Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Parachuting beavers into the UK?

The news that the government plans to remove the first colony of wild beavers seen in England for 500 years has caused huge controversy.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is believed to be worried about the impacts and consequences of beavers living on the River Otter in Devon.

It is reported that Defra plans to capture and rehome the beavers in a zoo or wildlife park - while a petition has been set up urging the government to leave the animals alone.

The small beaver colony, discovered earlier this year, is thought to be the first of its kind in England for around 500 years.

Until then beavers would have been a common sight along the country's rivers -  which has led many environmentalists and conservationists to call for their reintroduction to our waterways.

Such a reintroduction, if one is ever given the greenlight, is likely to involve very small numbers of beavers on targeted river sections.

Parachuting beavers...

However, the translocation of beavers has not always been conducted in such a sedate manner.

Indeed in the 1940s beavers were actually parachuted into areas of America: literally, strapped to parachutes and thrown out of aeroplanes!

One of those involved in the parachuting-rodent scheme even wrote a scientific paper on the subject, which has to be one of the most unusual papers I've ever read.

Published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 1950, Elmo Herter from the Idaho Fish and Game Department wrote the article 'Transplanting Beavers by Airplane and Parachute'.

In it he describes the need to 'transplant' beavers from where they 'exist in abundance' and may be causing damage, to areas where they're not found and could set up 'fur-bearing populations'.

According to Herter's paper such practise was relatively common but involved an 'arduous, prolonged, expensive' schedule involving several days journey with trucks and pack horses.

Many beavers died en route and some of those that survived became 'dangerously belligerent'.

So a better method was developed which involved planes and ex-military parachutes.

The paper goes into fabulous detail for the design of a box which beavers could be kept in during their flight and skydive.

Once on the ground the specially constructed box sprang open to allow the, surely bewildered, beavers to leave and set up their new colony.

To get to this final working design though the team had to test out several different types, using dummy weights, and, of course, real beavers.

Perhaps the finest part of the paper describes the adventures of one such test-beaver:
One old male beaver, whom we fondly named 'Geronimo', was dropped again and again on the flying field. Each time he scrambled out of the box, someone was on hand to pick him up. Poor fellow! He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again.

Unfortunately not all beavers faired so well:
One beaver worked his head through the small opening thus made for him, and managed to climb out onto the top of the box. Even so, had he stayed where he was, all would have gone well; but for some inexplicable reason, when the box was within 75 feet of the ground, he jumped or fell from the box.
Perhaps the 'inexplicable reason' was that the poor beaver was a little perplexed as to the turn of events which saw it floating down a river eating a nice piece of willow one minute, and the next being hurled out a large aircraft.

As for Geronimo, fear not: 
You may be sure that 'Geronimo' had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that the three young females went with him.

Crucially the whole - wonderfully barmy - scheme appears to have been a success, as Herter reports that 12 months after the airborne beaver-invasion of remote Idaho all the beavers were thriving.

Apart from the one that jumped out of its box.

Beavers in the UK...

So instead of the UK Government getting rid of our beavers perhaps we should be parachuting more of them into our landscape?

There may not be much call for their 'fur-bearing' properties anymore, but it's possible beavers could help with river and wetland restoration, flood alleviation and carbon storage.

If you want to know more about the effects of beavers on the landscape then why not sign-up for the Wetland Science and Conservation MSc at Bangor University?



Monday, 24 March 2014

BBC Science Cafe - radio interview

The other week I gave an interview for BBC Radio Wales` Science Cafe programme.

As part of their episode on the Bangor University Science Festival I was asked to talk about some of our latest research on wetlands.

Here`s the link to the interview which was on the BBC Science Cafe on March 11, 2014: BBC Science Cafe.

I enjoy doing publicity work like this; it allows me to use some of the skills I learnt during my years as a journalist, and it helps highlight the importance of wetlands.

Wetlands, especially in the UK, rarely get the limelight other "sexier" ecosystems do; such as forests and mountains - but I'd like to help change that.

Our wetlands control so much of our lives - both on a local and global scale.

They are the breeding and feeding grounds for countless species, they can prevent flooding, clean our water and even help control our climate.

Indeed, I'd argue, our very existence depends on wetlands.

So yes; I'm always happy to tell people how great our wetlands are!

Monday, 17 February 2014

BBC Wales interview: Borth bog fire

Following the fire on the peatland at Borth, near Aberystwyth, on Friday (February 14), I was asked to give an interview on BBC Radio Wales - Good Evening Wales.

It was a good opportunity to try and get across the importance of peatlands in Wales and to praise the work of Bangor University, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the other organisations involved in their study and management.

Here is the link for the interview: BBC Radio Wales - Borth bog fire

I also appeared on BBC Wales Today and gave some quotes to a number of other news groups:
The Independent
Daily Post
ITV Wales
BBC Wales
Belfast Telegraph 

There was plenty of social media activity about the story. However, my favorite tweet in reference to one of my quotes was from @garddwraig who said...

"Borth bog fire 'not caused by goblins', says expert on BBC website. That's a relief."

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Can bioswales stop flooding in the UK?

The flooding in Somerset and the south of England  has highlighted the need for a determined overhaul of the UK's management of flood waters.

Clearly the priority in many of the worst hit areas is to look at the maintenance of existing watercourses and how the catchment area is used further upstream.

But to effectively limit the effects of flooding a much wider view has to be taken with many different factors being taken into account.

One of these must be the role green infrastructure can play; in particular Sustainable Drainage Systems, or SUDS.

Many of our villages, towns and cities are expanding rapidly and as they do so areas which were once fields and shrub-land are coated in impenetrable concrete.

This means any rain that falls is quickly diverted, through guttering and drainage systems, into our water courses and rivers in one great flush.

The rainwater is never allowed to soak slowly down into the soil to join the existing watertable, as it did before the development, which would result in a more gradual and less extreme rising of nearby river levels.

The problem is becoming exacerbated with the ever diminishing size of gardens and green spaces; while the strain placed on overloaded existing drainage systems can cause localised flooding around drain covers.

One solution could be bioswales.

Bioswales are a form of Sustainable Drainage System (SUDS), which can be relatively small and incorporated neatly into an urban environment.

Bioswales  (sometimes referred to as a type of rain garden) are areas which can be built around drains on the sides of roads which allow water to soak down into the ground - preventing the rush of flood waters gushing into rivers.

The transpiration of specially selected plants grown in them to further help divert water away from drainage systems.

The existing drain still works in the usual way if needed, during heavy rain or storms, but when combined with the 'soakaway' abilities of the bioswale there is less of a risk of either the localised pooling or the large-scale flooding you often get from standalone drains.

Bioswales do not even need to take up much room; they can be the same size as many of the grass banks we currently have on our pavements - they just need to be constructed a little differently.

Bioswales can also help remove some of the pollutants in water runoff from our roads and pavements.

And of course, bioswales look good and add some much needed greenery and biodiversity to our urban areas.

The more research I do on bioswales as a wetland scientist the stronger I feel that they should become an integral part of not just any new housing and commercial development, but also our wider flood management plan.

Thankfully there is a push for Sustainable Drainage Systems (SUDS) to be used more extensively in the UK and I think the recent flooding will highlight this need even more.

Bioswales and SUDS are certainly an interesting topic for the MSc in Wetland Science and Conservation.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

New paper on wetland enzyme assays

I've just had a paper published on conducting enzyme assays on wetland soils published in the journal Wetlands.

The paper is entitled: "Methodologies for Extracellular Enzyme Assays from Wetland Soils".

My thanks go to my co-authors: Tim Jones, Astrid Girard and Prof Chris Freeman. It was a great team effort!

If you're interested you can get a copy by following the link and I've included a copy of the abstract.

"Measurement of extracellular enzymic activity in wetland soils can give an indication of the ecosystems biogeochemical processes, and rates of nutrient and carbon cycling. Analysis of these have allowed researchers to gain an understanding of the ecosystems’ microbial ecology and how it can be affected by environmental factors. Here we give a detailed description of the assays necessary to determine the activity of a suite of key hydrolase enzymes and phenol oxidases. These enzymes control the rates of decomposition and consequently the production of biogenic greenhouse gases. Knowing the processes responsible for the breakdown of organic matter is therefore essential if it becomes necessary to curb these emissions. Our protocols allow for cost effective analysis of a large number of samples and provide sufficient accuracy to determine differences between soil types. When coupled with contemporary microbial techniques these enzyme assays permit entire biochemical pathways to be determined, giving unparalleled knowledge on the processes involved in wetland ecosystems."

Read the full article here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13157-013-0475-0

Please feel free to get in touch if you'd like more information about the paper.


Monday, 3 February 2014

World Wetlands Day 2014

Here's a press release I wrote for Bangor University about World Wetlands Day.

A renowned north Wales' Professor has highlighted the importance of Wales’ wetlands as part of World Wetlands Day.

Professor Chris Freeman from Bangor University has thrown his support behind the event aimed and at raising the awareness of wetlands across the globe.

The award-winning academic, who runs the UK's only postgraduate degree on wetland science, is using World Wetlands Day to highlight the vital role wetlands play in Wales.

Prof Freeman says many wetlands are under threat, despite having the potential to curb flooding, clean our drinking water and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide.

"For centuries we've neglected many of our wetlands, seeing them as a waste of land that needed draining for farmland or building on," said Prof Freeman.

"Thankfully we’re now realising the value of these ecosystems – both in terms of their biodiversity and ecological roles, and for the services they provide us.

“Salt marshes can protect our coasts; buffer zones along rivers can reduce flood damage; peatlands store more carbon than our forests; fens and marshes can help clean our water before we drink it and other wetlands provide us with a host of foods and resources.

“World Wetlands Day is a fantastic idea, it takes place every year on February 2 and events are held around the world to raise public awareness of our wetlands.”

Despite their importance some wetlands are still being lost through drainage and pollution.

Prof Freeman claims more needs to be done to protect them which is why he started the Wetland Science and Conservation Masters degree at Bangor University.

“Although we have so many different types of wetlands in Wales and the rest of the UK most people just don’t realise how vitally important they are to our very well-being,” he said.

“Our course aims to train a whole new generation of wetland scientists, so that we can not only learn more about the natural processes going on in these ecosystems but understand how they can best be protected.”

He added: “I’d urge everyone to take a walk around their nearest wetland on February 2 and find more about them – just remember to take a pair of wellies!”

If you would like to know more about the Wetland Science and Conservation MSc at Bangor University visit wccl.bangor.ac.uk/wetland-masters.

So there you go - if you're interested in the MSc please visit the website and get in touch.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Wetland Science & Conservation MSc

A few days after handing-in my PhD on peatland biogeochemistry I was offered a lectureship at Bangor University and asked to be course organiser for the new Wetland Science and Conservation Masters degree.

It was a fantastic opportunity and the result of several months of hard work by both myself and my supervisor, Prof Chris Freeman, in putting together the course structure.

We were encouraged and helped by the head of the School of Biological Sciences, Prof George Turner, and various other members of the school and university.

The course is now underway with a fantastic group of students who all seem to be really enjoying the lectures and fieldtrips.

If you'd like more information about the Wetland Science and Conservation MSc please get in-touch or visit wccl.bangor.ac.uk/wetland-masters