciences and river management. I can remain local and continue working closely with Slow the Flow and helping to educate the local community; for example, I presented a seminar on NFM and the work Slow the Flow do to my 6th Form. This encouraged some students to volunteer with Slow the Flow, and they have gone into further study with a greater understanding of how effective community groups are at tackling problems caused by climate change.

Throughout my time at university, I have focussed my studies around NFM. Other undergraduate, master and PhD students have already researched the effect that leaky dams have on hydrology, and the effectiveness of NFM strategies. While reading through the literature, the research gap I identified was the effect of leaky dams on the local ecology. Having been fascinated by aquatic invertebrates since being introduced to them by my dissertation supervisor, Dr Tory Milner, in a 2nd year module, I decided to study those.

At the time of planning my dissertation, we were in the 2nd national lockdown. However, trustees at Slow the Flow were always available to share their advice online and with the approval of my dissertation supervisor, I decided to research the effects of leaky dams in ephemeral gullies on aquatic macroinvertebrates and water quality. In other words, to explore what additional benefits leaky dams may bring as well as helping to reduce flooding.

I examined the effect of leaky dams installed by Slow the Flow in gullies and compared that to a control site without dams. The primary objective of leaky dams is to slow the water moving downstream and redirect some of it onto the floodplain, which reduces the peak flow and the risk of the main river reaching bank full. My hypothesis was that these interventions would also have a positive impact on macroinvertebrates because of the impact on the hydrology by increasing roughness and turbulence. Ecologically, the variability of the hydrological flow régime is widely recognised as one of the primary influences on the composition of in-stream biota. In my research, I will be investigating if the same principles can be applied to the leaky woody dams at Hardcastle Crags. Hence, my predictions are that:

  • I would see a difference in the abundance of macroinvertebrates and taxonomic richness, with greater values in the gully with leaky dams compared to the control gully (without dams). 
  • However, I would expect very similar water quality measurements. 
Figure 4
Figure 5

To collect macroinvertebrates, I used standardised kick-netting within the gullies. Water quality and hydrological data also were collected at each location. The macroinvertebrate samples were then identified in the lab at the university, and at the time of writing this blog, I am yet to analyse the results and write the discussion. I hope to follow up in a future blog with my findings and an update on my career path.

My time at Slow the Flow, and my time at university, have served to expand my interest in NFM, discovered at school in Calderdale. I hope to pursue further academic study and either follow a career path in academia researching NFM strategies, or potentially work in consultancy or a government organisation such as the Environment Agency, specialising in NFM. From my time so far in academia, I firmly believe that nature-based solutions to flood management are just as important to consider as hard engineering strategies – because of the holistic benefits. As well as flood prevention, natural strategies bring additional benefits ranging from community awareness (active participation in projects like Slow the Flow) to the wider ecology in terms of biodiversity and resilience. 

Figure 6
Volunteers reinforcing a leaky woody dam at Crimsworth Dean Beck, Hardcastle Crags (Sam Townsend, 2021)

I am delighted that Slow the Flow has recruited two education trustees, responsible for overseeing primary, secondary, and higher education resources. As a result, more students, on a local and national scale, will be able to learn about the potential of NFM in the classroom and will hopefully be just as inspired as I was by following the path of an early career researcher and pursue an academic and professional career in this critically important field.

I would like to give a special thanks to the trustees at Slow the Flow (who are all volunteers), Dr Daniel Whittall and Dr Victoria Milner, who have continued to inspire me on this incredible journey, and to WTT’s Prof J Grey for offering the platform of the blog. Please do get in touch if you have any questions!

Sam Townsend (townsendlsamuel@​outlook.​com)