Fieldwork is hard work without volunteers

National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia (NPWSSA) Senior Ecologist Rob Brandle has long known the value volunteer groups and university students provide DEW’s fieldwork and research programs – but their absence throughout the COVID-19 period has definitely brought it home.

From handling pythons to writing reports – Senior Ecologist Rob Brandle’s role is definitely multifaceted

1. Describe your work from home set up?

I’ve always had a home office – if you work in science and you want to write papers, you need a good set-up at home. I live in Port Augusta and I use my home computer for Teams meetings because when I got my work laptop I couldn’t see a reason for having a camera on it, and you can’t actually buy a web camera these days, particularly in a regional area like Port Augusta as they all sold-out at the onset of COVID-19. 

2. How have you managed the transition from working in the office and out in the field to working at home?

For me the past few months have been quite a flexible arrangement combining fieldwork and working from home, and more recently working from the office as well. Most people have returned to working in the Port Augusta office full-time, but I find it effective to do about 50 per cent of my desk-based work at home as it gives me blocks of uninterrupted time.

I’m still doing fieldwork in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park as part of the Bounceback program, which is a longstanding program helping to restore the natural ecology of national parks and surrounding properties in the Flinders Ranges. Since COVID-19 I’ve actually been working out in the field more because it’s been difficult to source help, such as volunteers and university students from Adelaide and interstate.

COVID-19 social distancing restrictions mean that instead of two of us travelling in one car, we now travel in two cars which does have a benefit in that you can spread out and cover more area when you are somewhere remote and maybe get some of the work done a bit quicker because you’re able to travel to different spots.

3. Has the way you work changed since the onset of COVID-19?

We’ve had to adapt and modify some of our fieldwork and research programs because of COVID-19. Volunteers and university students do bolster the scope of the research that we’re able to undertake, particularly in terms of monitoring fauna. A lot of the volunteers and students come from all over Australia, so current travel restrictions mean many can’t come here.

Some of the work that we were planning to do with Bounceback, such as major rabbit warren ripping to improve the expansion of the quoll and possum populations, has had to be put on hold because of the indigenous community being identified as a high risk group for COVID-19.

Instead, we were able to trial a calicivirus release of the K5 virus at short notice, to see if we could reduce the amount of rabbits. So we’ve successfully modified our research programs and fieldwork but it’s fair to say that COVID-19 has created extra work due to the absence of volunteers, friends groups and university students.

4. What did you miss about working in the office?

Connecting with your colleagues on something other than a work request is valuable, it’s important to go in regularly just to stay connected with things that aren’t top of mind and you mightn’t include in your thinking, but they’re relevant.

The other thing is office support – both equipment and staff. We have an admin team in Port Augusta and connecting with them is really important because they know how to do a lot of things that you might only do occasionally so they can save you a lot of time.

The other thing too is that I’ve recently moved into a bigger house and heating it during the day would be environmentally unsound, so I get a lot colder at home than I do in the office.

5. What are the upsides of working from home?

If you need to concentrate for a longer period it’s much easier to do at home. It’s also nice to be able to juggle between things, particularly if you’ve got something happening at home and you’re waiting for a contractor or a plumber.

6. What will you take away from this whole experience – professionally and personally?

The big legacy will be mobility and access to our shared network. Prior to that you had to organise a security token and carry equipment with you, whereas now you can just use your phone to access the system.

And that goes right through to having meetings with interstate academics, now we use Teams and it’s pretty easy to organise chats with people or interact, so I expect there will be a lot less travelling to and from meetings interstate as well, which will be a good thing because that used to chew up quite a lot of time.