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Predicting cascading ecosystem effects of beavers on riparian vegetation and deer

School of Biological & Environmental Sciences

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Prof Nigel Willby , Prof Glenn Iason , Prof Alison Hester , Dr Martin Gaywood No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

This project combines two highly topical issues in conservation management, namely: (i) the increasing use of beavers in restoration and rewilding projects and their expected expansion within the Scottish landscape; and: (ii) the continued growth in deer populations, and their individual and interactive impacts on semi-natural woodland regeneration. It is broadly understood how predators, such as wolves, influence large herbivore prey, such as deer, but the outcomes of interactions between naturally co-occurring large herbivores, such as beaver and deer, and their ecosystem consequences, are less clear, especially when one (deer) has undergone pronounced expansion while the other (beaver) has been reintroduced after a prolonged absence.

Eurasian beavers focus their terrestrial browsing activity in riparian woodland. This activity has numerous cascading ecosystem consequences which need to be understood to quantify and better predict the ecosystem effects of beavers. Given the expected expansion of beavers along lowland river corridors into riparian woodlands already widely affected by deer browsing, beaver-deer interactions will become increasingly commonplace and their outcome will also shape the performance of the numerous ecosystem services that derive from such woodlands. Resolving the uncertainty in these outcomes is therefore critical, and has implications that span adaptive deer management, flood alleviation, diffuse pollution control, fisheries management, rewilding, and ecosystem level responses to climate change.

The project will utilise existing permanent plots on the Scottish Beaver Trial site at Knapdale, Argyll, established in 2009, in combination with newly established plots here and alongside water courses in Tayside, to monitor beaver and deer usage and their interactive effects, and record how these develop over time. Control plots will be established in riparian woodlands where beavers are currently absent. This approach will be complemented by experimental manipulation of patches of riparian woodland to: a) mimic beaver herbivory and monitor deer responses; b) measure woodland responses and nutrient dynamics in response to beavers when deer are either present, or excluded for experimental purposes by fencing.

Over the course of the project the student will develop a skill set including vegetation survey, plant tissue analysis, experimental design and advanced data analysis, report-writing and synthesis. The student will be embedded in research organisations which possess a high level of expertise in deer and beaver ecology as well as wider ecological research interests and will form part of thriving postgraduate research communities.

This project is co-funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, the University of Stirling and the James Hutton Institute. The studentship will cover tuition fees and provide the standard RCUK stipend. There is flexibility over where in Scotland the student is located but they will be expected to spend significant periods at both research centres and to be available from 1 October 2018. They must also be willing to undertake extended periods of residential fieldwork on the west coast of Scotland. Candidates must be able to drive and will need to demonstrate interests spanning woodland ecology, plant-herbivore interactions and rewilding. A 1st class undergraduate degree and/or Masters degree at distinction level in natural sciences is required.

Funding Notes

Deadline for applications: 11 June 2018
Please send your CV (including contact details of two referees) and a letter explaining your interest in and suitability for this project (500 words max) to: [Email Address Removed]. Informal queries are welcome. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for interviews to be held at the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, in the last week of June (date tbc).


• Iason, GR, Sim, DA, Brewer, MJ & Moore BD 2014. The Scottish Beaver Trial: Woodland monitoring 2009–2013, final report. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 788.
• Law, A, Gaywood, MJ, Jones, KC, Ramsay, P & Willby, NJ. 2017. Using ecosystem engineers as tools in habitat restoration and rewilding: beaver and wetlands. Science of the Total Envt 605: 1021-1030.
• SNH 2016. Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government from Scottish Natural Heritage.
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