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Wilfrid Laurier University Office of Research Services
October 27, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Mike English and Sherry Schiff on sabbatical in New Zealand, 2008

Mike English: "A family-oriented research sabbatical in New Zealand - 'I'd recommend it to anyone!'"

Geography and Environmental Studies professor Dr. Mike English spent the first six months of 2008 in New Zealand.

            Lucky him. Missed all that snow shovelling.

            But life was not all beer and skittles in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Rather, English used his sabbatical as an opportunity to pursue his research on how agricultural practices influence groundwater/surface water interactions. He also took along his family – wife Sherry Schiff (a geochemist at UW) and four children, aged 14 to 20.

            “They all wanted to go,” says English, and careful marshalling of Air Miles points managed to get everybody as far as Los Angeles before the meter started running.

They ended up in the city of Hamilton, about 100 kilometres south of Auckland, where the parents worked in an experimental agricultural research basin run by NIWA – the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.  The two youngest kids attended high school, and the two eldest worked at a vineyard on South Island.

            The NIWA research station at Hamilton dates from the 1940s when the government realized that a population of 65 million sheep was creating water quality problems for the country’s 2.5 million people.

            The 215-hectare basin at the research station has been divided into three sub-basins for research purposes. One has been returned to natural native vegetation, and subbasins of the other two have been altered in different ways to determine ways and means of reducing direct loading of nitrate into the surface streams. This includes reforesting some with fast-growing pine (maturing in just 17 years) for eventual use as biofuel and planting others with different types of crops and excluding or including sheep and cattle.

            There are 500-600 sheep at the research site and another 150-200 beef cattle, says English. Unlike Canadian farms, where livestock are to a significant degree penned up in barns, the gentle New Zealand climate allows the animals to free-range throughout the year. This means, of course, that their waste is instantly in direct contact with the soil, including nitrogen-loaded cattle urine.

            Keeping the livestock out of streams is the first step in improving water quality, and establishing two-metre zones of vegetation alongside the streams is the next.

Water samples are taken, English says, to determine the proportional contributions of nitrogen moving from the sub-basins into the main stream and how it changes during a storm event.

            “We are also determining the source of the nitrogen entering the stream,” he says, by examining nitrogen isotopes to see if the source is sheep, cattle, fertilizer, or occurring naturally from precipitation.

            “We  have 300 frozen samples to be analyzed,” he says.

            English is no stranger to tracking nitrogen. He has been involved for some time in a research project in the Strawberry Creek watershed near Maryhill (between Kitchener and Guelph). Another research project is based at Daring Lake, about 325 km north of Yellowknife, where he and fellow researchers are studying snowpack hydrology and how this is related to climatology.

            Being in New Zealand “was very different” than being in Canada, English says. Not only was there less snow to shovel and some very interesting beers to sample, but his research allowed him to work with biologists and ecological modellers. And the research itself was different.

            “Field scientists live in our own caves,” he says. “The research I was involved with in New Zealand was in a similar vein to that I do here, but with different geologies and sheep instead of crops, so the chemistry was different.

            “The people were also different. There was a dynamic atmosphere. We had full access to labs, to trucks. They basically said, ‘Do what you want to do’.”

            English rates his New Zealand experience “10 out of 10,” and not just professionally. His 14- and 16-year-old daughters took high school courses they never would have experienced here, “like a Grade 9 Maori course,” and they made a lot of friends. “Each had several going away parties.

            “There is a community spirit there you don’t have here,” he adds. “They are very laid-back people, and it was a community we could fit into reasonably easily because of our research background.

            “I’d recommend it [a period of overseas research] to anyone,” English says.