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Dam beavers: quantifying the impacts of nature’s water engineers on the fluvial geomorphology and flood regimes of streams and rivers. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Prof Richard Brazier, Department of Geography, Centre for Resilient Environment, Water and Waste, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter,

Additional Supervisors
Dr Gemma Coxon, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol
Dr Stewart Clarke, National Trust

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, EX4 4Q

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accommodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

Project Background

The Eurasian Beaver (Castor Fiber) was hunted to extinction in Great Britain and near-extinction in Europe. Over recent decades, it has made a comeback, with numbers now nearing 1 million in mainland Europe and with a number of reintroductions and licensed trials established in GB to improve understanding of the role that this ecosystem engineer might play if more widespread. Since beavers were absent from GB, landscapes have been modified extensively in support of agricultural intensification, with an emphasis upon the drainage of the land to deliver enhanced production of food. Waterways are now straightened and deepened, fields under-drained and often bare of vegetation, to maximise drainage efficiency, but with detrimental impacts downstream. Thus, there are very few, if any ‘natural’ streams or rivers in GB, which means that research is required to understand what impact beavers might deliver, as they return into densely populated, intensively-farmed ecosystems. This PhD will deliver new understanding of the ways in which streams and channels will respond to beaver activity and will therefore provide fundamental science to guide both decision and policymakers and land managers as to how to respond.

Project Aims and Methods

The overall aim of this project is to quantify the impacts that beavers will have on the fluvial geomorphology and flood regimes of a wide range of surface waters in Great Britain. It is noted here that the PhD student will both refine and redesign this project, as their ownership of the research develops, however we have established the following hypotheses to test:

Beaver activity (particularly beaver dams) will force channel-planform change across a range of stream orders (at least 1st to 4th), increasing sinuosity, decreasing width:depth ratios and increasing the presence of multi-thread channels in the landscape, which engage more regularly with floodplains.

Within-channel bed characteristics will be significantly altered via beaver dam construction, with along-channel heterogeneity of bed material increasing; becoming finer upstream of dams and coarser downstream.

Channel long-profiles will be altered towards more step-formed geometry due to the presence of beaver dams and these geomorphic changes will persist, delivering changes to hydraulic behaviour along beaver-dammed reaches, when compared with non-dammed reaches.

Beaver dammed channels will deliver flow attenuation, reducing peak flows and increasing lag times in a comparable manner to more conventional natural flood management techniques such as woody debris dams.

The project will deploy a Multiple Before-After-Control-Impact experimental design, deploying methods including: ground-based surveys, structure-from-motion drone-based photogrammetry, hydrological monitoring, suspended sediment and bedload monitoring, numerical modelling and GIS.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

Auster, R., Puttock, A., Brazier, R.E. (2019). Unravelling perceptions of Eurasian beaver reintroduction in Great Britain. Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12576

Brown, A. G., Brazier et al., (2018). Natural vs anthropogenic streams in Europe: history, ecology and implications for restoration, river-rewilding and riverine ecosystem services. Earth-Science Reviews, 180, 185-205. DOI: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2018.02.001

Glendell, M. and Brazier, R.E. (2014) Accelerated erosion of soil and carbon from landscapes under intensive agriculture. SciTotEnv

Puttock, A.K., Graham, H., Carless, D and Brazier, R.E. (2018) Sediment and nutrient storage in a beaver engineered wetland. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms DOI: 10.1002/esp.4398

Puttock, A., Graham, HA., Cunliffe, A.M., Elliott, M and Brazier, R.E. (2017) Eurasian beaver activity increases water storage, attenuates flow and mitigates diffuse pollution from intensively-managed grasslands. Science of the Total Environment 576, 430-443

Puttock, A.K., Cunliffe, A., Anderson, K.A. and Brazier, R.E. (2015) Aerial photography collected with a multirotor drone reveals impact of Eurasian beaver reintroduction on ecosystem structure. Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems.

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