Hugh takes PhD on Otter beaver

PUBLISHED: 11:40 22 December 2015

PhD student Hugh Graham will be studying the impact of the beavers

PhD student Hugh Graham will be studying the impact of the beavers


A PhD geography student is on the case to assess the impact of the River Otter’s beavers – England’s only wild colony for hundreds of years.

A young Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) kit swmming on the River Otter. Picture: Nick UptonA young Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) kit swmming on the River Otter. Picture: Nick Upton

The University of Exeter and the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) teamed up to recruit Hugh Graham (pictured, inset), a geographer who is returning to academia after a year in industry.

Their work could one day influence government policy on the animal’s reintroduction, but they will need the support of other enthusiasts to make it happen.

“It’s very much an interesting topic for me,” said Hugh. “I do a lot of fishing and kayaking and spend a lot of time on rivers.

“It’s a good opportunity to look at how they impact on river life. It encompasses a lot of what I’m interested in – I’m excited to see them.”

The DWT has plenty of biological and ecological expertise, so Hugh said he was ‘filling in the blanks’ from a geographical standpoint.

Hugh will look at the beavers’ physical effect on the river, studying the hydrology and the changing shape of the banks, as well as their impact on vegetation and insect life.

They have been known to coppice willow trees to promote growth, and their dam-building can help to improve water quality.

The instinctive behaviour can also reduce the risk of flooding, but Hugh said the animals are unlikely to build on the River Otter, as they only tend to do so in shallow water when they feel unsafe.

He will be studying the length of the river from Upottery to Otterton – but it remains to be seen if the 10 tagged beavers have ventured into any of the tributaries.

The cute creature has been reintroduced in Scotland, but the joint DWT and University of Exeter project is looking at the first non-enclosed colony since they became extinct. That means that Hugh’s findings could influence government policy on the reintroduction of beavers in England, although it is early days yet.

One mystery he will not be trying to solve is where the beavers came from.

“We know they are Bavarian,” he said. “Where they came from more locally is something which we won’t be able to find out.

“It’s something we may never know.”

For more information on the project or to donate to the beaver appeal, visit

Anyone who has seen any beavers or signs of recent activity, or has any questions or concerns, can email

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