‘My story is less than conventional, but I really enjoyed the journey!’ said graduate Mr Stuart Beaumont who was awarded his MSc in Ecological Sciences cum laude.
A former UKZN alumnus and mechanical engineer by training who has enjoyed a productive career in the automotive industry, Beaumont has also long enjoyed the hobby of training and surveying with pointing dogs.
He explained how this passion brought him back to his alma mater: ‘At the end of a long day walking my pointing dogs with some good friends in what appeared to be ideal habitat for red-winged francolin, and not having found anywhere near the numbers we would have expected, I started to ask questions as to why this might be the case.
‘A few Google searches revealed that veld management techniques have a significant impact on the veld’s suitability for the redwing, and that they can be considered an indicator of veld condition. Digging a little deeper revealed a method of counting the francolin, and whilst it was very applicable, it was most suited to scientists wanting to research these and other game birds, and not particularly friendly to the layperson running his pointing dogs.
‘I set out to develop a method of counting these birds utilising modern technology that would afford citizen scientists the flexibility to collect data whilst training their dogs and simultaneously contributing to our understanding of the ecology of the red-winged francolin.’
Beaumont’s dissertation was titled: Development and Application of Novel Ornithological Survey Methods for the Detection of Cryptic Avian Indicator Species that Predict Grassland Health. He was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs and husband and wife team Drs David and Yvette Ehlers Smith.
‘Many studies using pointing dogs to detect cryptic species have found that environmental conditions can have a significant influence on the dog’s ability to detect the species,’ said Beaumont. ‘I initially set out to establish the influence of these conditions by recording the conditions whilst I repeatedly allowed the dogs to search for birds of known location. I then recorded the distance at which the dogs clearly detected the birds’ scent. I established that wind strength was the biggest influencing factor, with stronger wind increasing the distance at which the dogs could detect the birds.
‘I used this knowledge in conjunction with data from GPS devices strapped to the dogs and GIS to establish an area of search when the dogs were searching for red-winged francolin. An abundance was calculated from the number of birds detected whilst searching.’
Many pointing dog enthusiasts utilise GPS tracking devices on their dogs, and Beaumont argued that this method would enable them objectively to establish the abundance of these birds.
‘Since red-winged francolin can be considered an indicator of veld condition, a change in abundance can inform ecologists, land managers and farmers of the impact of their management practices,’ he said.
Beaumont explained that the community that runs pointing dogs derives tremendous pleasure from spending hundreds of hours per season walking the rolling hills of the Midlands in search of red-winged and grey-winged francolin. They became very aware of the apparent demise of these species from farms where they were historically abundant.
‘I wanted to understand better the drivers of the demise so that we can hopefully influence them and restore the populations to their former glory,’ he said.
Beaumont’s methodology will enable laypeople to collect data on the abundance of cryptic gamebirds as a spinoff of recreational pursuits, thus significantly increasing the geographical area previously studied. This data can be used to influence veld management practices at a farm-to-farm level.
His methodology could also be applied to other canine detection projects, including lost person search and rescue.
Moving forward, Beaumont hopes to study how the birds respond to short-, medium- and long-term burning and grazing practices.
He paid tribute to his supervisors and UKZN for their generous support and thanked his wife, Danielle and children Ava, Rhett and Vivienne. He also singled out his friend Mark Lansdell, ‘for introducing me to this crazy pastime, for taking me under his wing, and training me like he might a pointer – with patience!’
Words: Sally Frost
Photographs: Abhi Indrarajan and Supplied