The UKCEH River Lambourn Observatory

Short description:

UKCEH owns almost 600m of the River Lambourn and 24 acres of associated water meadows at Boxford, Berkshire. The River Lambourn is a groundwater-fed chalk stream draining one of the least modified catchments of southern England.
River Lambourn at Boxford, Berkshire zoom

Major research issues/sites:

The UKCEH River Lambourn Observatory comprises two elements: 1) the River Lambourn; and 2) disused water meadows.

The River Lambourn

The chemical and biological quality of the River Lambourn is exceptionally high, providing an important reference against which more polluted chalk rivers can be assessed. The whole river is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as it is a classic example of a lowland chalk river, and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) owing to its importance for the following species: water crowfoot, brook lamprey and bullheads. It is also noted for its good fishing with productive population of brown trout and grayling.

Monitoring the river at Boxford provides a platform which brings together and consolidates unique cross-disciplinary expertise within UKCEH and its collaborators from the fields of hydrogeology, hydrology, hydrochemistry, sedimentology and ecology. Research at this site enables the relationship between geology, groundwater, surface water and river ecology to be studied in a truly integrated way. Our detailed knowledge of the site also makes it an ideal location to evaluate novel instrumentation and sampling methods.

The key elements of the long term monitoring programme include:

  • An automatic telemetered river water quality monitoring station: established in March 2008. The following variables are recorded at 15 minute time resolution: turbidity, water temperature, pH, electrical conductance, dissolved oxygen and water level. Suspended sediment concentration is determined on event triggered samples.
  • A comprehensive weekly river water chemistry sampling campaign since June 2008.
  • Monthly river flow gaugings: since July 2008.
  • Monthly macrophyte surveys: since February 2009.
  • Three times yearly species level invertebrate sampling: since November 2009.

The disused water meadows

There are approximately 9.5 ha of disused water meadows on the site.  A dense network of historic channels has now largely silted up with a few exceptions.  The main vegetation types are species poor sedge (Carex) and Glyceria maxima swamp with patches of alder and sallow scrub.  The meadow is also classed as a SSSI (site of special scientific interest) owing to the habitat it provides for Vertigo moulinsiana (Desmoulins whorl snail) which is considered rare on a European scale.  Current research is focused on modelling the water balance of the meadows and linking it to regional groundwater variations as may occur in response to climate change and/or changes in abstraction.

The key elements of the meadow monitoring programme include:

  • Continuous logging of water levels and temperature in the peat, gravel, chalk and surface waters across the site
  • Meteorological observations (including evaporative fluxes)
  • Regular soil moisture measurements
  • Topographic and vegetation surveying
  • Water quality sampling

Short technical description:

In autumn 2007 UKCEH purchased 600m of river and 10 hectares of water meadows at Boxford, Berkshire, NGR SU429722, to create the UKCEH River Lambourn Observatory.

Freehold ownership ensures unconstrained access to the site and the ability to control management practices. At Boxford the upstream catchment area is 162 km2. The highly permeable chalk geology throughout the catchment results in the river having a very high (>95%) baseflow contribution.

Specific features/uniqueness:

Southern and eastern England hosts the largest chalk river resource in Europe (UK BAP Steering Group for Chalk Rivers 2004). Of the 161 chalk rivers and streams identified, ten are designated for their wildlife interest as river Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  Four of these are of European interest and designated as candidate Special Areas of Conservation (cSAC) under the Habitats Directive. They represent unique freshwater habitats that are listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as priority habitats for protection.  The River Lambourn at Boxford is a good example of a minimally impacted lowland chalk stream. 

Options and conditions for visiting scientists:

Assessed on a case by case basis, but we encourage complementary research by others at the site.

centre running the infrastructure:

UKCEH - UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

type of facility:

Observatory / large-scale experimental field site , Research platforms


  • UKCEH - UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • Phone: +44 (0) 1491 692395
  • Email:

Dr Gareth Old