Scientist, teacher and Koonamore Project Champion

 

 

Last year saw the passing away of Dr Russell Sinclair an academic who, quietly, made vast contributions to the knowledge of rangeland ecology.  Russ Sinclair during his tenure at The University of Adelaide, and continuing after his retirement as a visiting research fellow, managed the T.G.B. Osborne Koonamore Vegetation Reserve (KVR) for almost 50 years.

The Koonamore Project at KVR located in the South Australian North East pastoral region is the oldest long term ecological study in Australia and one of the oldest in the world. The site has contributed to the teaching of generations of students of arid land ecology and the training of several scientists who went on to make important contributions to rangeland science, land management and conservation. All this would not have happened without Russ Sinclair’s dedication to the project.

Russ started his involvement with the project in 1975 when, after the retirement of Constance Eardley, the Head of the Department of Botany asked him to take charge of maintaining KVR and assess any further viability for the Project. Russ did so, conscientiously and enthusiastically. Managing to maintain such a project in the SA remote NE pastoral region going forward was an outstanding achievement, given the challenges of obtaining funds for this kind of research. His unwavering dedication was instrumental in achieving this.

Russ did not start his academic career as an ecologist or even a botanist, but as a physicist. Indeed, he obtained an Honours degree in Physics in 1964 from the University of Sydney. His career then took a turn when he arrived at The University of Adelaide and started a PhD project investigating heat balance of plant leaves. The project required an artisanal approach to the production of novel measuring equipment, and model leaves of various shapes and colours. And, importantly, required field work in arid lands which kick-started his love for the Australian outback.

After completing his PhD thesis in 1967, Russ took a position as Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur.  On his return to Adelaide Russ was appointed Lecturer in the Department of Botany, The University of Adelaide, where he continued for the rest of his career.  He was responsible for the teaching of various aspects of botany and in particular ecophysiology of plants – the relationship between the environment and the functioning of individual plants.

The practical work of his Ecophysiology of Plants course included a field camp to Koonamore based around the outstation Bindyi, adjacent to the Reserve.  The students worked outside the Reserve in vegetation nearby.  There was a large amount of finicky and sometimes archaic equipment to set up to feed back weather and moisture data via long cables to the paper-reel loggers (going well into the 1980’s) in a caravan converted to mobile laboratory. Russ taught the field students patience and adaptability in setting up field instrumentation. Apart from hard work, students had a unique opportunity to socialise,  and the friendships and professional connections that started here often continued over the years.  Russ was sympathetic to students making good of the camp fire well into the night, but was also a great task master in levering the students out with the clanging of a hot kettle before dawn the following morning for the first water potential measurements.

 The Ecophysiology camps were an encouragement for Russ to delve into the complexities affecting survival of arid zone vegetation. The popular camps garnered enthusiasm for the site capturing prolonged interest from students and staff alike, endearing long-lasting connections with KVR. Indeed, as mentioned above,  Russ took charge of the site when Connie Eardley retired and was very much the sole driver of the KVR project for nearly 50 years.

 

Photo collage showcasing Russell’s work: Top row (from left) – Russ (with a rare beard) in his office in the Benham Building at the University of Adelaide (late 1990’s), With Dave Thomas measuring leaf reflective qualities (1965), Working at Bindyi (late 1990’s); Middle row (from left) – Working in the mobile lab caravan (1990), Ecophysiology camp sing-a-long (1997), Measuring wind at Ecophysiology camp (1990); Bottom row (from left) – Fencing (1993), Rabbit control (1993) and Chatting at the 75th Anniversary of the TGB Osborn Vegetation Reserve (2000).

 

An important task associated with the Koonamore Project was (and still is!) to ensure the permanent plots are regularly assessed and photopoints re-photographed. Russell meticulously set up an electronic data base and meshed the paper filing records into an electronic form so that new data could easily be aggregated. In the late 1970’s Russ gained some support from the Botany Department to give the technical staff an opportunity to work at Koonamore. Moving forward, this gained traction and the end of year volunteer camps continued. As the years went on much more could be achieved in consistently collecting data, rabbit control, maintaining the fences and facilities. Russ was the Botany Departments’ academic driver on the Project and he championed support for these camps and the site maintenance.

As a credit to Russell’s dedication to the Project, he was not interested in the data collected for his own career aspirations, rather his motivation was a generous knowledge of the broad importance of long-term ecological data. His contagious passion for the conservation and management of arid lands did not fail to inspire generations of future rangelands and conservation professionals.

The camps were also the occasion for Russ to indulge his bardic skills. Indeed at the end of each camp (including the Ecophysiology of Plants course) Russ would sing a song of his own composition (based on popular tunes ranging from Waltzing Matilda to Yellow Submarine). The songs documented the main events of each camp in a humorous way.  Russ assembled his self edited collection entitled The Botanic Verses. The booklet was produced for sale to help fund the new Dunny installation for the KVR 75th anniversary.

 

Celebration of 75 years of work…… from the verses – now we are 25 years on!

 

Russ had a keen power of observation, a wicked sense of humour, and a no nonsense attitude. He was often asked by colleagues to provide feedback on drafts of papers or grants applications, and Russ never failed to make excellent suggestions on both content and format. His comments on drafts were always sharp, profound and kind.

As an academic Russ was passionate about teaching and knowledge. He was an easy-going, approachable lecturer who connected well with students, and with his passion for ecophysiology and ecology, enthused at least two generations into rangeland and other diverse disciplines. Through his work at Koonamore he directly and indirectly contributed to the training of several rangeland ecologists in ways that the current academic metrics (publication numbers and impact, grant dollars) cannot reflect. He had a voracious intellectual interest in many areas of knowledge (astronomy, history, physics) well beyond botany and ecology. But above all he was generous in sharing his wisdom.

Outside the University Russ was a dedicated conservationist, particularly in his involvement with Trees for Life and as the manager for the SA National Trust Engelbrook Reserve in the Adelaide Hills where he lived.   He engaged people from all sections of the community in his conservation activities including co-ordinating volunteer working parties to combat invasive species and helping with restoration actions.

 

Russ at the Waukaringa Pub in 2020

 

The Legacy of Koonamore

Although Russell has passed, we are left with a wonderful legacy by his steadfast and consistent dedication to the Koonamore Project for nearly 50 years. The Department of Biological Sciences at The University of Adelaide is committed to continue the work on the Project, which is now in the hands of the authors of this note for the time being. Further information about the Project may accessed from https://set.adelaide.edu.au/biological-sciences/research/field-stations#koonamore

Continued and future interest in the Koonamore Project allows hope for a bright future. There are new projects starting including a PhD project just commenced by Rebecca Greening as continuation of her Honours project looking at soil microbial differences produced by grazing. Russell always fostered interactions with other entities and promoted the new emerging interest and value of KVR in understanding how the populations of arid land plants are driven by climate variation and what the impact of climate change may have on rangeland environments. Various organisations have recently visited Koonamore including the Australian Government Emissions Reporting who used Koonamore for the measuring of long term field trial assessment of carbon stocks for woody biomass live and standing dead. The local NRM Board ‘Stickybeak Field Day’ also showcased KVR and positive interactions with the Koonamore Station Manager, Nick Rasheed.

We are keen to encourage the use of the KVR data and the photopoints by academics and researchers worldwide.  To this effect, we are working with the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) to make sure the data is easily accessible. We think that the information accumulated is an unvaluable asset for research in rangelands.

Finally, we are keen to establish a Friends of the Koonamore Vegetation Reserve group to help with the maintenance and ensure the continuation of the project.

Russell, in his last years worked on compiling the history of KVR.  His book provides a definitive history of the Reserve both from the perspective of the people who established and developed the Reserve and of the findings resulting from research thus far. Publication is expected for the second half of 2024.

Clearly the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the establishment of the Reserve will be a great opportunity to celebrate the legacy of Russ Sinclair and develop strategies to ensure this unique project continues – for at least the next 100 years!

 

José Facelli (jose.facelli@adelaide.edu.au) and David Ladd (david.ladd@adelaide.edu.au)