Saving Europe's freshwaters

Freshwater ecosystems have shaped and benefited humanity from early times. Now, globally they are in a grave state, facing high rates of biodiversity loss. Our research has been critical to implementing major new policies to repair tens of thousands of water bodies across Europe.

Part of our research looks at the work of nature’s iconic engineers, beavers, who are providing new insights into rewilding and restoring the landscapes of Tayside, as well as further afield.

River Thames, London

A pan-European approach to freshwater management

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), adopted in 2000, took a pioneering holistic approach to water management. This new approach was based on geographical catchments known as River Basin Districts, rather than the traditional use of administrative or political boundaries.

However, the solutions for improvement are complicated, especially when freshwater ecosystems are impacted by multiple pressures and shared by countries with piecemeal management policies. There was a big challenge in harmonising hundreds of national methods developed for assessing the ecological health of water bodies. Our research tackles these challenges, providing solutions that apply across Europe.

"We’re helping water managers, policy makers and environmental and conservation agencies with their work, especially those implementing EU strategies, such as the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy."

Professor Nigel Willby, Faculty of Natural Sciences

Our research

The University’s research team, led by Professor Nigel Willby and Dr Colin Bull, researches and provides scientific advice for national and international water policy and management. Our research addresses two main themes of assessment and monitoring, and restoration and management.

Assessment and monitoring

Before we can restore rivers and lakes, we have to understand how to assess and monitor their ecological health. We have to understand how species respond to their environment as well as monitoring the impact of pressures, such as invasive species, river engineering and lake water levels which have often been overlooked in the past. We also need to create solutions to the challenges of biomonitoring in densely populated river basins and diagnose why the health of water bodies is deteriorating in order to mend them.

We developed tools that are now used by UK agencies to determine freshwater status. We designed the protocols used by the EU for harmonising national assessment methods, and defined nutrient targets required to improve the health of lakes and rivers. These targets have been adopted across Europe.

infographic: 10,000s

10,000s

of water bodies across Europe need urgent repair

infographic: 500 million

500 million

EU citizens live, work and play near freshwaters

infographic: Our research

Our research

has pioneered new water management policies

Restoration and management

This part of our research assesses restoration practices used in lakes and rivers. We can recommend evidence-based actions suitable for the management plans required under the WFD. One example is our review of lake restoration practices for the Broads Authority which shaped their future lake restoration strategy.

Once we understand the relationship between species and their environment, we can better predict how ecosystems will respond to alterations in the environment imposed by management and restoration.

For example, our research and advice on restoring polluted lakes and removing barriers to salmon migration is now being enacted and has been incorporated into management plans in the UK.

Beavers and balsam

Part of our research is looking into the behaviour of an invasive plant, Himalayan balsam, on UK rivers; and how beavers are rewilding habitats on Tayside.

Our study reveals clues as to why the abundance of Himalayan balsam, a notorious invader of river banks, varies dramatically from place to place. The work could help mitigate the impact of this pink-flowered plant, which outcompetes native species, causes shading and reduces the stability of riverbanks, enabling silt to enter the water.

In 2018, our research revealed how beaver-built ponds are far more biodiverse than other wetlands. By cutting trees, beavers create a complex, mosaic of habitats that benefits local wildlife and improves ecosystem resilience. Beaver dams can improve biodiversity, trap pollutants and reduce downstream flooding. Beavers could therefore offer a solution to some of the environmental problems that society is going to face in the coming decades, especially with the effects of climate change. But we have to be careful and weigh these benefits against the potential for occasional negative impacts on fisheries, forestry and farmland.

Nonetheless, this passive restoration approach is now seen as an important part of the rewilding and restoration debate.

See also: Beaver reintroduction key to solving freshwater biodiversity crisis

"Our research justified the thinking behind the reintroduction of beavers. These are amazing ecosystem engineers who create unique habitats. Put simply: anyone can build a pond – but if you want a really great pond, ask a beaver."

Dr Alan Law, Faculty of Natural Sciences
Beaver

Hosting the Scottish Freshwater Group

Stirling has hosted the Scottish Freshwater Group since 1968 and in 2018, we celebrated its centenary meeting. The group promotes awareness of current issues and research related to the freshwater environment in Scotland. It consists of around 350 members from universities, institutes, government and non-government agencies, industry and interested members of the public.

Our association with the Scottish Freshwater Group reflects our ongoing commitment to research in freshwater science - and our breadth of collaborations with external organisations and other researchers active in this field. 

Related publications

Invasion of freshwater ecosystems is promoted by network connectivity to hotspots of human activity
Chapman DS, Gunn IDM, Pringle HEK, Siriwardena GM, Taylor P, Thackeray SJ, Willby NJ & Carvalho L (2019) Invasion of freshwater ecosystems is promoted by network connectivity to hotspots of human activity. Global Ecology and Biogeography.

Are beavers a solution to the freshwater biodiversity crisis?
Law A, Levanoni O, Foster G, Ecke F & Willby NJ (2019) Are beavers a solution to the freshwater biodiversity crisis?. Diversity and Distributions, 25 (11), pp. 1763-1772. 

The effectiveness of aquatic plants as surrogates for wider biodiversity in standing fresh watersLaw A, Baker A, Sayer C, Foster G, Gunn IDM, Taylor P, Pattison Z, Blaikie J & Willby NJ (2019) The effectiveness of aquatic plants as surrogates for wider biodiversity in standing fresh waters. Freshwater Biology, 64 (9), pp. 1664-1675.

Connectivity and zebra mussel invasion offer short-term buffering of eutrophication impacts on floodplain lake landscape biodiversity
Salgado J, Sayer CD, Brooks SJ, Davidson TA, Baker AG, Willby N, Patmore IR, Goldsmith B, Bennion H & Okamura B (2019) Connectivity and zebra mussel invasion offer short-term buffering of eutrophication impacts on floodplain lake landscape biodiversity. Diversity and Distributions, 25 (8), pp. 1334-1347.

All change at the water's edge: invasion by non-native riparian plants negatively impacts terrestrial invertebrates
Seeney A, Eastwood S, Pattison Z, Willby N & Bull C (2019) All change at the water's edge: invasion by non-native riparian plants negatively impacts terrestrial invertebrates. Biological Invasions, 21 (6), pp. 1933-1946.

Lake and catchment-scale determinants of aquatic vegetation across almost 1,000 lakes and the contrasts between lake types
Sun J, Hunter PD, Tyler AN & Willby NJ (2019) Lake and catchment-scale determinants of aquatic vegetation across almost 1,000 lakes and the contrasts between lake types. Journal of Biogeography, 46 (5), pp. 1066-1082.

Riverbanks as battlegrounds: why does the abundance of native and invasive plants vary?
Pattison Z, Vallejo-Marín M & Willby N (2019) Riverbanks as battlegrounds: why does the abundance of native and invasive plants vary?. Ecosystems, 22 (3), pp. 578-586.