Always Champion the Underbug: Career insights with beaver specialist Dr. Roisin Campbell-Palmer

It started with a pond…   and was nurtured through some pivotal early years connected to nature. A strong-willed, five year old wildlife champion at primary school became a national species trailblazer by accepting opportunities and pursuing her passion for animal welfare.  Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, Highly Commended in the Nature for Scotland RSPB Species Champion Award, has quietly dedicated her life to the welfare and restoration of under-represented species and in doing so has engineered some major change on our waterways, much like the humble beaver around which her career has evolved.  Following the prestigious nomination, I caught up with Roisin to find out more about where her love of animals and nature took root, how her journey to this point in her career unfolded and what she hopes for next for the species here in Britain…

Our Head of Restoration, Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, receiving highly commended in the RSPB Species Champion Award category from BT ambassador Megan McCubbin and John-James Chalmers.

How do you feel about being nominated for the prestigious Species Champion Award? 

Honestly, it was a genuine surprise! I didn’t even know until I saw a socials message from Oly [Hemmings, former colleague at Knapdale] congratulating me. It’s really touching. I’ve no aspirations to get the award itself, genuinely just touched to get shortlisted.  Also it feels a bit unreal and made me a bit reflective, I didn’t realise people would see me in that light, I’ve been just head down and getting on with it. It made me realise maybe all this work is making a difference!


Tell me about one of your earliest memories in nature and how that affected your choices as an adult. Did you grow up with loads of animals?

I was definitely the animal one in the family so I was constantly trying to bring things home. I grew up in urban Belfast, surrounded by a very creative and hands-on family, and my siblings and I fostered various crazy pets over the years.   All year round we’d do the usual childhood things, trawling rock pools, examining dead jellyfish, poking things.  Me and my dad built a pond when I was eight or nine, which absolutely fascinated me. It was full of frogspawn, beetles and other creatures, despite being in central Belfast.

My parents like to tell the story of when I was five and I turned vegetarian. We were on a Greek holiday, helping family friends bring in a grape harvest, complete with a big community lunch afterwards; I was playing with the rabbits outside, then next minute they were killed and skinned in front of me. As soon as I made that connection with meat I refused it from then on. 

I always wanted a dog, but instead had to make do with hamsters, stick insects and fish; so when I was about 14-15 years old I volunteered in cats and dogs home. That’s when I was really exposed to the welfare issue, seeing endless strays and unwanted pets put down, animal wastage, it really affected me and became a mainstay of my work. 


What did you study at university?

I went to the University of Glasgow, Scotland, when I was 19 to study zoology, and in some way never returned to live in Ireland which is a tear for me. Everyone thinks doing zoology means you work in a zoo. So turns out I did in the end, but it was more about combining everything I wanted: very hands on and constantly learning about animals, I particularly loved amphibians.

A pivotal moment for me came during university with an opportunity to go out to Trinidad and study amphibians. I was lucky to go out twice for a couple of months at a time, working on many frog species, helping with others’ PhDs, constantly and directly working with animals and exploring habitats I’d never seen before, and I realised – maybe there is a career in this. So I enrolled in a masters at University of Edinburgh, based at the veterinary school, specialising in animal welfare and animal behaviour which I loved.

I guess it all started with that pond. My masters thesis ended up being on amphibian welfare – the underdog as I saw it –  partly because many of my classmates were studying  companion animals or livestock. I was immediately challenged by course leaders, ‘But how would you improve [the welfare of amphibians]?’ Well that’s the issue isn’t it? No-one really talks about the welfare of the smaller things. And that journey continued on into Edinburgh Zoo; I spent a summer there working on enrichment experiments with their strawberry poison dart frogs. The university eventually liked it and I got my first publication aged 23 in a zoo animal nutrition book.

Edinburgh Zoo later offered me a summer keeper job. That was a great opportunity, I loved working in the reptile house, day in day out looking after the range of animals and their particular quirks and needs. On accepting a permanent position, the Animal Collection Director at the time said to me “I don’t believe you want to be a zookeeper” – which I obviously tried to deny in order to keep the job, but he insisted “no, you’re academia”. So I spent the next while trying to convince him I wanted to be a zookeeper: I stayed for years and worked my way up through different positions, until I discovered he was right – I didn’t want to be a zookeeper! 

It was a great time though, we were a great group, I was young, earning money and living in Edinburgh, it was exciting… until I realised it wasn’t enough. I know many zoos are keen to stress conservation values and there are some great zoos are doing good work, their animal husbandry knowledge is vital, but to me at that time it wasn’t quite enough and the concept of reintroductions, at scale, especially for ‘larger’ and more controversial species just wasn’t ringing true for me. 

Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer setting a Bavarian beaver trap

So how did you end up working with beavers? 

Well we had a forward-looking, slightly maverick Animal and Conservation Director at the time, always wanting to challenge the status quo and I feel he saw me battling some internal ethics and further aspirations. He knew I was casting about for the next step so he sent me off to work in the primate research centre, Living Links, telling me to give it a year, researching, then come back and we’d talk. I did, but primates weren’t my love at all, despite the research aspect being interesting. It was then that he said, ‘Well, we’re thinking of doing this beaver project with a Norwegian university – I just met this brilliant guy, he’s called Frank Rosell, I think yous would get on. I need you to go out to Norway and learn everything about beavers that you can’.  Done! …and that felt great

In Norway you just got thrown in at the deep end – on the beaver team that was you out night trapping on the boat, setting up equipment, lifting and lugging stuff, staying out til the early hours, trapping and taking samples. It was so cold, absolutely freezing. It was sink or swim, and I’ve never looked back.

I transferred knowledge and skills back to the zoo. At the same time the Scottish Beaver Trial at Knapdale was starting up, I was put in an animal advisory sort of position where my interest and excitement grew.

Frank was a pivotal change in my life, at first I found him ‘ Norwegian’, quite closed and reserved, so he wasn’t spilling with enthusiasm when I first popped up, guess he had seen many enthused students before and kept a slightly grounded air of ‘yeah, we’ll see..’. But rather than being dismissive he was a realist; Many projects come to him over the years and not all have worked. I needed to prove myself, prove Scottish beavers would work and prove my seriousness. Luckily, we got on really well and I think he saw that I wanted to do the research and publication side, as well as had a deep passion for the animals themselves.  He was equally concerned about welfare and animal behaviour aspects, so we clicked on that (and often many good bottles of red wine) and were always looking for ways we could improve things [for the beavers]. 

Eventually things fell into place for a PhD. And I found myself for the good guts of a year going back and forth between Norway (meeting many great people) and Scotland with the zoo – so many kind and generous people supporting me. I had some of my best summers out there exchanging dog sitting for beautiful accommodation and trying to make it all work.


How many papers have you published now?

Definitely double figures, and eventually a couple of books, a lot of things fell into line and I guess I was lucky at having different experiences. I was just really keen that there was so little done to date on aspects like beaver captive and veterinary care, angles few others were openly publishing on especially in Europe. Frank gave me access to his huge (“absolutely massive”) walk-in freezers, where various hunting studies had seen an accumulation of every beaver organ and sample imaginable.  He said “pick something and see what you can do”. I spent about a year going through 50 beaver stomachs, hooking out worms and flukes to see what parasites were there. Everyone would say “we always know when you’re back because the lab absolutely stinks.” I remember a few days with hangovers where it wasn’t such a good idea.


Can you think of a favourite moment working with beavers?

I don’t think I’ve lost the love of seeing them in the wild or when they are released and swimming off, but some of the firsts were just amazing. I felt like it took so long to get the beavers out to Scotland so when they were finally swimming wild [in Knapdale] that was particularly special. You had to kind of sit back, take stock and go ‘actually we’ve just done that’ – it was pretty cool. 

But there are so many more, I remember the first kit I caught and handled in Norway – that was something special. To get to see them up close and touch their hind feet and tail, absolutely incredible. Getting so close to wild animals is special, you have to remember that most people don’t do this so it’s a genuine privilege.


Are there any individual characters you’ve connected with? 

I still remember the first kit ever born in Knapdale. We were sitting on a canoe, used for night watching. Summer evenings were great because it was light and we would do four hour shifts at a time – It was crazy the amount of monitoring we did [laughs] – we just didn’t sleep! Once a month we had to watch every family for at least one night. One warm summer evening, while we were getting wildly attacked by midges, we could see something small and we weren’t expecting it. I remember we kept on looking then said “It’s pretty small, … it IS… it’s a KIT!!!” We knew this was going to be big, the first beaver born here in 400 years, so we kept looking at each other going “are we definitely seeing this?” Then we got to go back and report. That was special.

There were 16 or so individuals at Knapdale and because we monitored them so regularly we knew them all pretty well. There were definitely characters among them. Bjorna, a big male, was a particular character. Honestly we spent about five years trying to catch him; He was the smartest beaver I’ve ever known. He would just stand outside the trap staring straight into the camera, just looking at the apples. So we tried the boat [trapping] method and he’d out-manoeuvre us every time.  He’s still alive actually, he must be close to 20 years old now. Although he’s not in his prime any more, I like to think we’ve left on good terms and he’s had a good life.

Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer measuring the length of a beaver kit’s tail

There’s a lot of buzz around beavers now, how do you receive all that having worked for decades on their return? 

It’s definitely exciting, and something of a relief to see it’s getting somewhere real and more viable now. To avoid the feeling of frustration when things are tough, I have to remind myself that we’re a million miles from where it used to be. Sometimes I do worry that beavers are normalised on social media but the reality on the ground isn’t normalised so it’s a falsehood and that concerns me.  There’s still so much work to do so we cannot be complacent. 

We need scale and acceptance. There’s still much novelty in the species and we need to move beyond debating where one beaver gets released or dies, move away from that individualistic outlook.  The danger is that everyone thinks they know beavers enough, but mistakes happen that could be avoided. You cannot just put beavers out and leave them to their fate. What’s the long term? Are we being responsible, are they having a good life? Are we putting beavers out to conflict situations and where they might end up being shot? Are we creating unsustainable situations where landowners are not supported with fair coexistence options? All these constantly go through my mind – polarisation has to come closer to the middle.


To have beavers back in great numbers across the landscape; dream or reality?

I think it could be a reality, but sometimes I can feel a bit deflated especially as recently there’ve been some steps backward. One of my bigger fears is when you hear discussions of ‘beaver free zones’ or only releases into ‘specific catchments’, because there has to be a realisation that beavers will be in every catchment, even if we do nothing. And it doesn’t matter whether they’re there or not, it’s how you set up means to mitigate and manage them if and when they are there. Realistically, lethal control will be a feature of beaver management, I can live with that if it’s responsible and applied in a mitigation hierarchy. We have to support the minority of landowners that will be impacted, look at holistic and long-term mitigation that still involves beaver existence and get away from, dare I say, ‘island mentality’ and be a bit braver about accepting a wild animal back.

I do have anxiety it’s going to run and run in the wrong direction. We are in danger of a lot of beavers being out there and the tide of public opinion turning, unless some of these bigger picture concepts  come together and that’s way beyond beavers. It’s about policy, flood management, wilder landscapes, appropriate payments and support to encourage naturalised systems, riparian planting schemes, nature friendly farming …. Sometimes it feels overwhelming.


You’ve written a definitive book called “Beavers: Ecology, Behaviour, Conservation and Management”, is there anything that appeals about being an author?

The book was born of frustration. Frank [Rosell – co-author] is very practical, he does make me smile. As beavers became more mainstream and misinformation started coming out, plus it being during Covid, both of us found a drive to pull together all the information we could find, some of which was quite hidden away or in various languages, and publish it all somewhere accessible and in English. In reality the audience might be quite limited, but we felt something beyond the personal journey books was needed, and we could include a chapter on the cultural side of beavers, all the native american history and stories. It’s so interesting and so different to some of the drier side of beaver science.

There’s more research to do as well. What’s interesting to me is that once research started to come to light in the British context I think that’s when people started sitting up and listening. Everyone wants to do the research that makes the difference. There’s so much about the animal itself that fascinates me, their behaviour and measuring welfare. That’s what I’d explore if I had the luxury of time, which I don’t.


You’re now a leading expert in beavers, your opinion sought across Europe, what is on the horizon for you? Where do you see yourself in ten yrs time? 

If I look ten years down the line I panic!! What if I never get another job!! Should I have made a life plan?!!? [much laughter] Honestly, I don’t know what else I’d do. I feel in the thick of it and there’s enough to do for beavers now that that’ll probably see out my career. 


If not beavers, what would you be working on?

Frogs. [Categorical favourite, didn’t even pause to consider it]

Amphibians and reptiles are incredible. I think I like the underdog or something, the unusual ones that are a bit neglected by other people: There’s more to learn. That’s how I ended up with an asbo tortoise as a pet.

It sounds almost silly given beavers’ role as a keystone and them being quite the opposite of an underdog. I wasn’t thinking they’d be as big as they are now. 


What would you say to people wanting a career in zoology, beavers or just to help support their progress?

Volunteering was always a huge thing for our family when I was younger. As long as we were busy and following some sort of passion, that’s all my parents cared about.  Even if it’s not the perfect path, it opens up and creates opportunities. If you don’t like something you can always stop. So don’t overthink it!

I joked about life plans earlier, but I really didn’t have one. There’s no point getting hung up on an idealistic plan, you might miss opportunities that come out of left field. I wouldn’t even have put myself down for mammals, but I followed an opportunity.

Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer watching a beaver at Beaver Trust’s holding facilities at Five Sisters Zoo

Do we need more Natural History embedded in British education curricula?

Yes. Definitely. You can see it lacking in the working world, skillsets are being lost.

I was lucky, I went to an integrated primary school in Northern Ireland, the first at that time, so our class sizes were tiny, we had eight children and a brilliant teacher! She really exposed me to nature, linking science with art and all the other subjects, we even built a nature garden. 

One day we decided we’d have bird feeders, and if we could all bring in 5p we’d save up enough money. Apparently I used all my pocket money on this, and because I donated so much compared to everyone else, it was called the Roisin Pole. [More laughter]. We also started a magazine; I remember typing out all this stuff on my grandad’s ancient typewriter about how we should be saving nature. It’s so important to make space for nature in children’s education, now more than ever. Our incredible teacher went off-curriculum to make sure we had rounded, enriched learning.


Your work now is as much about working with people as it is with animals. Are you pleased with where you’re at?

Yes. I came into this on the beaver side, but a large part of the work now is dealing with people and learning and appreciating their individual concerns and substances. Sometimes folk say “but you’re a  ‘people person’”, and I instantly panic because I’m really not, I’m an animal person just dealing with a lot of conflict resolution day to day. It’s important and it’s needed, and I’ve come to realise it’s the only way reintroductions are going to work. It sounds obvious now. 

Sometimes I stop to just check in. Have I done the right thing with my life? Would I have gone another path? I think I can safely say I’m really happy with my career and I’m quite proud of what I’ve done. I’ve worked hard and I’ve got to a place where I’ve got a lot of good things in my life and I’m happy. And hopefully I’ve made some sort of a difference. That’s good for me. I’m doing something I love.

You can follow Roisin and the team for more information on beavers and their return to Britain.

Scroll to Top