Overview

Project Highlights:

  • Collaboratively developed project with strong links to industry and excellent prospects for career in academic research or industry/consultancy
  • Research on beaver reintroduction is a topic at the intersection of hydrology, geomorphology and ecology, which has captured the public imagination
  • Exciting opportunity to undertake industry placements, and engage with stakeholders throughout the project.

Beavers are one of nature’s most prolific “ecosystem engineers”, able to radically reshape river systems and the surrounding landscape, through their unique ability to build dams and alter the flow of water, sediment, and nutrients. This is a dramatic niche construction that changes the distribution of water and vegetation across floodplains, creating very different landscapes to the ones we are familiar with in modern rivers.

The landscape across much of Europe, including the UK, has been greatly altered by human activity. River channels and their floodplains have seen large changes to morphology, hydrology and ecosystems through prolonged engineering and changing land use. However, after a long absence, the UK is following in the footsteps of many other European countries and facilitating the re-introduction of beavers. This project will examine the impact of this re-introduction on the functioning of river systems.

The European beaver was once wide-spread across Europe, however, through a combination of pressures from humans including habitat loss and hunting it disappeared from much of its natural range. Over recent decades there has been an increased focus within land and river management towards working with, rather than against natural processes. Against this backdrop there has been a great deal of interest in how reintroducing wild beavers could deliver ecosystem services and benefits to biodiversity and flood risk, with organisations including the National Trust starting controlled reintroduction projects. Although research has been published examining numerous effects of beavers on landscape processes there remains substantial gaps in our understanding of landscapes change following beaver reintroduction.

This project will capture important hydrological, geomorphic and vegetation changes as they occur at a release site in direct collaboration with the National Trust. With the potential to contrast this with mature beaver reintroduction projects in Switzerland and Germany. The student will capture data on hydrological changes, with further investigations in associated changes as informed by research gaps and their interests/expertise. Potential sub-topics include:

sediment storage/mobility in association with dams/flood events

volumes/residence times of wood

flood attenuation

biogeochemical cycling

    • riparian ecosystem community composition

 

The European beaver has dramatic effects on river environments, promoting changes in forest composition, increasing ponding of water and leading to multi-threaded river channel systems.

Methodology

Project will be based on primary data collection from site(s) in the UK and potentially Switzerland and Germany

Installation of base line monitoring for hydrology in reintroduction site

Characterisation of site though mapping/GIS/drone image acquisition to monitor change

Literature review to identify gaps and specific areas of study, alongside exploration of knowledge gaps with stakeholders

Collection of field data over 2-3 years to monitor changes

Training and Skills

The project offers the student:

  • A fantastic opportunity for training at the interface of physical and biological sciences, and their real world translation into land use policy.
  • Advanced training in field data collection/monitoring, laboratory analysis (as required), and statistical and mathematical analysis of data.
  • A detailed appreciation of landscape change and feedbacks introduced by ecosystem engineers through wide range of supervisory expertise
  • Skills and training through placements with the National Trust freshwater team, and Environment Agency.
  • Attendance at British Society of Geomorphology’s highly regarded “Windsor Workshop” for new PhD students.
  • Presentation of results at an international conference

Timeline

Year 1:

  • Literature review to identify research gaps to address.
  • Establish site characteristics in collaboration with National Trust supervisors and collaborators, key dynamics to be monitored and measured, including water, vegetation, and geomorphology. E.g.
  • Installation of hydrological monitoring instruments for monitoring throughout project.
  • Characterisation of vegetation using drone survey
  • Stakeholder workshop to understand the gaps and priorities of end users of research outputs.
  • Time embedded in the National Trust to better understand land management processes and priorities
  • Collate additional data sources from previous beaver re-introduction sites to establish broader context of impacts.

Year 2:

  • Specific fieldwork projects undertaken to capture data on areas identified in year 1
  • Time embedded in Environment Agency to understand national regulatory landscape
  • Possible fieldwork in Switzerland to contrast mature beaver reintroduction
  • Analyse and interpret data from sites as well as wider context.

Year 3:

  • Presentation of one or more areas of study at an international conference
  • Stakeholder workshop to present preliminary results
  • Finalise analysis and interpretation, establish coherent framework for landscape changes that can be used by a wide spectrum of stakeholders for constraining future predictions for UK beaver re-introductions.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

CASE support from National Trust.

Stewart Clarke (NT) to act as co-supervisor of the Phd

Student to spend time working directly within the NT (minimum 1 month over PhD, opportunity for more)

University partners in Netherlands (Wageningen University, Annegret Larsen co-supervisor), and Switzerland (University of Bern, University of Lausanne). Will provide important perspectives from outside the UK, and broader contexts for landscape changes due to beaver re-introduction, since many of the European sites have established programs for 30 – 40 years.

Student to spend one month working within the Environment Agency to learn about the regulatory landscape.

Further Details

This project has been selected as a CENTA Flagship project. This is based on the projects fulfilment of specific characteristics e.g., NERC CASE support, collaboration with our CENTA high-level end-users, diversity of the supervisory team, career development of the supervisory team, collaboration with one of our Research Centre Partners (BGS, CEH, NCEO, NCAS), or a potential applicant co-development of the project.

To discuss the project, please contact either

Simon Dixon (S.J.Dixon@bham.ac.uk) or Josh Larsen (j.larsen@bham.ac.uk)