Rural land management signals in catchment-scale runoff have proven difficult to identify in general. The Pontbren experimental catchment in upland Wales, UK, provides a new data set with which to address this challenge. This data set includes more than 4 years of data from six tipping bucket rainfall gauges and eight stream flow gauges representing different land management regimes at different scales. Data-based mechanistic rainfall–runoff models were fitted to this data set using the CAPTAIN toolbox. The spatial and temporal variabilities of model parameters were identified and interpreted where possible. The analysis highlighted a dependency between the modelled residence time and the presence of agriculturally improved grassland, which produced a flashier response than grassland in a more natural condition. Another factor found to strongly affect the spatial variability of runoff response was the presence of lakes, while catchment area had a less pronounced effect, and the influence of trees, steepness and soil type could not be identified. Some time variability of response was observed but this was not consistent across the catchment and could not easily be interpreted. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.