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UHI appoints pioneering director to lead the expansion of its environmental research at Highland campus

By Neil MacPhail

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Dr Bernd Hanfling.
Dr Bernd Hanfling.

UHI Inverness has appointed a director to lead biodiversity and freshwater conservation research.

Bernd Hänfling will major on the expansion of its research in environmental DNA and molecular biodiversity monitoring.

Dr Hänfling joins UHI Inverness from the University of Hull, where he was reader in the Department of Biological and Marine Sciences and director of postgraduate studies.

With interests in ecology and evolution, Dr Hänfling pioneered the development of environmental DNA (eDNA) approaches to monitoring fish communities.

"I want to work closely with stakeholders to support the work they are doing in the interest of biodiversity, and to develop the tools they need to provide the evidence base for management decisions."

He has more than 20 years’ experience in the development and application of molecular tools for biodiversity and ecological research.

His appointment coincides with a programme of major investment in the laboratory facilities at UHI Inverness, the trading name of Inverness College, which will double existing capacity to carry out molecular biodiversity monitoring. This will include increased use of eDNA and metabarcoding to identify and measure the abundance of a species in an ecosystem and the ecological impact of environmental changes.

Dr Hänfling will oversee the research in Biodiversity and Freshwater Conservation at UHI Inverness, which will extend the current work on rivers and lochs to the application of molecular approaches across all water and land habitats.

Molecular biodiversity monitoring plays an increasingly important role in many water or land-based conservation projects and environmental impact assessments, supporting land managers with the tools to understand the impact of any changes they make. This data helps them make decisions in the best interests of biodiversity, including the conservation of vulnerable species.

This type of research is critical to the success of rewilding projects, including the restoration of woodlands and wetlands, and the management and reintroduction of species.

Dr Hänfling, a Fellow of the Freshwater Biological Association and founding member of the UK-DNA working group, a think tank for translational research in the field of DNA-based biomonitoring, said: “I am delighted to join UHI Inverness, and feel privileged to be working in the Highlands and Islands, where there’s so much potential for molecular biodiversity monitoring to support the phenomenal work going on in this region to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes.

"I want to work closely with stakeholders to support the work they are doing in the interest of biodiversity, and to develop the tools they need to provide the evidence base for management decisions.

"My vision is to develop approaches for molecular biodiversity monitoring, which can be applied on a landscape scale in both aquatic and terrestrial environments.”

UHI Inverness researchers are already involved in a number of molecular

biodiversity monitoring projects. On the River Laxford, Sutherland, researchers are working in partnership with the Atlantic Salmon Trust and Grosvenor’s Reay Forest Estate to restore salmon and sea trout populations by improving the habitat quality of the river. In another project, researchers are working with NatureScot to trial the use of eDNA methods to monitor beaver presence and their effects on natural systems.

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