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Graham Johns and Auckland Council Summer studentship

  • Graham_Johns

Graham Johns knows a bit about taking the opportunity for new experiences. The Yorkshireman in his 40s was working in banking, but not really enjoying it, after moving to New Zealand about five years ago. He found that he wasn’t making the most of living in a country with abundant natural beauty, so he and his wife agreed that he needed a change.

Graham left banking in 2015, but had to do something to keep busy. He started volunteering with organisations like Bird Rescue and got to spend a bit of time out in the field.

He then decided to complete a New Zealand Certificate in Animal Management (Captive Wild Animals) and is now a zoo keeper. The practical nature of the programmes within the School of Environmental and Animal Sciences can provide opportunities for short-term industry placements for students. Graham saw this as an opportunity to widen his theoretical and practical knowledge into a new filed of industry. 

Graham jumped at the chance to work under the Auckland Council Summer studentship programme under the guidance of Emma Edney-Browne and Holly Cox, assisting with biocontrol of selected pest plants around the region. The council Biosecurity team has been doing this for about 30 years, so has built up deep institutional knowledge around what works.

Graham admits that he didn’t know a lot about the use of natural enemies for the control of invasive species, in this case, weed species, but was keen to learn about them.

He found one weed, Tradescantia, particularly interesting to work with. To control it, specific beetles are introduced, which then eat the plant to keep it in check. The beetles themselves have been introduced from Brazil, the native region of Tradescantia, and have undergone rigorous testing by Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research to ensure they won’t eat anything else before being released into the environment.

Graham said while it was too early to see if the initiative would be successful for controlling Tradescantia, he loved seeing signs of progress. “It’s quite uplifting when you go somewhere where the agent has been released and it seems to be having quite an impact. Especially the Tradescantia beetles, they just munch through it and without that control agent it just spreads and spreads, turning the forest floor into a mat of itself.” It is hoped that the beetles will be able to control these dense mats to a level where native seedlings can start to push through again and flourish.  

It isn’t as simple as just opening up a container full of bugs and letting them run wild. Graham said there were a range of factors that needed to be considered for the release to be worthwhile, and the decisions that need to be made about releases are quite complicated.

“For a new site we’d be looking at the size of the infestation of the pest plant, the environmental conditions of that particular site (whether it’s liable to flooding or drought, for example) or if anyone has been doing chemical spraying in the area. Those kinds of factors would influence either the type of agent released, or even if something could be released at all. If you know someone’s spraying, it would be completely pointless to release an insect into that environment.”

For the School of Environmental and Animal Sciences staff, the placement was an excellent example of exactly the experience they’re trying to give their students. The Bachelor of Applied Science at Unitec has had a long-term partnership with Auckland Council’s Biosecurity team, and recently at least two students gain a placement every year. This was the first year that the Biosecurity team also had funding to host students.

Dr Diane Fraser, the academic in the School of Environmental and Animal Sciences in charge of these placements, said that the point of these opportunities is to work closely with industry to give students a genuine real-world learning opportunity. “It really fulfils Unitec’s philosophy of applied learning and research in conjunction with industry. It’s only a small project, but it’s expected that students publish their findings.”  

Graham said he had no regrets about going back to studying again, even as a mature student. People bonded over ideas and their passions, rather than the stage of life they were in. He said it has put him on a path that he actually wants to be on.

He said being part of this project gave him an excellent insight into the work being done on the front lines of biosecurity, which has served him well in what he’s doing now. “Working at the zoo, you’re involved with pest control, by nature of the fact that there are a variety of pests encroaching on the zoo grounds, and some of them are plant species.”

“Somebody said to me yesterday, I must have the best job in the world – I haven’t really thought of it like that, but there are lots of moments each day when I find myself with a big smile on my face. I never really used to get that sitting at a computer.”

“You just don’t know what’s going to come out of these sort of experiences when they’re offered.”

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