History of Catchment Systems Thinking

The aim of catchment management is to protect and enhance the water environment through managing the surrounding land. We have a long history of doing just that on the 56,000 hectares of land we own around our reservoirs – many of which you can visit and enjoy for yourselves.

Our award winning sustainable catchment management programme (SCaMP) began in 2005 and was successful at demonstrating how by working together we can manage catchments for water quality and other benefits such as an improved natural environment.

Based on the early success of SCaMP, in 2015, it expanded to catchments where we take water from but don’t own the surrounding land with our work in safeguard zones.

In addition, through working with others on a catchment approach we worked to benefit the lakes, rivers and coastal waters where we return wastewater through our Catchment Wise project. 

Since it first started in 2005, SCaMP has now evolved into the Catchment Systems Thinking Approach for CaST for short. You can find out more about CaST and all it entails here. The success realised through the Catchment Wise project highlighted the importance of working in partnership and we have since launch the CaST Account. You can find more about the CaST Account here.

Click on the boxes below to find out more about SCaMP and Catchment Wise and their key outputs.


Catchment Timeline

  • We own 57,000 hectares of land in the North West, which we hold to protect the quality of water entering the reservoirs.

    Much of this land is home to nationally significant habitats for animals and plants, with around 30% designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

    Our Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCaMP for short) began in 2005 with the aim of benefitting both water and wildlife through improved catchment management. SCaMP 1 (2005 to 2010) included projects across 27,000 hectares of our water catchment areas in the Peak District and the Forest of Bowland. Working with farm tenants and in conjunction with partners, such as the RSPB, Natural England and the Forestry Commission, we invested £10.6 million in moorland restoration, woodland management, farm infrastructure improvements and watercourse protection.

    Following on from the success of SCaMP 1, water industry regulators Ofwat, DWI, Environment Agency and Natural England supported further investment for catchment management between 2010 and 2015. During this time we invested a further £11.6 million in SCaMP 2 across 30,000 hectares in Cumbria and South Lancashire which included 53 separate farms, agricultural land and common land.

    To allow land to start to recover and to establish woodlands, significant changes were required to agricultural practices and often a reduction in livestock numbers. Undertaking SCaMP improvements allowed farmers to access additional agri-environment income for ten years. Natural England and the Forestry Commission provided grants totalling £2.7 million towards the cost of the work.

    For us and our customers this initiative will help to:

    • protect and improve water quality
    • reduce the rate of increase in raw water colour which will reduce future revenue costs
    • reduce or delay the need for future capital investment for additional water treatment
    • deliver government targets for SSSIs
    • ensure a sustainable future for the company's agricultural tenants
    • enhance and protect the natural environment
    • permit our moorland habitat to become more resilient to long term climate change
    • allow our healthy upland peat moors to absorb significant volumes of carbon from the atmosphere

    What's the problem?

    The land we own around our reservoirs not only provides the water we rely on it is also used for agricultural purposes by tenant farmers for food production. As well as providing a home to some of the UK's most amazing wildlife. Much of this land is home to nationally significant habitats for animals and plants and rare species of birds such as the Hen Harrier. In fact around 17,000 hectares are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

    However, many of the fragile habitats in our upland catchment areas have been damaged by historical industrial air pollution and agricultural activities. Agricultural policies have encouraged farmers to drain the land and put more livestock on the fells. This has been at the expense of water quality, the landscape and wildlife.   At the start of the century large areas of SSSI were designated by Natural England as in unfavourable and declining condition.

    Years of drainage of the UK uplands has caused 5,000 year old peat bogs to dry out and erode releasing colour and sediment into watercourses and millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere contributing to climate change.

    Over the last thirty years there has been a substantial increase in the levels of colour in the water sources prior to treatment from many upland catchments. The removal of colour requires additional treatment plant, chemicals, power and waste handling to meet increasingly demanding drinking water quality standards. To address this expensive capital solutions are often required at our water treatment works which result in significant increases in annual operational costs.

    In order to stabilise or reverse this trend it is necessary to restore the hydrological function of the peat soils by re-wetting the upland areas and re-vegetating bare peat. Achieving this will:-

    • help to provide cleaner water to our reservoirs
    • restore the natural habitat and the plants and animal that rely on it
    • allow the moorland habitat will become more resilient to long term climate change
    • enable active peat forming vegetation to increase the rate at which these areas can absorb carbon from the atmosphere


    What have we done?

    To begin to reverse these long term trends United Utilities began its innovative Sustainable Catchment Management Programme to benefit both water and wildlife. Putting SCaMP 1 and SCaMP 2 into action was made possible by Ofwat, the water industry financial regulator, allowing us to fund the programme as part of our AMP4 and AMP5 investment programmes.

    In our SCaMP 1 programme between 2005 and 2010 we undertook projects across 27,000 hectares of our water catchment areas in the Peak District and Bowland areas. Working with farm tenants in conjunction with partners, such as the RSPB, Natural England and the Forestry Commission we invested £10.6m in moorland restoration, woodland management, farm infrastructure improvements and watercourses protection.

    Following on from the success of the SCaMP 1 programme our water industry regulators Ofwat, DWI, Environment Agency and Natural England supported the inclusion of further funding for catchment management between 2010 and 2015. Consequently we have invested a further £11.6m in the SCaMP 2 programme across 30,000 hectares of land in the Cumbria and South Lancashire areas which includes 53 separate farms, agricultural land and common land between 2010 and 2015.

    The types of work included:

    • restoring blanket bogs by blocking drainage ditches and gullies
    • restoring areas of eroded and exposed peat
    • restoring hay meadows
    • establishing new woodlands
    • stabilising land through scrub planting
    • restoring heather moorland
    • Improving farm facilities to improve livestock housing
    • providing new waste management facilities to reduce run-off pollution of water courses
    • fencing to keep livestock away from areas such as rivers and streams and from special habitats
    • assisting tenant farmers to enter Higher Level Stewardship schemes


    Which provided:-

    • 608 hectares of upland oak woodland (520,000 trees)
    • 320 km of moorland drains blocked to allow for re-wetting
    • 10,905 hectares of bare peat re-vegetated
    • 258 km of fencing to allow for moorland restoration and woodland planting.
    • 21 new stock buildings to allow moorland restoration grazing regimes to be implemented

    To allow the land to start to recover and to establish the woodlands, significant changes were required to agricultural practices and often a reduction in livestock numbers. Undertaking the SCaMP improvements allowed farmers to access additional agri-environment income for ten years whilst Natural England and the Forestry Commission provided grants totalling £2.7m towards the cost of the work.

    One of the challenges in being one of the first to undertake catchment management and particularly moorland restoration on such a landscape scale is to be able to demonstrate the benefits and the progress that is being made. It is recognised that the deterioration occurred over a number of decades and to restore the catchment vegetation and hydrology is likely to be a long term process.

    Natural England assessed the condition of the 17,500 ha of SSSI and found that 99.4% of this land is now in favourable or unfavourable recovering condition. In the Peak District before SCaMP this had been assessed at 14%.

    No national long term data sets exist to extrapolate how quickly changes in vegetation response, hydrology and water quality might occur. To address this Penny Anderson Associates Ltd were contracted from 2005 to 2014 to undertake a comprehensive monitoring of the effects of land management changes at selected sites and sub-catchments areas.

    Monitoring Programme

    The SCaMP monitoring programme focused on botanical and hydrological effects across a range of habitats, with monitoring of peatland grip blocking and bare peat restoration.

    The summary below covers the results of monitoring in Longdendale, Goyt and Bowland following restoration work up to 2015. The restoration measures in Longdendale involved large-scale re-vegetating of bare peat through the application of lime, fertiliser and a nurse grass mix both with and without heather brash and geojute (a geotextile) to stabilise the steeper bare peat slopes. In addition, removal of stock and some gully blocking, mostly using stone dams, were implemented. The restoration measures in Bowland and Goyt, in the Peak District, involved large-scale grip blocking, changes to stock levels and to managed burning programmes.


    Overall Summary of Changes

    After eight years of hydrological and water quality monitoring, the effects of SCaMP land management and interventions have had significant effects on water quality in key locations and, overall, the effects have been beneficial.

    As each year passes and the SCaMP monitoring dataset expands it is easier to see trends in the data and to compare SCaMP data to other moorland management data sets from across the UK.

    As a result of the SCaMP management intervention, the following trends can be seen:

    • Colour production and delivery in streamflow appears to be largely stable or decreasing slightly within the long-term datasets, with the exception of two sites which show a slight increasing trend.
    • Particulate organic carbon (measured as turbidity) levels continue to show rainfall event based responses. On bare peat restoration catchments the trends are more complex.
    • On some catchments peat water table levels are now meeting the basic requirements for good quality blanket bog vegetation with elevated and more consistent levels as a result of grip blocking. However, data from some catchments indicate water table variations that indicate a continued susceptibility to dry weather years.
    • The vegetation on ome sites is moving towards a more diverse blanket bog community with more key species present, especially Sphagnum, along with other desirable blanket bog species. On bare peat restoration catchments, peat cover has reduced and there is some indication of the establishment of a more diverse vegetation community.
  • SCaMP continued from 2015 to 2020 through a targeted approach driven by drinking water safeguard zones (SZ). These zones are drinking water catchments where water quality in rivers, reservoirs or groundwater is deteriorating and is becoming harder to treat, due to human activities on the land. SZ can be used to target measures, advice and incentive schemes for landowners and managers to help improve water quality.

    Within the North West the Environment Agency has designated 20 surface water and 9 groundwater catchments as Safeguard Zones. We cannot solve all of the issues on our own so we worked with stakeholders such as Natural England, Rivers Trusts, National Trust, RSPB, Moors for the Future and Catchment Sensitive Farming who had overlapping interests. And the even better news is that a lot of the actions that benefit water quality also benefit the wider environment such as wildlife.

    Our approach combined both investment on our land with investment in partnerships on non-owned catchments to address deteriorating raw water quality. We applied the SCaMP methods to moorland restoration, woodland planting, agricultural advice and diffuse pollution source-pathway investigations. 

     As well as benefiting the wider environment, this catchment work also benefited customers by improving water quality and reducing the level of treatment required at our water treatment works. This helps minimise the need for future treatment works investment which in turn is helping to keep customer bills low.

    Between 2015 and 2020 we invested in 29 SZ projects across the North West. The zones have been designated to address issues with colour, algae and pesticides in surface waters; and nitrates, pathogens and solvents in ground waters. The funding focused on the highest priority areas and in places where we could maximise the benefits of partnership working. We continue to monitor raw water quality in all drinking water protected areas and we work with the Environment Agency to designate new SZ where a programme of voluntary measures would be beneficial for all stakeholders.

  • Catchment Wise sought to tackle water quality issues in lakes, rivers and coastal waters across the North West.

    Building on the achievements of the Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCaMP), Catchment Wise sought to drive a similar change around wastewater issues – sharing expertise about how land is used and managed across the region and tackling pollution at source to improve the quality of the water in lakes, rivers and the sea in the North West.

    We realise that we can't deliver the improvements on our own.  Hence, a key part of Catchment Wise was working in partnership with other organisations across the North West. As a first step we provided additional funding to the 16 North West catchment partnerships - set up by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.  Working with local stakeholders, the partnerships set out a long-term programme of actions and interventions to improve the status of water bodies in their catchment.


    Catchment Wise Intervention Fund

    We asked for applications to the Catchment Wise Interventions fund for projects that will help deliver a water quality improvements to help meet the Water Framework Directive “Good Status” and “Sufficient” Bathing Waters classification. The fund proved very popular and was more than two and a half times oversubscribed.

    After a selection process including experts from the Environment Agency and United Utilities, fifteen projects were approved and all North West Catchment Partnership hosts will received some funding. Projects ranged from physical interventions to awareness and engagement campaigns.