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Water Cycle: multi-disciplinary Water Quality Research Project 

In a time of Climate Change where we are experiencing increased rainfall, deluges, and hotter summers, Peatland Connections in partnership with Galloway Fisheries Trust developed a water quality research project to collect baseline data in the Upper Blackwater of Dee river catchment, a catchment that runs through peatlands, and forestry planted on deep peat. 

The research seeks to inform our understanding of water quality within the context of Galloway landscape dynamics and landscape use. 

Stacked timbler and a peatland drainage ditch

The Upper Blackwater of Dee catchment is a peat dominated landscape situated in a remote area of Galloway at the heart of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere. The deep peat here has formed over millennia atop of granite bedrock. In some parts, the peat exceeds eight metres deep. 

The Catchment’s water courses run through a modified landscape of (predominantly) Sitka afforestation and clear-fell; healthy peatland including the Ramsar site, Silver Flowe; and peatland restoration sites (from forest to bog). Water sampling in similar catchments (deep peat, forestry and granite bedrock) suggests that these conditions can, after heavy rainfall, create a ‘perfect storm’ for low pH levels (Kelly-Quinn et al., 2008), which endangers aquatic life.  

A drawing of peat on granite bedrock

Peat on granite bedrock. Drawing by K Morrison

Peatland pools in the foreground with hills in the background
A clear felled peatland with a deep peaty drainage ditch in the foreground

Silver Flow. Photo, Jack Barton

Clear Fell area showing deep peat and drainage ditch.

The water courses in this catchment have not been previously monitored for pH levels, and we were curious to discover if the pH levels were low (acidic) and to analyse the data collected. 

Water temperature is also a critical variable in determining the health of a water course. Temperature is critical for the welfare of aquatic populations. With reduced or no tree cover alongside watercourses to offer shade, in hot weather water temperature can increase significantly. Warmer water contains less oxygen. When water temperature reaches 20 – 21°C, native brown trout – as can be found in the Upper Blackwater of Dee - experience stress and begin to struggle; the lethal temperature for brown trout is 24.7°C degrees (Jonsson & Jonsson, 2011). River and burn warming threaten fish populations, accordingly, understanding water temperature variability in a time of Climate Change is crucial for river conservation and protection.  

Muslin cloth is pegged across a thin peatland drain
A person spreads out muslin cloth with brown peat specks across the fabric

Muslin cloth pegged for ten minutes across water flowing down a drainage ditch. 

Kerry Morrison shows the muslin cloth after ten minutes filtering a drainage ditch.

Excessive amounts of peat particles in rivers, burns, and lochs can also have a negative effect on aquatic life, for example, peat particles settling on a stream bed have been linked to mortality, with survival rates of young trout (and salmon) dropping from 53–84% in peat particle free watercourses to 0.2–9.1% in streams with drains taking surface water from degraded peatlands (Donahue, T. et al., 2022). Water flushes occurring during and after heavy rainfall can displace peat that has been exposed through drainage ditches and clear-felling, with peat particles being washed down ditches into water courses and lochs.  

Much of the Upper Backwater of Dee catchment is a working landscape, adapted and maintained for timber production. Drainage ditches cut into peat are frequent and plenty, taking surface water off the land, along the bare peat ditches, and into the burns. Following downpour weather events peat particle content flowing into the burns will likely increase and the water in the burns become darker in colour. Darker peaty waters absorb more heat, potentially increasing water temperature in hotter weather.   

cyclists smiling.jpeg

Citizen scientists supported our water sampling efforts.

Water Quality Research  Methodology 

17 Sample Sites along the catchment area were selected; these included tributaries at the top of the catchment above the peat line that run into the burns that flow through peatland and (predominantly) Sitka forestry and clear-fell areas atop of deep peat, and into Cooran Lane, which feeds the Upper Blackwater of Dee. In addition to sampling along these water courses, two drainage diches cut into deep peat and flow into the burns were also sampled.  

A person in an orange high vis holds up a bottle of water they have sampled from the stream they are crouching in,.

Multiple spot samples from the water courses and artificial drainage network within the catchment were collected from January to August 2023. pH, electrical conductivity, and total dissolved solids (fDOM and DO% sat) were analysed on site using an exo1 Sonde.   



  • To remove any contaminants from the sample bottles, fully fill and empty water sample bottle and cap 3 times in the watercourse where the sample is to be collected from. 

  • Fill the sample bottle completely underwater and close the lid, making sure to exclude any air.  

  • Keep the bottle out of sunlight and try to limit shaking until analysed. 

  • Rinse exo1 sonde using a small amount of the sample to be tested to remove any old sample residue. 

  • Fill sonde analysis cup with sample up to the line. 

  • Analyse water samples using exo 1 sonde.  

  • Make written record of results. 

A person points at a laptop screen with bottles of water samples and equipment behind him, all balanced on an open boot of a car.

Particulate Organic Matter (POM) and Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC) analysis was undertaken at The University of Glasgow, Dumfries Campus, with the support of Dr. Michael Muir, a partner in the Upper Blackwater of Dee water quality research project.  

POM is particulate organic material such as particles of peat suspended in water. Peat POM incudes decomposed detritus, plant material and pollen preserved in peat. POM provides nutrients and a food source; however, excessive amounts of POM can can be detrimental to aquatic life. Excessive amounts of POM also darken water, turning it brown, potentially trapping in heat and raising the water temperature.  

Method: UV visible absorbance spectroscopy  

  • Flush syringe 3 times using the water sample to be tested. 

  • Rinse cuvette (quartz file) with distilled water. 

  • Three-quarter fill the cuvette. 

  • Place cuvette in Spectrophotometer machine. 

  • Run machine. 

A close up of a hand holding a small square tube of clear wter.
A man stands in a lab coat with a water sample

DOC is the mass of carbon dissolved in organic matter (OM). When water courses run through bare peat, peat particles will flow into the water. The carbon contained in the organic matter and POM is released into the water. Increases in DOC can correlate with pH decreases, as many components of DOC are organic acid.  

Method: UV visible absorbance spectroscopy  

  • Flush syringe 3 times using the water sample to be tested. 

  • Fill a 5ml plastic sterile emerald luer syringe with the water sample to be analysed. 

  • Attach Syringe Filter 25mm (PTFE) polytetrafluoroethylene 0.45μm  

  • Slowly discharge the water sample in the syringe through the filter to remove POM 

  • Rinse cuvette with distilled water 

  • Place cuvette in spectrophotometer machine. 

  • Run machine. 

A close up of two hands holding a piece of equipment for the scientific examination of water samples.

Continuous Temperature Monitoring.  


  • Three Tinytag  temperature monitors were installed along Cooran Lane and the Upper Blackwater of Dee, in accordance to Scotland River Temperature Monitoring Network (SRTMN) guidance.  

  • Sim cards removed when full and data download. 

  • Data collected collated and compared with known critical limits for brown trout and salmonids. 

A calm, clear river has a small white box with a blue rod in the middle, called a tiny tag, for monitoring water conditions.

Peatland Connections, in partnership with the Galloways Fisheries Trust, facilitated the water sampling and data collection (sonde and Tiny Tags) along the Upper Blackwater of Dee. Partnering with of Dr. Michael Muir, University of Glasgow, Dumfries Campus, enabled laboratory analysis of the water samples. 

All data collection was completed in October 2023. 

As Peatland Connections drew to close in December 2023, collating all the data to publish the results was in progress.  

As a Peatland Connections project, involving people and communicating the water quality was imperative. Accordingly, we expanded our thinking and what began as scientific research project evolved into a multidisciplinary project with three core elements:  

  1. Physical Science to collect baseline water quality data along the Upper Blackwater of Dee catchment (as above).  

  1. Citizen Science to actively involve people in the process of data collection and conversations arising from the research project and the landscape. 

  1. Contemporary Art to capture and express the landscape dynamics. 


Bringing together different approaches to investigate the Upper Blackwater of Dee catchment engages across disciplines and flows into different communities, deepening our understandings of the impacts of Climate Change and land use on water quality in Galloway.   



1 Kelly-Quinn, M.  Cruikshanks, R., Johnson, J., Matson, R., Baars, J-R., Bruen, M.  (2008) Forestry & Surface Water Acidification (FORWATER). EPA, Ireland 


2 Jonsson, B., & Jonsson, N. (2011). Climatic Effects on Atlantic Salmon and Brown Trout. Ecology of Atlantic Salmon and Brown Trout, 473–515. 


3 Donahue, T., Renou-Wilson, F., Pschenyckyj, C., & Kelly-Quinn, M. (2022). A Review of the Impact on Aquatic Communities of Inputs from Peatlands Drained for Peat Extraction. Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 122(3), 145-160. doi:10.1353/bae.2022.0010

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