Working Wetlands & Upstream Thinking

Working Wetlands delivering Upstream Thinking

A Culm grassland meadow at Volehouse Moor nature reserve. Photo, David Chamberlain

What's good for water is good for wildlife

Restoring our species-rich wet grasslands will, in turn, improve the water quality in our rivers.

After the success of the first two phases of the Upstream Thinking (UST) initiative Devon Wildlife Trust are pleased to be continuing our work with South West Water for the third phase, running from 2020-2025.

What we do

Since 2008 Working Wetlands advisers have been working with farmers and landowners to address potential sources of pollution on farms, with the aim of using natural solutions to protect water quality and quantity, and restore wildlife habitats. Our aim is to ensure that both farmers and the natural environment benefit from the advice we provide. 

We use natural habitats to buffer watercourses, slow the flow of water, and trap sediments before they reach rivers and streams.

Restored species-rich wet grasslands, often marginal to a working farm, act as natural filters to capture soil particles and nutrients from fertilisers before they reach rivers and reservoirs, and act as highly effective buffers between agricultural practice and the water course.

An additional benefit of this kind of restoration is an increase in the capacity of the habitat to store water, which relieves downstream flooding risk, as well as reducing soil erosion and diffuse pollution. 

Other Natural Solutions that we can use to improve catchment management range from tree and hedge planting, to use of diverse leys to reduce the use of veterinary medicines, and advice on improving soils through changing grazing regimes.

In addition we also provide advice and for a wide range of farming practices and farm infrastructure improvements.

Between 2015 and 2020 our advisors worked with 488 landowners, enabling 285 of them to make changes beneficial to the water environment across over 22,000ha. 147 of those landowners entered into Countryside Stewardship agreements, helping to draw down an additional £7.9 million of investment.

Read the South West Water Upstream Thinking report here

Culm grassland

Wildlife is also benefitting. Since 2015 we have helped create and manage over 450ha of species rich grassland, providing space for rare species such as the marsh fritillary butterfly.

Upstream Thinking

Upstream Thinking is South West Water’s multi-award-winning approach to keeping our drinking and bathing water clean and affordable by stopping pollutants entering our rivers and streams. Ensuring that our waterways are clean for wildlife and for people.  

South West Water in collaboration with a group of regional conservation organisations, including Devon Wildlife Trust and the Westcountry Rivers Trust among others, have established one of the largest and most innovative conservation projects in the UK for catchment management: ‘Upstream Thinking’.

For more information on Upstream Thinking, go to the South West Water website.

South West Water invest in this programme of works as the way land is managed has an impact on water quality. By working with landowners it means that we all benefit from cleaner water, better water flows throughout the year, and we can create more space for nature on farmland.

What we can offer

Our team of farm advisors cover eight strategically chosen river catchments: Barnstaple Yeo, Dart, Fernworthy Reservoir, Lower Exe, Otter, Roadford Reservoir, Tamar, and Wistlandpound Reservoir. We work upstream of the places where drinking water is taken from the rivers and reservoirs, enabling us to have the biggest impact on raw water quality.

Upstream thinking catchments map
Green hay spreading

Confidential farm advice and farm plans - free visit from a farm advisor to offer advice on habitats and wildlife, management of nutrients, soil, pesticides, yard infrastructure and watercourse management. Where possible we aim to solve issues using natural solutions.

Countryside Stewardship applications - free advice and full support with applications to the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, Mid Tier and Higher Tier. 

Wildlife habitat restoration and creation – we can offer expert advice and undertake associated conservation management such as the spreading of green hay, seed harvesting and spreading, and scrub control. 

Capital grants for habitat management, pesticides, soil, and manure management – grants of up to 50% for infrastructure works such as bio-beds for pesticide management, watercourse fencing, improved slurry and manure storage, roofing feed yards, silt traps, habitat management and constructed wetlands.

Working Wetlands machinery ring – we can loan equipment such as soil aerators to help reduce soil compaction, a common problem on many farms. All equipment is provided to landowners free of charge.  

Marsh fritillary butterfly on a grass stem

Marsh fritillary butterfly. Photo, Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Biodiversity monitoring – monitoring rare species such as the marsh fritillary butterfly, willow tit and greater horseshoe bat. And surveying wildlife habitats on farms.

Find out more or get involved

If you are a landowner and would like more information on the project, please email

Watch the film

View the 10 minute project video which gives more information about Upstream Thinking and the Working Wetlands project.

Further resources

Downloadable advice notes

1. Advice note - Culm grassland

2. Advice note - Managing Culm grasslands

3. Advice note - Scrub management

4. Advice note - Managing rushes

5. Advice note - Hedge management

6. Advice note - Swaling

7. Advice note - Water and soil management

8. Advice note - Wet grassland restoration

10. Advice note - Where to find out more information

The first seven years of Working Wetlands

UST Working Wetlands Funder logos

Become a member and support our work

The vital work we do for nature depends on the support of people who care about the future of Devon’s wildlife and wild places.

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