An ecology field trip to the other side of the planet!

Two UK ecologists – Sharron and Fran - have travelled a long way from home to do some field work in Australia, as part of an RPS global exchange.

As soon as lockdowns lifted and international flights resumed, RPS wasted no time in launching its new Global Ecology Mobility Program. Jess Graham, an ecologist from Newcastle in New South Wales was the one to kick it off with a stint in the United Kingdom from May to July this year.

Now it’s the UK’s turn and RPS ecologists Sharron Burton and Fran Morris were the lucky ones chosen to spend some time in Australia for the busy spring-summer field work in the southern hemisphere.

But is an exchange to Oz as simple as jumping on a plane?

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Sharron, Jess and Fran

Preparing for a ‘challenging’ environment

Jess said working in Australia does have its unique challenges. “Aside from specific site inductions and medicals, we also have weekly meetings to discuss safety. Vehicle safety is big right now with all this rain. Even though our cars are well equipped for the bush - if we don’t have to save each other from being bogged, it’s a good day out!”.

She said Sharron and Fran will also need to get used to all the equipment. “Australia has a harsh environment. I remember in the UK being shocked that you could be out in the field with a t-shirt and no hat. Here we cover every inch of our bodies. And it’s snake season, so we also wear gaiters to protect our legs.

“Plus, we’ve got repellent for mosquitoes, ticks, and leeches. And there’s always Tick Off in the cars too, which essentially freezes off ticks. So yeah, our daily routine is different.

“Work wise, they’ll see we tend to do a lot of flora work, whereas in the UK there’s more fauna projects.”

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Looking out for snakes is just part of the job

So how has Sharron and Fran’s time in Australia been?

QHow have you coped with the creatures and the ‘challenging’ environment?

Sharron: “It’s been great. Only one remote location vehicle rescue situation, lots of prickly swamps surveyed and many kilometres covered on foot. But having safety front of mind is important. On one of the field trips to the Blue Mountains we had to be very cautious as we were traversing steep-sided, remote swamp lands to locate some monitoring points. We found a tiger snake sunning itself in the one-meter square area we were about to survey, so avoided the area, discussed and wrote a site safety report and remained on full alert.” 

Fran: "I really don’t mind the snakes and spiders and other wildlife. As long as you don’t disturb them, they don’t disturb you and they don’t go out of their way to attack you. Due to the nature of our work, we do sometimes have to go into environments which could disturb them, such as farmland with kangaroos and dense bush with snakes and spiders. We just have to keep our wits about us, be careful where we stand and follow all safety procedures along with wearing appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment).”

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Discovering a wombat burrow in the Blue Mountains, NSW

QWhat are some of the benefits of working in a new country and environment?

Sharron: "It’s been so great to see things I wouldn’t back home. I’ve watched a traditional ‘cool burn’ by the Worimi Land Council Aboriginal Green Team. It was amazing to learn about this and understand when and why this practice has been undertaken historically.

I’ve also done some camera trap retrieval checking for evidence of gliders, koalas and other Australian animals. And another highlight has been looking for and finding critically endangered orchids species and taking tiny leaf samples from the very, very, very small orchids for electronic DNA testing.”

QWhat opportunities has this exchange offered?

Sharron: “The exchange has offered me the opportunity to see and study the incredible flora species and work at a much more practical, higher physical level than in the UK. The ecologists here in Australia are on expedition hikes during their surveys and are very fit and skilled. The work sites offer beautiful views with punishing outdoor working conditions, especially in the swamps and woodland environments in New South Wales. I have learnt a lot about the importance of safety and teamwork in the more dangerous, remote locations. It has also been great to pause from work look up every once in while to appreciate the unbelievably incredible surroundings in the Blue Mountains.”

Fran: I’m setting up a dog detection unit for RPS in the UK and I’ve been in regular contact with my Australian colleagues about their work with koala dog detection and monitoring. While I’m here in Australia I’ll hopefully get the chance to meet the handlers and dogs and see firsthand their set up. The opportunity to meet the dog detection specialists was one of the main reasons I applied for the exchange program.”

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Dog detection units are used to help locate koalas

QHow do dog detection units help ecologists and what do you hope to learn here?

Fran: “The use of conservation detection dogs across the world is a growing field in the ecological and conservation sectors. The dogs can cover a large area in a relatively short time and are particularly helpful in habitats that are inaccessible for humans, like waterways or dense vegetation. They can be used for monitoring and controlling invasive species and in ‘presence and/or likely absence’ surveys for flora and fauna.

In the UK, we’re researching the use of conservation detection dogs for hazel dormouse surveys. So, it will be really helpful to meet my Australian colleagues who use detection dogs and handler teams for the identification of koalas. To see how they operate and understanding what practices they use will be invaluable. I’d also love to see their dogs in action and hopefully see a koala!

QWhat lessons or experiences from Australia will help with work back in the UK?

Sharron: “There is a lot more use of electronic recording on bespoke survey software and equipment in Australia. We’re starting to use more technology in the UK, but not as much as here. And I can see the advantages of using it more often and in more settings – and I definitely think we need to continue to go in this direction back home.

I’ve also greatly improved my flora identification skills. A lot of my work in the UK is surveying mammals, reptiles and amphibians, so it’s been great to survey interesting flora species in grasslands and look for endangered plant species.”

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Surveying in the Blue Mountains, NSW

QHighlight - outside work?

Fran: “Travel. I bought a cheap bike and I have been riding around the Newcastle area. I’ve seen humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins and fur seals! Also, I’ve been out to the bush and seen kangaroos and so many different bird species. On either side of my work placement, I’ll be travelling and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this beautiful country.”

Sharron: “Being located near the sea means I have seen pods of dolphins on my daily morning walks. Fruit bats reside close to RPS’ Newcastle office and there are some incredible bird species everywhere I have been. I will be travelling around visiting friends and family in Victoria and spending time hiking in the Grampians in the next few weeks. I would love to explore more of Australia and am already thinking of returning next year.”

A few snaps from Sharron and Fran's time with the Newcastle team

  • Out and about with the RPS Newcastle team

    01 /06
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  • Identifying plant species

    02 /06
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  • Sharron, Jess and Tara at a survey site

    03 /06
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  • Emptying water out of gumboot after working in a swamp

    04 /06
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  • Some non-work fun

    05 /06
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  • Identifying flora species

    06 /06
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