March 2020 Student of the Month – Roger Auster
PhD Research at University of Exeter
The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) was historically resident in Great Britain until approximately 400-500 years ago, when the species was hunted to regional extinction for meat, fur and castoreum. The River Otter Beaver Trial (ROBT), led by Devon Wildlife Trust, has monitored a population of free-living beavers in Devon for the past five years in a trial reintroduction project. A whole team of researchers and organisations has been involved, and the results of the data that has been gathered over the course of the Trial have just been published within the openly available Science & Evidence Report. Now, the UK Government will use the results from the Trial in decisions that will determine whether the beaver will be formally reintroduced into England, with said decisions due later this year. (To note, this is a devolved matter with the Scottish Government listing beavers in Scotland as a European Protected Species in 2019, and proposals from the ‘Welsh Beaver Project’ are being considered to undertake a monitored trial reintroduction in Wales. There are no proposals for a project in Northern Ireland – or the Republic – as there is no historical evidence of beaver presence there).
The ROBT entailed a detailed monitoring program to collate evidence of beaver impacts upon a wide array of factors including the beavers’ impacts on water flow rates, biodiversity, water quality and agriculture, as well as trialling different techniques for managing beaver impacts where there is a risk of potential conflict. The report is available for free download here. It has been a real privilege to be able to undertake research for my PhD within the scope of a project of this scale, involving a diverse array of stakeholders, partners and organisations, each with different interests and perspectives.
My personal research has looked into the social dimension of beaver reintroduction, which includes attitudes and perceptions as well as conducting socio-economic work. I began my PhD project in 2018 following a few months as a Research Assistant the previous year. As this was already half-way through the River Otter Beaver Trial this meant I needed to work fast to be able to present results in time for the Science and Evidence Report! I started with an online, nationwide survey of attitudes towards beaver reintroduction in Great Britain (which has been subjected to peer review and the paper is available here). Fortunately, this received a good response rate of 2759 participants from across the nation.
My aim here was to delve deeper than a simple for/against opinion poll but to provide participants of all points of view the opportunity to share their perspectives (which therefore entailed me reading over 29,000 comments given by participants!). As a brief insight, amongst beaver reintroduction proponents the potential benefits of beaver reintroduction for flow attenuation, biodiversity increase from habitat creation and a sense of responsibility to reintroduce a formally native animal were among the most cited reasons for their viewpoint (amongst others). Amongst opponents, concerns most prominently raised pertained towards the potential for flooding of productive or agricultural land behind beaver dams and concerns about potential risks to fish migration amounting from beaver damming (amongst others).
The evidence presented in the ROBT Science and Evidence Report recognises that there are real benefits to beaver reintroduction in line with those cited in the survey results, but that there are also real challenges or costs that may occur also. The report concluded that the benefits that could be obtained outweigh the potential negatives, however those people that gain from the benefits may not be the same as those that may incur the costs in certain circumstances. By way of an example, a beaver dam may reduce the flood risk potential for a community of people downstream by slowing the flow of water in peak rainfall events, but at a potential cost for a landowner where the water is held behind a beaver dam if this is upon personal property or agricultural land. Therefore the report shows that the key for the opportunities to be maximised comes from a management framework that would provide support for those people and landowners that may bear the costs. (Another group of partners within the River Otter Beaver Trial collaborated in order to develop the proposed Beaver Management Strategy Framework for UK Government also to consider, based upon experiences within the Trial and where beavers are present elsewhere. This document is available here.
Many human-wildlife conflict issues are in actuality conflicts between people about wildlife, particularly where there are differences in opinion of wildlife management. Thus (if and where beavers are reintroduced) to reduce the risk of conflicts escalating later an early understanding of social attitudes towards beaver management should help to contribute towards a more socially acceptable management framework. The survey therefore also asked a number of questions relating towards potential beaver management. For example, one key matter about which was questioned was the views of participants on the level of legal protection which should be applied to beavers if they are to be allowed to remain. Those that advocated for ‘strong’ legal protection (largely beaver reintroduction proponents) often stated that this would be required to protect the beavers from persecution or cruelty and to sustain the beaver population. Those that advocated for no legal protection (largely reintroduction opponents) often cited a need to be able to manage the potential negative impacts of beaver reintroduction. And those who advocated for ‘limited’ legal protection (commonly associated with those who were undecided on beaver reintroduction) often cited a need to protect beavers whilst allowing for the ability to manage negative issues.
Resulting from this survey therefore, we suggested within the published paper on the survey that attitudes towards legal protection and management should be considered in reintroductions, beyond simply those of whether to reintroduce a species or not, if the risk of potential conflict escalation later is to be reduced when reintroductions occur.
Following this survey, I have since been undertaking a number of more focused studies, mostly within the catchment of the River Otter Beaver Trial. A number of my results are included within the ROBT Science and Evidence Report, and I am now in the process of developing these further and subjecting more of my work to the scientific peer review process. Therefore, as the ROBT report is now published and we await the decisions of the UK Government, I just have the simple matter of another 15 months of a PhD to go… Should be straightforward right?….
With thanks to all participants and contributors towards my work, the partners within the River Otter Beaver Trial Science & Evidence Forum, my supervisors Prof. Richard Brazier and Prof. Stewart Barr, and to the following bodies for funding my research: University of Exeter, Devon & Cornwall Wildlife Trusts, Plymouth City Council and the Natural Environment Research Council.
You can contact me on the following:
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter – @austerroger