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Rivers of the dammed: how should beavers fit and function in UK landscapes?


Project Description

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:
o sediment storage/mobility in association with dams/flood events
o volumes/residence times of wood
o flood attenuation
o biogeochemical cycling
o riparian ecosystem community composition

Funding Notes

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support.
• Annual stipend, set at £15,009 for 2019/20
• Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000

References

Devito, K.J. and Dillon, P.J., 1993. Importance of Runoff and Winter Anoxia to the P and N Dynamics of a Beaver Pond. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 50(10): 2222-2234, DOI: 10.1139/f93-248.
Woo, M.-k. and Waddington, J.M., 1990. Effects of Beaver Dams on Subarctic Wetland Hydrology. Arctic, 43(3): 223-230.
Westbrook, C.J., Cooper, D.J. and Baker, B.W., 2006. Beaver dams and overbank floods influence groundwater–surface water interactions of a Rocky Mountain riparian area. Water Resources Research, 42(6), DOI: 10.1029/2005WR004560.
Puttock, A., Graham, H.A., 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, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.10.122.
Wohl, E., 2013. Landscape-scale carbon storage associated with beaver dams. Geophysical Research Letters, 40(14): 3631-3636, DOI: 10.1002/grl.50710.

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