UCL Department of Geography


Carl Sayer

Carl Sayer is a Professor in the Department of Geography at University College London (UCL) where he leads the Pond Restoration Research Group (PRRG). His research centres on the restoration ecology and palaeoecology of freshwater habitats (including lakes, ponds and rivers) with a particular focus on landscape-scale conservation in the farmed environment and rewilding.

More about Professor Sayer

Carl has published over 120 scientific papers in these fields. He has worked at the interface of science and conservation for 25 years and is a co-founder and Director of the Norfolk Ponds Project (NPP), co-founder of the River Glaven Conservation Group, as well as working in the Blueprint for Water Coalition. Carl is also a key advisor to Defra, Natural England and many conservation NGOs on freshwater conservation science.

He is a regular contributor to the media including BBC Countryfile (2021), BBC News (2020), Radio 4 Open Country (2020), Radio 4 On My Farm (2020), Radio 4 Farming Today (2019, 2023), Radio 4 Inside Science (2022), The Naked Scientists (2022) as well as local radio where he has communicated on the restoration of farm ponds (including “ghost ponds”), meadows and underwater soundscapes.

Carl is also a regular advisor to Defra, Natural England and many conservation NGOs on freshwater conservation. In 2022 Carl was awarded the prestigious Sydney Long Memorial Medal for Nature Conservation in Norfolk (awarded by Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists Society every two years). He has given over 120 talks and workshops for nature conservation groups, natural history societies, farmers and the general public on freshwater conservation. He is scared of Black Shuck.


  • Professor, UCL (2020-)
  • Reader, UCL (2016-2020)
  • Senior Lecturer, UCL (2011-2016)
  • Lecturer, UCL (2002-2011)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Fellow, Environmental Change Research Centre, UCL (1998-2002)
  • Post-doctoral Research Assistant, Environmental Change Research Centre, UCL (1997-1998)

Recent Awards

  • Sydney Long Memorial Medal for Nature Conservation in Norfolk. Awarded by Norfolk Wildlife Trust & Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists Society (every 2 years) 2022
  • UCL Provosts Education Award for "Outstanding Response to Teaching During the Pandemic" (Winner) 2021
  • UCL Student Choice "Inspiring Teaching Delivery & Excellent Personal Tutoring Award(s)" (Nominee) 2020
  • CIEEM NGO Impact Award to the Norfolk Ponds Project (2019)
  • Campaign for Protection of Rural England (CPRE) "Best Campaign" award to Norfolk Ponds Project 2018
  • UCL Student Choice "Outstanding Personal Tutoring Award" (Nominee) 2018
  • Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership "Outstanding Achievement Award" 2017
  • UCL Student Choice "Outstanding Personal Support Award" (Nominee) 2017
  • UCL Student Choice "Outstanding Personal Support Award" (Nominee) 2016
  • UCL Student Choice "Outstanding Teaching Award" (Nominee) 2015
  • UCL Public Engagement Award (Winner) 2015
  • UCL Student Choice "Outstanding Teaching Award" (Nominee) 2013
  • Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership Group Award for conservation awarded to the River Glaven Conservation Group 2013

I teach on the following course: 

I teach on the following modules:


Dissertation (GEOG0037)



To view Professor Sayer's publications, please visit UCL Profiles:


Research Interests

Research ethos

I am a passionate environmentalist with a research interest in aquatic habitats, including ponds, lakes and rivers. I was born in a small Norfolk village surrounded by ponds and developed a very early passion for natural history, especially in freshwaters. I now undertake research into the current-day ecology and ecological history of aquatic habitats and make major efforts to transfer scientific findings into practical conservation and restoration action. I am especially keen on landscape-scale ideas in conservation and in re-wilding approaches that put into place natural recovery processes. My research comes under a number of key themes:

Pond restoration research

Pond Restoration Research Group

A major part of my conservation-led research has been focused on ponds, especially in farmland landscapes. The Pond Restoration Research Group pages give details of this work which includes studies of pond terrestrialisation, pond restoration by tree and scrub removal, and influences of territorialisation, pond management and fish on landscape-scale biodiversity., including pollinators, birds and bats. An important part of this research is focused on the recovery of rare pond species, especially the crucian carp (Carassius carassius), a fish which has been in steep decline in the UK since the 1970s.

Shallow lake ecology and Palaeoecology

Research in this field has centred on the interface between contemporary shallow lake ecology and palaeoecology. A key research strand has been the reconstruction of centennial-scale changes to the submerged macrophyte communities of shallow lakes using plant macro-remains. Combined with studies of plant seasonality, this work has alluded to some of the key pathways and mechanisms that underly eutrophication-induced plant loss in shallow lakes. Much work has also focused on the development of new palaeolimnological procedures suitable for analysing lesser-studied fossil remains in sediment cores, especially from invertebrates and fishes.

River restoration research

River restoration research

I have a strong interest in the restoration of lowland chalk rivers, inspired by my work with the River Glaven Conservation Group. This research seeks to determine the hydro-ecological consequences of key river restoration techniques, especially river-floodplain re-connection, re-meandering, the use of large wood and the introduction of beavers.



I am a great fan of the rewilding movement and of giving wetland habitats the chance to self-heal via natural processes. In this respect, I am passionate about the need to set farming back from UK rivers and associated floodplain wetlands and to allow for a nature-driven ecological recovery. My ideas are summarised in this Blog post for Wild East.

Conservation of the European Eel

European Eel

Recently I have started some research into the distribution and passage of the European eel in the catchment of the River Glaven, Norfolk.  A major focus of this work is the use of headwater ponds and grazing marsh ditch systems by eels and their potential importance for eel conservation. I am undertaking studies in elver recruitment. A major source of information for these studies is the stories and experiences provided by local people, especially the Great Roger Grady, a retired eel catcher.


I am a great believer in the need to transfer research findings and scientific knowledge into practical conservation action and policy. In these respects, I am a regular speaker to local interest groups, natural history societies, landowners and the general public with regard to lake, pond and river conservation. I am a regular adviser to Natural England, Broads Authority, Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership, National Trust and the Norfolk Rivers Trust on aquatic conservation issues.

I am a co-founder of the River Glaven Conservation Group (RGCG) which has led the way in terms of river-catchment conservation and restoration in East Anglia over the last decade, winning a number of river restoration and biodiversity awards.

I co-founded founded the Norfolk Ponds Project (NPP) in 2014 with Helen Greaves. The NPP aims to promote and enact pond conservation and restoration in Norfolk, whilst influencing UK conservation policy more generally. Each year we arrange pond restorations, pond restoration workshops for landowners and farmers and attend agricultural shows and other events to promote the NPP.

I have written several popular articles and blog posts to help inform UK aquatic conservation and to publicise UCL research. Also, I have made a number of TV (BBC News, Countryfile) and Radio (BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 5, BBC Local Radio) appearances especially to promote the work of the Norfolk Ponds Project. Do listen to this Radio 4 Open Country episode for a flavour of the work that the NPP does.

In 2015 I received the Provost's award for UCL "Engager of the Year".

Research Students

Current PhD Students

  • Reagan Pearce: Bringing back the burbot (2020-present)
  • Tahir Khanzada: Palaeoecological approach to assist aquatic conservation at the catchment scale (2019-present)
  • Eftesum Eftesum: Palaeoecology of farmland ponds and implications for conservation (2019-present)
  • David Downes: Restoration of farmland pond landscapes (2018-present - part-time)
  • Lucia Lecioni: Recent responses of Scottish Lochs to eutrophication, climate change and lake restoration inferred from palaeolimnology (2014-present - part-time)
  • Helen Greaves: Assessing the value of pond management for biodiversity conservation (2011-present - part-time)

Previous PhD Students

  • Eleri Pritchard: Impacts of signal crayfish on UK upland stream biota (2017-2021)
  • Jonathan Lewis-Phillips: Contribution of pond management to avian diversity and abundance on farms in lowland England (2015-2019)
  • Richard Walton: The pond pollinator pantry: Assessing how pond management influences pollinators in the UK farmland landscape (2015-2019)
  • Lucy Roberts: Reconstruction and impact of salinity change in coastal lakes (2014-2018)
  • Emily Smith: Conduits of invasive aquatic species to the UK: The Angling route (2014-2018)
  • Dan Chadwick: Conservation of the White-clawed crayfish Austropotamobius pallipes in the face of invasive non-native species pressures (2015-2019)
  • Sara Varandas: Hyrdrological influences on invertebrate communities in coastal temporary ponds (2014-2018)
  • Isabel Bishop: Assessing the changing status of Najas flexilis in Scottish mesotrophic lochs using the sediment record: implications for conservation (2011-2018)
  • Hannah Robson: Causes of decline in the common scoter: Evidence from palaeoecology (2013-2017)
  • Emily Alderton: “Ghost ponds”: resurrecting lost ponds and species to assist aquatic biodiversity conservation (2013-2017)
  • Hannah Clilverd: Hydroecological monitoring and modelling of river-floodplain restoration in a UK lowland river meadow (part-time, 2007-2016)
  • Luke Mitchell: Hydrogeomorphic succession of rehabilitated gravel habitat and implications for salmonid spawning (2010-2015)
  • Dave Emson: Palaeoecological studies in ponds to explore past Lemna abundances and consequences for pond food-webs (2006-2014 - part-time)
  • Murray Thompson: Consequences of woody debris introduction in lowland chalk rivers and implications for restoration ecology (2009-2014)
  • Victoria Shepherd: Coleopteran diversity in floodplain ecosystems (2008-2012)
  • Jorge Salgado: The relative importance of eutrophication and connectivity in structuring biological communities of the upper Lough Erne system, Northern Ireland (2007-2012)
  • Emma Wiik: Understanding the ecological response of marl lakes to enrichment: a combined limnological and palaeolimnological approach (2008-2012
  • Xuhui Dong: Using diatom to understand climate-nutrient interaction in shallow lakes: evidence from observational and paleolimnological records (2006-2010)
  • Genevieve Madgwick: Macrophyte community change in two lowland lake districts in the UK (2005-2009)
  • Daniel Hoare: Did boat-derived toxicity lead to plant loss in the Norfolk Broads shallow lakes? (2003-2007)
  • Tom Davidson: Zooplankton ecology and palaeoecology in nutrient enriched shallow lakes; (2002-2006)
  • Amy Burgess: The potential of UK lowland reservoirs for the development of diatom-nutrient palaeolimnological inference models (2000-2004)
Research Grants, Prizes and Awards

Consultancy projects for conservation agencies

  • Approximately £600,000 of consultancy from Natural England, National Trust, Norfolk Wildlife Trust Broads Authority, Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership, Countryside Council for Wales and Environment Agency managed through ENSIS Ltd.

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

  • 2015: £3.65M (FEC) and £789,040 to UCL for NERC Consortium Grant (Co-I) on “Hydroscape: Connectivity x stressor interaction in freshwater habitats” (UCL PI Neil Rose, other UCL Co-Is Jones, Bennion)
  • 2014-2015: £12,308 from NERC Impact Accelerator Award Phase III (PI). "Norfolk Ponds Partnership project"
  • 2013-2014: £64,971 for NERC Urgency Grant (Co-I) on “Quantifying ecosystem resilience: catastrophic collapse and recovery of a large river food web”
  • 2013-2015: £148,000 for NERC BESS project (PI) on “Dispersal and biodiversity impacts on community assembly and ecosystem services in shallow lake landscapes” NE/K015486/1
  • 2011-2014: £79,000 for NERC Industrial CASE PhD Studentship (PI) on “Assessing the value of pond management for biodiversity conservation”
  • 2008-2012: £78,000 for NERC CASE PhD Studentship (Co-I) on “Understanding the ecological response of marl lakes to enrichment: a combined limnological and palaeolimnological approach”
  • 2006-2009: £49,592 for NERC Small Grant (PI) on “Fish kills and their consequences in shallow lakes: the potential of palaeolimnology” NE/D008344/1
  • 2004-2006: £24,910 for NERC Small Grant (PI) on “Achieving species-level identification of fossil oospores from UK Characeae” NE/C515155/1
  • 2003-2004: £29,213 for NERC Small Grant (Co-I) on “Ecological influences on larval chironomid communities in shallow lakes: implications for palaeolimnological interpretations” NER/B/S/2003/00824
  • 2000-2002: £34,000 for NERC Small Grant (Co-I) on “Assessing the value of plant macrofossil records in shallow lakes” NER/M/S/2000/00320
  • 1999-2000: £35,011 for NERC Small Grant (PI) on “Palaeoecological methods for reconstructing past fish communities in shallow lakes” GR8/04350
  • 1998-2002: c.£150,000 for NERC Fellowship (PI-Fellow) on “Inferring eutrophication-related changes in the trophic structure and biodiversity of shallow lakes” GT5/98/22/CB

British Ecological Society

  • 2016- £1899 “Outreach Award” from the British Ecological Society on “Adopt a Pond (Pilot Project) – The Big Twin Pond Dig” (with Helen Greaves)

Royal Society

  • 2004-2006: c.£18,000 for Joint Project Grant between UCL and the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, China (Co-I) on “Palaeolimnology and shallow lake ecosystem restoration”
  • 1999-2000: c.£25,000 China Fellowship Grant to Carl Sayer (PI) for Yan Zhao on “Representation of aquatic vegetation by macrofossil remains in a shallow lake”


  • 2015: £9418 (PI) for “Influencing UK farming sustainability and nature conservation via the Norfolk Ponds Project” from UCL’s Higher Education Innovation Fund allocation.


  • 2003-2004: £1250 (PI) “Tributyltin contamination of the Norfolk Broads II”
  • 2001-2002: £5000 (PI) “Tributyltin contamination of the Norfolk Broads I”

European Union

  • 2020- 310,000 Euros to UCL (PI) to UCL for Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation project “Pond Ecosystems For Resilient Future Landscapes in a Changing Climate (PONDERFUL)
  • 2010-2014: c. 227,000 Euros going to UCL (Participant) for FP7 project “Biodiversity of Freshwater Ecosystems: Status, Trends, Pressures, and Conservation Priorities (BIOFRESH)” Contract No. 226874
  • 2004-2009: c. 1.5 M Euros to UCL (Participant) for FP6 project “Integrated Project to Evaluate the Impacts of Global Change on European Freshwater Ecosystems (EURO-LIMPACS)”

National Science Foundation of China (NSFC)

  • 2012-2014: £24,645 =250,000 RMB (Co-I) for “Historical patterns and mechanisms of aquatic plant changes in large shallow lakes: a case study on Liangzi Lake” Project No. 41102105