Jerome Viard, a key member of Newnham’s gardening team, has a new mission for the next six months. He is swapping Newnham’s flowerbeds for the wilds of Antarctica. There he will be a wildlife monitor for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), a charity which manages the historical buildings at Base A, Port Lockroy on the Antarctic peninsula.
Currently, Jerome, who was previously a professional chef for 13 years before returning to his first love – gardening – and joining Newnham, is busy with the minutiae of what needs to be done before he travels. “I think on the flight my focus will shift,” he says. “Every day I’m just focused on work at the moment and home. There’s lots to sort out. Andy Kite [our Buildings Manager] is going to look after my fish.”
Indeed, animal lover Jerome, also known at College for his amazing wildlife photography, has also had to find homes for his pet ducks he hatched from eggs, and his pet quail while he is away.
This is not Jerome’s first time in this part of the world, however. In 2015, he worked in South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory, for six months as part of a team that eradicated the rats on the island. “Rats came over with the whaling ships,” he explains. “There are no trees so the birds mostly nest on the ground [leaving their nests vulnerable]. This little charity said, ‘we have to do something,’ and that was the first time I encountered Antarctica. That started my falling in love with it.”
Jerome was surprised by how tame the wildlife was. “When I went on the quayside, the penguins and the seals were at the bottom of the gangway,” he says. “I was blown away. I thought they would be afraid. The landscape is so dramatic, it broke my heart. I was overwhelmed with emotions.”
In 2019, he returned to South Georgia to work for a museum there. “Then my friend mentioned [the UKAHT job] to me and I applied in February and got shortlisted,” he says. “I went for three days of the pre-selection. We went to an outdoor centre and were tested. One of the challenges was running around with a wheelbarrow with sand and Gerry cans of water – well, that’s what I do all day as a gardener at Newnham!”
This time Jerome is part of a team of six tasked with helping the UKAHT take care of British heritage on Antarctica. “There’s six sites on the peninsular – old scientific huts where the scientists would have worked and contributed to atmospheric science,” Jerome explains. “The museum tells the story and preserves the buildings.”
Port Lockroy was the first British Antarctic Base. It was started as a secret mission by the UK military during World War Two to occupy the area, known as Operation Tabarin. “We will be doing maintenance on the buildings, manning the post office,” Jerome explains. “It’s the southern-most post office in the world and there’s a gift shop there. We take care of the artefacts and the buildings. With climate change, it rains a lot more.”
However, as wildlife monitor, Jerome’s main responsibility is to look after the gentoo penguins there. “There’s 1,000 birds,” he says. “I’m there to record the breeding season, count the eggs and chicks, plus the other birds, whales and seals, record the weather and report back to the British Antarctic Survey. We’re also going to look for plastic washing up on the beach.”
Jerome says he will be taking board games with him and some watercolour paints to keep him occupied in the evenings, as there will be no access to social media or the internet – or running water or flushing toilets. “I just can’t wait to be out in nature,” he says. “South Georgia was quite green. Where I’m going now, it’s mostly ice and snow. It’s going to be a big change from working at Newnham. The only greenery will be lichen.”
We look forward to hearing more about his adventures on the other side of the world soon.