Upstream Thinking Project

Upstream Thinking Project

What is Upstream Thinking?

Cornwall Wildlife Trust is one of four delivery partners for South West Water's Upstream Thinking Project (UST). The project is a catchment management scheme which applies natural landscape-scale solutions with the objectives of:

  1. Reducing diffused agricultural pollution
  2. Improving catchment resilience to extreme weather
  3. Improving the natural capital stock in its catchments

The Upstream Thinking Program, which began in 2008, is part of South West Water’s long-term effort to reduce its environmental footprint and improve water quantity and quality. We are now in the third phase of the Upstream Thinking (UST) initiative, running from 2020 to 2025.

Upstream Thinking in Cornwall

The work of Cornwall Wildlife Trust is centered on the Cober, the Drift reservoir and the Falmouth reservoirs. From this year, Stithians catchment has also joined the portfolio. Cornwall Wildlife Trust farm advisers, ecologists, practical officers and a water quality scientist work with farm and land owners to introduce changes in land use that benefit the raw water quality, wildlife and the quality of the soil.

The program is fully endorsed by our local water quality regulators, the Environment Agency and Natural England.

Working with South West Water

Upstream Thinking is a South West Water funded program which uses its contacts Cornwall Wildlife Trust, Devon Wildlife Trust, the Westcountry Rivers Trust and the Exmoor National Park Authority to deliver the project.

Project success

Number of farms engaged with us to date: 188
Money we have helped bring to the farming sector in Cornwall during the project to date: £2.5 million
Area of habitats improved during the project to date: 180 Hectares
Number of volunteering days delivered on our practical tasks to date: over 3,700 days
Number of native trees planted to date: 4218

Our catchments

For the 2020-2025 phase of the Upstream Thinking Project, we are working with land owners in the catchments of Stithians, Drift, College & Argal and Cober.

Catchments for Upstream Thinking Phase 3

Catchments for Upstream Thinking Phase 3

Case studies and recent work

Through the Upstream Thinking Project, we are empowering land managers and farmers to move towards more sustainable and regenerative land management and farming practices. We work in a whole-farm manner; looking at business plans individually then looking at how we can incorporate reducing runoff, improving soil quality naturally, land shared and spared for nature (on which the food production relies) and looking at how we can make the catchment more resilient to extreme weather. 

We continue to develop new science-led approaches to sustainable farming and land management. Have a look at the case study library below to see the different areas of work within the Upstream Thinking Project:

Tree Planting

The Cornwall Wildlife Trust ‘Upstream Thinking’ Project team and ‘Wild Cober’ Volunteer Group have worked with landowners to form new woodlands and increase growth on existing Cornish hedges within the River Cober Drinking Water Catchment Area. To create this new wildlife habitat, the Cober team were provided with saplings by the ‘Tree Appeal’ and only planted native trees appropriate for West Cornwall, in order to increase local biodiversity. These maturing trees benefit the local habitat in many ways: they provide food, structure and shelter for a range of species, create wildlife corridors for birds, bats and other small mammals and insects and give shading to freshwater invertebrates and fish in hot weather. The project has also improved water quality and lowered water treatment costs, with a reduction of soil erosion and run-off pollutants into the River Cober.

Over 1800 trees and shrubs have been planted across seven sites in the Cober Catchment since November 2017, with all tree planting having been carried out by the ‘Wild Cober’ volunteers. This work has involved the support of landowners, who have received no direct financial reward, as well as funded support from a utility company, a statutory organization and two environmental charities. This planting in the Cober catchment provides a range of environmental benefits and would have been hard to achieve without the long-term support and co-ordination of the Upstream Thinking project.

Volunteers planting trees

Wild Cober volunteers planting native trees, Image by Rose Summers


Cornwall Wildlife Trust runs a volunteer group in each of the three Drinking Water Catchments included in our Upstream Thinking (UST) areas: Drift, Cober and Falmouth Reservoirs. Through use of these volunteers, Cornwall Wildlife Trust is able to build relationships between the UST team and farmers and landowners in these areas. Volunteers have provided valuable free labour to help farmers and landowners with practical conservation tasks; totaling 3600 volunteer days and £184,000 worth of work across the catchments in the last 5 years (from April 2015 to March 2020). 

Upstream Thinking volunteers are available one day a week in all 3 Cornwall Wildlife Trust catchments and carry out a variety of tasks: from undertaking meadow management to invasive species control and tree planting. As well as bringing sizable biodiversity, heritage and access benefits to the land through their work, the UST volunteers also experience many social benefits as part of their participation, including improved confidence, increased levels of physical fitness and greater knowledge and experience in the conservation sector. Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s volunteers are an invaluable part of the Upstream Thinking project and their work has helped to restore valued wildlife habitats across the three catchments.

Volunteers tending a fire after a day's scrub clearance

Upstream Thinking volunteers tending a fire after a day's scrub clearance

Soil Management

Through the Upstream Thinking (UST) Project, Cornwall Wildlife Trust has been able to provide free, regular soil testing and soil management advice to farmers within the project’s catchments, supporting them to grow healthy, abundant crops without posing risks to water quality and wildlife.

Before the project started, only 15% of livestock farmers in these areas carried out soil chemistry analysis on their grassland soils and less than 5% regularly used a spade to investigate the health of their soils. Without good understanding of soil health and management, farmers have previously relied on chemical fertilisers that can cause run-off pollutants to enter watercourses and reservoirs and which can harm wildlife in the long-term.  

Now, after 5 years of farmer engagement and through novel approaches such as the #soilyourundies competition (to see which farmer had the healthiest soil in the Drift catchment), Cornwall Wildlife Trust staff have noticed farmers embracing a wide range of voluntary changes to their farm practices. This includes cutting fertiliser use and keeping their stock inside during the winter, which brings many soil health benefits. The UST team continue to provide testing and interpret laboratory results (which have been immensely popular with farmers) to help land managers make more informed choices about their soil.

Farmer examining soil

Encouraging farmers to dig holes in their field and examine their soils

Volunteer on the Upstream Thinking project

Volunteer crew members join from many walks of life - we have animators, architects, DEFRA inspectors, film-makers, artists, children's entertainers, sailors, marketing professionals, authors, nurses, recent graduates, podiatrists, teachers, job-seekers, career-changers and parents. All have a love of our natural environment and have a direct impact through their roles on this project.

The ‘Wild’ volunteer groups carry out hands-on conservation in the three Upstream Thinking catchments every Tuesday and Thursday. If you would like to find out more, please contact Holly Berwick, our Volunteer Programme Coordinator, via For other volunteering opportunities with Cornwall Wildlife Trust, check out the volunteering page.

Contact us

We currently have a farm advisor, ecologist, practical tasks team and a water quality scientist keen to work with farmers in each of our focus catchments of Stithians, Drift, College & Argal and Cober. Please get in touch if you would like a call or a visit to find out how we could work together to benefit your business, local habitats and the health of your land.

You can email or call Daniel Poole on 01872302291 to find out more.