Northampton university professor seeing Australian wildfire devastation first-hand

University of Northampton professor Jeff Ollerton working in Australia
University of Northampton professor Jeff Ollerton working in Australia

A University of Northampton science professor is currently caught in the middle of wildfires ravaging Australia.

Ecology expert Jeff Ollerton, is nearing the end of a two-month stint Down Under working on a research project at Sydney's University of New South Wales.

Fires have so far engulfed nearly 40,000 square miles of land, destroying entire towns near to Sydney and turning the city's beaches black.

Prof Ollerton, who has lived and worked in Northampton since 1995, said: "We’re based at Coogee Beach in the suburbs of Sydney, just a short walk from sand and surf.

"It sounds idyllic but one of the recurring features is the amount of ash and charred leaves washing up on the beaches from the bushfires.

“We won’t really know what the full effect is until after the fire season has ended, when ecologists can actually go in and start to survey these areas.

"Next year, when the rains hopefully start, and things start to flower, bees start to visit those flowers and the insects start to reproduce, then perhaps we’ll get a sense of the full scale of what has happened.

“In the meantime, all we can hope is that more rain falls and the fire fighters can contain some of these large fires."

Prof Ollerton fears the fires could force some of his favourite Australian animal species to become extinct.

He added: “Wildfires are going to have a devastating effect on the biodiversity of the country.

"Latest figures suggest over a billion larger animals have been killed by the fires. But many billions, possibly trillions, of smaller animals, insects, spiders, and so on, will also have perished.

“That’s where there’s a hidden tragedy, because it’s those small animals – the bees, the pollinators, the herbivores, the decomposers – that are responsible for ensuring these habitats function ecologically. And they also provide food for the larger animals.”

“On top of that, there’s the plants, many will have been killed or had their leaves and flowers burnt off.

"For those that have survived it may take many months for those leaves and flowers to regrow, which means that any animals that have survived will have very little to eat and may starve.

"One of the things that makes it such a tragedy, above and beyond the human cost and the death of the animals, is that some species might be driven to extinction.

"Many of the animals, the birds, reptiles and insects and so on, have very small natural ranges, in some cases only a few hundred square miles. And those species may be completely wiped out by some of these fires.

“At the moment, the future looks very uncertain for a large proportion of the wildlife in some parts of Australia.”