Category Archives: New South Wales

Long-term restoration in the Box Gum Woodlands of south-eastern Australia – UPDATE of EMR feature

David Lindenmayer, Mason Crane, Daniel Florance, David Smith, and Clare Crane

Update to article published in EMR – Murray Catchment habitat restoration: Lessons from landscape level research and monitoring doi: 10.1111/emr.12051

Keywords: Revegetation, biodiversity recovery, monitoring, birds

Figure 1. Revegetated woodland near Wagga Wagga in the South West Slopes of New South Wales. (Photo courtesy of the Sustainable Farms project at The Australian National University. Australia).

Introduction

This project encompasses a major set of large-scale, long-term integrated studies quantifying the response of various groups of biota to replanted woodlands in the Box Gum Grassy Woodlands of south-eastern Australia. The work has been underway since 2002 and contrasts revegetated areas with regrowth woodlands and old growth woodlands on multiple farms nested within landscapes with varying amounts of native vegetation cover (Fig 1.). The responses of birds, arboreal marsupials, terrestrial mammal, reptiles, frogs and native plants to these different kinds of broad vegetation types (and within-site and landscape-level attributes) have been documented over the past 17 years.

Further works undertaken

Since the inception of the original project and associated monitoring, an array of additional studies have been completed (https://www.anu.edu.au/about/strategic-planning/sustainable-farms). These include investigations of the impacts on birds and reptiles of livestock grazing in plantings, the benefits for birds of understorey plantings within old growth woodlands, the impacts of a control program for the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) on other woodland bird species, and interaction effects between long-term climate, short-term weather and revegetation programs on birds (Figs 2 and 3). Further work aims to quantify the biodiversity and livestock production benefits of enhancing the ecological condition (and associated water quality) of farm dams.

Figure 2. Flame Robin and Rufous Whistler – two bird species of conservation concern that respond positively to revegetated woodland. (Photos by Robin Patrick Kavanagh.)Further results to date

Research and monitoring in the past six years have resulted in a number of key new insights of considerable importance for restoration programs. A small subset of these findings includes:

  • The conservation benefits of replanted areas for bird and reptile biodiversity are undermined by intensive livestock grazing in these revegetated areas.
  • The bird biodiversity values of old growth temperate woodlands can be enhanced by underplantings of shrubs and other non-overstorey plants, although it can take many years for such benefits to manifest. Importantly, the occurrence of hyper-aggressive species such as the Noisy Miner is diminished in woodlands where underplantings have been established.
  • Experimental efforts to reduce populations of the Noisy Miner were largely unsuccessful; sites where this species was culled twice were rapidly recolonized by the Noisy Miner.
  • Replanted woodlands provide critical refugia for woodland birds, especially during prolonged drought periods.

Collectively, these findings indicate that restored woodlands have important conservation values (especially for birds but also reptiles), with restoration being valuable to conduct not only in existing old growth woodland (through establishing underplantings) but also in previously cleared sites. The conservation value of woodlands can be particularly critical during climate extremes such as droughts. Efforts to control the Noisy Miner will likely be most effective through targeted revegetation efforts rather than direct culling of birds. Finally, there is a need to limit grazing pressure in revegetated woodlands and this can require the repair or replacement of fences around replantings, especially when such key infrastructure begins to deteriorate.

Figure 3. Noisy Miner – a reverse keystone species for which experimental culling programs have proven to be ineffective. (Photo by Pete Richman.)

Lessons learned and future directions

The ongoing work has clearly demonstrated the important new insights that are derived from long-term ecological research and monitoring. Indeed, long-term changes in patterns of occupancy of restored areas could not have been quantified without rigorous monitoring of a wide range of sites of different sizes, ages and other attributes. Key manager-researcher partnerships have been fundamental to the ongoing success of the array of projects in this restoration initiative. Indeed, some research and monitoring studies were prompted by  questions posed by natural resource managers (such as if there were vegetation cover thresholds for birds in temperate woodlands). Close working relationships with farmers have also been critical to the persistence of the various projects. Field staff in the project, who are based permanently in rural Australia, are key points of outreach and communication with farmers and other natural resource managers. Their presence has accelerated the rate of knowledge transfer and adoption of new practices (such as widening shelterbelts so that they have multiple production and conservation values).

Stakeholders and funding bodies

Ongoing work has been supported by many funding bodies and partners. These include the owners of more than 250 private properties (whom have allowed access to their land and undertaken major restoration works). Funding for the work has been provided by The National Environmental Science Program (Threatened Species Recovery Hub), the Australian Research Council, Murray Local Land Services, Riverina Local Land Services, Central Tablelands Local Land Services, the Ian Potter Foundation, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, The Australian National University, and the Calvert-Jones Foundation.

Contact information

David Lindenmayer, Sustainable Farms Project, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, 2601, david.lindenmayer@anu.edu.au

Lord Howe Island biodiversity restoration and protection programs, NSW, Australia

Hank Bower

Key words: Pest species management, weed control, community engagement.

Figure 1. Weeding teams apply search effort across near 80% of island terrain, their effort monitored through record of GPS track logs across designated weed management blocks. Target weeds on LHI are mostly bird dispersed requiring landscape scale for sustainable and long-term protection from weeds. The remaining 20% of island is subject to surveillance and with investigation of new technical approaches in weed detection using drones.

Introduction: Lord Howe Island (LHI) is located in the Tasman Sea 760 km northeast of Sydney and 570 km east of Port Macquarie. In 1982 the island was inscribed on the World Heritage (WH) List under the United Nations’ World Heritage Convention in recognition of its superlative natural phenomena and its rich terrestrial and marine biodiversity as an outstanding example of an island ecosystem developed from submarine volcanic activity.

The island supports at least 80% cover of native vegetation, broadly described as Oceanic Rainforest with Oceanic Cloud Forest on the mountain summits.  LHI vegetation comprises 239 native vascular plant species with 47% being endemic. Forest ecosystems on LHI are largely intact, but at threat from invasive species and climate change. About 75% of the terrestrial part of the WH property is recognised as a Permanent Park Preserve (PPP) managed on behalf of the New South Wales government by the Lord Howe Island Board on the basis of a holistic conservation and restoration plan (Lord Howe Island Biodiversity Management Plan LHI BMP 2007).

Since settlement of the island in 1834, introduced and invasive plant and animal species have been affecting the Lord Howe Island environment, causing declines in biodiversity and ecosystem health. There have been 11 known extinctions and severe declines in numbers of fauna species including the flightless Lord Howe Woodhen (Hypotaenidia sylvestris), once regarded as one of the rarest birds in the world.  The Lord Howe Island Phasmid (Dryococelus australis), the world’s largest stick insect was feared extinct until the rediscovery of live specimens on Balls Pyramid in 2001. Some 29 species of introduced vertebrates and about 271 species of introduced plant species have naturalised on the island. At least 68 species are the focus for eradication (Fig 1), with 10 main invasive species having colonised extensive areas of the settlement and the PPP, posing a serious threat to island habitats. One of the most serious weeds, Ground Asparagus (Asparagus aethiopicus), for example, was so prolific in the forest understory it completely overwhelmed native vegetation and bird breeding grounds. Weeds are prioritised for eradication following a Weed Risk Assessment and are typically species that are at low density, are localised and/or are limited to gardens, and species with known weed characteristics (e.g. wind or bird dispersed seeds) that have yet to express their weed potential. Identifying species for early intervention is important to prevent their establishment and expansion, particularly post rodent eradication. For example, the removal of 25 individual Cats Claw Creeper in 2006 (which have not been detected since) supports the case for proactive weed management.

The islands limited size and isolation provides great opportunities to achieve complete removal and eradication of key invasive species.  Therefore particular strategies identified in the LHI BMP to effect ecosystem recovery include the management and eradication of invasive weeds, rodents, tramp ants and protection from plant diseases and pathogens.  All projects are delivered at an island wide scale, which incorporates a permanent population of 350 residents and a tourist bed limit of 400.

Works undertaken   Progressive programs to eradicate feral animals commenced in 1979 with the eradication of pig Sus scrofa, cat Felus catus in 1982, goat Capra hircus in 1999 and African Big-headed Ant Pheidole megacephala in 2018. Threatened fauna recovery programs include the captive breeding of Lord Howe Woodhen following the eradication of cats, establishing a captive breeding and management program for the Lord Howe Island Phasmid and the planning and gaining of approvals to implement the eradication program for Black Rat Rattus rattus, House Mouse Mus musculus and introduced Masked Owl Tyto novehollandiae commencing in 2019.

The island wide strategic Weed Eradication Program commenced in 2004, building on earlier years of ad-hoc control effort.  Over 2.4 million weeds have been removed through more than 170,000 hours of grid search method.  Now, near mid-way point of a 30-year LHI Weed Eradication Project (LHIWEP), teams have reduced weed infestations (of all life stages) by 80%.  Ten year program results of the LHIWEP are summarised (LHIB 2016 – Breaking Bad) http://www.cabi.org/isc/abstract/20163360302, which clearly shows the significance of multi-invasive species management to achieve ecosystem recovery.

With the spread of Myrtle Rust Austropuccinia psidii to the Australian mainland in 2010 the LHI Board has been on high alert.  With five endemic plants at risk to this pathogen the LHIB provided training and information to the community on the threats to the island and food plants. The LHIB prepared a Rapid Response Plan and a Rapid Response Kit (fungicides and Personal Protective Equipment). In October 2016 Myrtle Rust was detected on exotic Myrtaceae species, from three leases and subsequently treated in November 2016. This also resulted in the eradication of three highly susceptible exotic myrtaceous plant species from the island.

The root fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi is known from one lease and has been quarantined and treated with granular fungicide quarterly. Periodic monitoring has shown the infestation to be reducing with the eventual aim of eradication. Boot sanitization stations located at all track heads applies effort to prevent introduction of root rot fungus and other soil borne pathogens from users of the walking track system in the PPP.

The LHI Board has carried out a range of local community engagement and visitor education programs to raise awareness of the risks and threats to the island environment and of the LHIB environmental restoration and protection programs. These include a LHI User Guide for visitors to the island and a citizen science program with the LHI Museum, establishing the LHI Conservation Volunteer program to help improve awareness of the importance of LHI conservation programs to both tourists and tourism business. Since 2005, over 150 volunteers supported by the LHIB and external grants have been engaged through the weed eradication project. Increasingly, LHI residents are volunteering to gain experience and to improve employment opportunities in restoring their island. Another long-term partner, Friends of Lord Howe Island, provide invaluable volunteer assistance with their Weeding Ecotours, contributing more than 24,000 hours of weeding building valuable networks.

Biosecurity awareness is critical to protect the investment in conservation programs and the environment to future threats. The LHI Board provide information regarding biosecurity risks to the community, stevedores and restaurateurs. The LHIB now hold two biosecurity detection dogs and handlers on island (Figure 3) whom work with Qantas and freight flights and shipping staff to ensure they are aware of biosecurity risks and plan for appropriate responses.

Results to date.  Achievements include the successful eradication of over 10 weed species, cat, pig, goat, African Big-headed Ant and Myrtle Rust. A further 20+ weeds are considered on the verge of being able to be declared eradicated in coming years with an 80% reduction in weed density island wide and a 90% reduction in the presence of mature weeds. Weed Risk Assessments will be applied to determine the impact or new and emerging weeds and appropriate management actions.

As a result of the eradication of feral pigs and cats and an on-island captive breeding program, the endangered Lord Howe Island Woodhen has recovered to an average of 250 birds. The other eradications, along with the significant reduction in dense and widespread weed invasions, has aided the recovery and protection of numerous endemic and threatened species and their habitats. The program’s significant outcomes have been recognised through the IUCN Conservation Outlook which in 2017 scored the Lord Howe Island Group’s outlook as good, primarily due to the success of projects that have, are being and are planned to be implemented to restore and protect the islands unique World Heritage values. In late 2018 the program received awards for excellence from the Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia (SERA), Green Globe and Banksia Foundations, acknowledging the sustained effort from the Board and Island community in working to restore and protect the island.

Lessons learned and future directions:  The main keys to success has been obtaining expert scientific and management input and actively working with, educating and involving the community (lease holders and local businesses) to help achieve the solution to mitigate and remove invasive species.

The Rodent Eradication Program scheduled for winter 2019 will result in less browsing pressure on both native and invasive plants species, as well as the removal of two domestic pests. Prior to the program the LHIB has targeted the control of introduced plants, currently in low numbers, that may spread after rodent eradication. Monitoring programs are in place to measure ecosystem response with a particular focus on the Endangered Ecological Community Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest on the summit of Mt Gower. Should the project be successful, consideration can be given to the reintroduction of captive bred individuals of the Lord Howe Island Phasmid as well as other species confined to offshore islands (e.g. Lord Howe Wood Feeding Roach Panesthia lata) or ecological equivalent species on other islands (Norfolk Boobook Owl Ninox novaeseelandiae, Norfolk Parakeet Cyanoramphus cookii, Norfolk Island Grey Fantail Rhipidura albiscapa and Island Warbler Gerygone igata).

Stakeholders and Funding bodies:  The Program is managed by the Lord Howe Island Board and the NSW Department of Environment and Heritage, in collaboration with the local LHI community.

The LHI Board acknowledge the generations of islander stewardship, teams on ground, researchers, the funding and support agencies, all who made it happen. These include but are not limited to NSW Environmental Trust, Caring for Our Country, National Landcare Program, North Coast Local Land Services, Zoos Victoria, Taronga Zoo, Australian Museum, CSIRO, Friends of LHI, the Norman Wettenhall Foundation and Churchill Trust.

Contact: Hank Bower, Manager Environment/World Heritage, Lord Howe Island Board, PO Box 5, LORD HOWE ISLAND, NSW 2898, Tel: +61 2 65632066 (ext 23), Fax: 02 65632127, hank.bower@lhib.nsw.gov.au

Video conference presentation: https://www.aabr.org.au/portfolio-items/protecting-paradise-restoring-the-flora-and-fauna-of-world-heritage-listed-lord-howe-island-hank-bower-and-sue-bower-lhi-board-aabr-forum-2016/

A framework and toolbox for assessing and monitoring swamp condition and ecosystem health

Key words: Upland swamp, stygofauna, sedimentology, ecosystem processes, biological indicators, geomorphology

Introduction. Upland swamps are under increasing pressure from anthropogenic activities, including catchment urbanization, longwall mining, and recreational activities, all under the omnipresent influence of global climate change. The effective management of upland swamps, and the prioritisation of swamps for conservation and restoration requires a robust means of assessing ecosystem health. In this project we are developing a range of ecological and geomorphic indicators and benchmarks of condition specifically for THPSS. Based on a multi-metric approach to ecosystem health assessment, these multiple indicators and benchmarks will be integrated into an ultimate index that reflects the health of the swamp.

In this project we have adopted (and modified) the definition of ecosystem health applied to groundwater ecosystems by Korbel & Hose (2011). We define ecosystem health of a swamp as, i.e., “an expression of a swamp’s ability to sustain its ecological functioning (vigour and resilience) in accordance with its organisation while maintaining the provision of ecosystem goods and services”.

Design. Our approach to develop indicators of swamp health followed those used to develop multimetric indices of river and groundwater ecosystem health (e.g. Korbel & Hose 2011). We used the ‘reference condition’ approach in which a number of un- or minimally disturbed swamps were sampled and the variation in the metric or index then represents the range of acceptable conditions (Bailey et al. 1998; Brierley & Fryirs 2005).

We focused initially on swamps in the Blue Mountains area. Reference (nominally unimpacted) and test sites with various degrees and types of impacts were identified using the database developed by the concurrent THPSS mapping project (Fryirs and Hose, this volume).

Following our definition of ecosystem health, we selected a broad suite of indicators that reflect the ecosystem structure (biotic composition and geomorphic structure) and function, including those relating to ecosystem services such as microbially-mediated biogeochemical functions, geomorphic processes and hydrological function, as well as the presence of stressors, such as catchment changes. Piezometers and dataloggers have been installed in a number of swamps to provide continuous data on groundwater level fluctuations and sediment cores taken at the time of piezometer installation have provided detailed information on the sedimentary structure, function and condition of the swamps.

Results. Intact and channelised swamps represent two geomorphic condition states for THPSS. Not surprisingly, variables reflecting the degree of catchment disturbance (such as urbanization) were strongly correlated with degraded swamp condition. Variables related to the intrinsic properties of swamps had little relationship to their geomorphic condition (Fryirs et al. 2016). Intact and channelized swamps present with typically different sediment structures. There were significant differences in the texture and thickness of sedimentary layers, C: N ratios and gravimetric moisture content between intact swamps and channelised swamps (Friedman & Fryirs 2015). The presence and thickness of a layer of contemporary sand in almost all channelised swamps and its absence in almost all intact swamps is a distinctive structural difference.

Disturbed swamps have poorer water quality at their downstream end, and associated with this, lower rates of organic matter processing occurring within the streams (Hardwick unpublished PhD Data). Similarly, the richness and abundance of aquatic invertebrates living within swamp sediments (stygofauna) is poorer in heavily disturbed swamps than in undisturbed or minimally disturbed areas (Hose unpublished data).

Within the swamp sediments, important biogeochemical processes, such as denitrification and methanogenesis, are undertaken by bacteria. In this study we are measuring the abundance of the functional genes such as a surrogate for functional activity within the swamp sediments. There is large spatial variation in the abundance of functional genes even within a swamp, which complicates comparisons between swamps. Within our focus swamp, the location closest to large stormwater outlets had different functional gene abundances, in particular more methanogens, than in less disturbed areas of the swamp. There were greater abundances of denitrification genes, nirS and nosZ, in shallower depths despite denitrification being an anoxic process, which may reflect changes in the surficial sediments due to disturbance. Overall however, the abundance of functional genes seem to vary more with depth than with location, which means that comparisons between swamps must ensure consistency of depth when sampling sediments (Christiansen, unpublished PhD data).

The list of indicators currently being tested in this project and by others in this program (Table 1) will be refined and incorporated into the final assessment framework. Thresholds for these indicators will be determined based on the range of conditions observed at the reference sites. The overall site health metric will reflect the proportion of indicators which pass with respect to the defined threshold criteria. At this stage, the final metrics will be treated equally, but appropriate weightings of specific metrics within the final assessment will be explored through further stakeholder consultation.

Stakeholders and Funding bodies. This research has been undertaken as PhD research projects of Kirsten Cowley, Lorraine Hardwick and Nicole Christiansen at Macquarie University. The research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program. This project was also partly funded by an ARC Linkage Grant (LP130100120) and a Macquarie University Research and Development Grant (MQRDG) awarded to A/Prof. Kirstie Fryirs and A/Prof. Grant Hose at Macquarie University. We also thank David Keith, Alan Lane, Michael Hensen, Marcus Schnell, Trevor Delves and Tim Green.

Contact information. A/Prof. Grant Hose, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University (North Ryde, NSW 2109; +61298508367; grant.hose@mq.edu.au); and A/Prof. Kirstie Fryirs, Department of Environmental Sciences, Macquarie University (North Ryde, NSW 2109; +61298508367; kirstie.fryirs@mq.edu.au).

Table 1. List of indicators of swamp condition that are being trialled for inclusion in the swamp health assesment toolbox.

Functional indicators table

Testate amoebae: a new indicator of the history of moisture in the swamps of eastern Australia

Key words: Temperate Highland Peat Swamps Sandstone

Introduction. Swamps are an ideal natural archive of climatic, environmental and anthropogenic change. Microbes and plants that once inhabited the swamps are transformed and accumulate in undisturbed anoxic sediments as (sub)fossils and become useful proxies of the past environment. Since these systems are intrinsically related to hydrology, the reconstruction of past moisture availability in swamps allows examination of many influences, including climate variability such as El Nino-induced drought. It can also provide baseline information: long (palaeoenvironmental) records can reveal natural variability, allow consideration of how these ecosystems have responded to past events and provide targets for their restoration after anthropogenic disturbance.

Testate amoebae are a group of unicellular protists that are ubiquitous in aquatic and moist environments. The ‘tests’ (shells) of testate amoebae preserve well and are relatively abundant in organic-rich detritus. Testate amoebae are also sensitive to, and respond quickly to, environmental changes as the reproduction rate is as short as 3-4 days. Modern calibration sets have demonstrated that the community composition of testate ameobae is strongly correlated to moisture (e.g. depth to water table and soil moisture) and this allows statistical relationships to be derived. These relationships have been used extensively in European research for the derivation of quantitative estimates of past depth to water table and hence moisture availability.

Although a suite of different proxies have used to reconstruct aspects of past moisture availability in Australia (e.g. pollen, diatoms, phytoliths) very little work on testate amoebae has occurred to date. This project aims to address this deficiency by examining testate amoebae in several ecologically important mires in eastern Australia including Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone (THPSS), an Endangered Ecological Community listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and as a Vulnerable Ecological Community under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.

The project specifically aims to develop a transfer function linking modern samples to depth to water table in THPSS and to then apply this to reconstruct palaeohydrology over the last several thousand years. Our ultimate aims are to use this research to consider the nature and drivers of past climate change and variability and to also address issues associated with recent human impacts. The analysis of testate amoebae will allow us to consider changes in THPSS state, accumulation and stability over centuries-to-millennia, and this will provide context for recent changes, recommendations for the management of peaty swamps on sandstone and analytic tools for assessing whether remediation is resulting in significant improvement on eroding or drying swamps.

Work Undertaken and Results to Date. Research linking testate amoebae and depth to water table in Europe and North America has mostly been undertaken in ombrotrophic (rain-fed) mires. These are distinctly different to THPSS and related communities of the Sydney Basin, which are often controlled by topography (topogeneous mires). In these environments various sediments are known to build up sequentially through time and the minerogenic-rich sediments of the THPSS have resulted in several challenges in our preliminary work. As an example, standard laboratory protocols do not remove mineral particles and these can obscure and make testate amoebae identification difficult. We have since developed a new laboratory protocol and results are promising. We have also been struck by the distinct Northern Hemisphere bias to testate amoebae research: as an example, the Southern Hemisphere endemic species Apodera (Nebela) vas that has been common in our THPSS samples is not included in the most popular guideline book (https://www.qra.org.uk/media/uploads/qra2000_testate.pdf).

Despite the new laboratory protocols we have found that testate amoebae are relatively scarce in THPSS environments. Table 1 outlines the species we are encountering in modern (surface) samples of THPSS and in the high altitude Sphagnum bogs of the Australian Capital Territory: we are finding greater abundance and species richness in the bogs of the ACT.

This project commenced in 2015 and will run until 2017.

Stakeholders and Funding. This research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program.

Contact information. The project testate amoebae as indicators of peatland hydrological state’ is jointly being undertaken by: A/Prof Scott Mooney (School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science, UNSW +61 2 9385 8063, s.mooney@unsw.edu.au), Mr Xianglin Zheng (School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science, UNSW, +61 2 9385 8063, xianglin.zheng@unsw.edu.au) and Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hope (Department of Archaeology and Natural History, School of Culture, History, and Language, College of Asia and Pacific, The Australian National University, +61 2 6125 0389 Geoffrey.Hope@anu.edu.au).

Table 1. A list of the testate amoebae species found in THPSS environments of the Sydney region and in the high altitude bogs of the ACT. (Those with a ++ are more common.)

Mooney table1

The palaeoenvironmental history of Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone

Scott Mooney, James Goff and Lennard Martin

Key words (<5 words): sediments, palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, radiocarbon dating

Introduction. Palaeoecology (i.e. study of past environments using fossils and sediment cores) is often used to provide information regarding past environmental conditions. In comparison to modern ecological research, the expanded temporal perspective of palaeoecology unlocks an understanding of pre-anthropogenic variability and how ecosystems have responded to past disturbance and perturbations, thereby allowing consideration of their resilience to various environmental change.

Our Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSSRP) research has investigated a number of sites in the Blue Mountains and on the Newnes Plateau. Our project aimed to use the sediments accumulating in these sandstone swamps to better understand the dynamics of these ecosystems over time frames that far exceed what is possible through environmental monitoring. We have been documenting the stratigraphy of the sediments using probing and sediment coring/sampling, in association with radiometric (14C, 210Pb) dating, and applying various palaeoenvironmental techniques and proxies to characterize these environments. Our ultimate aims were to characterise recent (historic) trends against the backdrop of a much longer temporal perspective from the palaeoenvironmental analyses and to examine the responses of the swamps over both long (since sediments started accumulating) and short (high-resolution) time frames to disturbance, environmental change and climatic variability.

Sydney Basin Meta-study of Accumulating Sediments. The first component of our research involved a meta-analysis of previous data regarding the ages and organic content of sediments in various depositional environments across the Sydney region. Our aim was to consider rates of sediment accumulation in the post-glacial period (the period since the last glacial maximum, about 21,000 years ago): this information informed our subsequent sampling strategies (e.g. depth of coring, resolution of analyses) and can be used in for future research to better target various chronozones. It is probable that rates of sediment accumulation reflect landscape instability/stability and together with organic content, this provides palaeoenvironmental information relevant to the overall aims of this project. For this component we collated and recalibrated radiocarbon dates (n=132) from 44 sites across the Sydney region, and we identified a subset of 12 sites with quantification of the organic content of the accumulating sediments.

Findings. The synthesis of these data revealed that sedimentation rates underwent a dramatic increase from ~0.2 mm/yr to ~0.6 mm/yr at the beginning of the Holocene (about ~11,700 years ago), which probably reflects post-glacial climatic amelioration. Sedimentation rates remained relatively high during the Holocene, between 0. 4 and 0. 5 mm/yr, although brief decreases are evident, for example centred at 8200, 6500, 2000 and 1200 calibrated radiocarbon years before present (cal. y BP). Only in the last 400 cal y BP do sedimentation rates increase above those present for the majority of the Holocene, peaking at 0.7 mm/yr.

In contrast, organic material began accumulating at around 14,400 cal y BP in these depositional environments, earlier than the 11,700 cal BP increase in sedimentation rates. Before this time all sites exhibited relatively low rates of highly minerogenic sedimentation. After ~14,400 cal y BP the organic content of the sites gradually increased in a trajectory that continued throughout the Holocene, albeit with some major excursions from this trend. As an example, organic content peaked between about 7,500 and 6,000 cal y BP, only to fall to a low at about 5,400 cal y BP, which is then followed by a rapid increase to another peak between about 4,500 and 4,000 cal y BP. This last peak in organic content achieves similar values to the surface/modern samples. This peak (6.7ka)-trough (5.4ka)-peak (4.2ka)-trough (3.2ka) sequence suggests considerable variation in the controls of organic matter production and accumulation, which are mostly climatic parameters. The palaeoenvironmental implications of these results are currently being written for submission to a scientific journal.

Field–based Sampling. Field-based sampling for this research has focused on stable depositional environments in the Sydney region:

  1. Goochs Crater in the Upper Blue Mountains. This site appears to have formed after a rock fall dammed the upper reaches of a relatively narrow valley/canyon. The site is presently a freshwater reed swamp with semi-permanent surface water, although the site has both flooded and burnt since first we first visited. After investigating the stratigraphy and depth of the accumulating sediments, three cores have been collected (G1,G2 & G3) along a transect from the edge to the centre. G1 is a 455 cm long core sampled close to the current waters edge: radiocarbon dating indicates that this represents from the present day back to about 9,500 cal y BP. This core is mostly organic-rich (>60% loss-on-ignition) but these authochthonous sediments are interspersed with abrupt (allochthonous) layers of sand and charcoal, probably transported to this location after major fire events. Our G2 core is 985 cm long and spans the period from about 4,000 to 17,500 cal y BP: it is also highly organic (20-95% loss-on-ignition) but does not include sand/charcoal layers. Core G3 extended down to highly minerogenic sediments at a depth of 795 cm and has a very similar stratigraphy to core G2.
  2. Queens Swamp near Lawson in the Blue Mountains. Queens Swamp was (re-)cored to a depth of 3.8 m and the sediment profile revealed alternating layers of sandy and peaty sediments similar to the edge core (G1) from Goochs Crater. Radiocarbon dating of the Queens Swamp cores suggests a rapidly accumulating upper section of sediments overlying a much older basal layer.
  3. Hanging Rocks Swamp located in Penrose State Forest in the Southern Highlands. A 5.6 m sediment core was also obtained Hanging Rock Swamp and these sediments returned a basal date of 14,500 cal y BP.

Field observations and preliminary results from fieldwork have been published in Quaternary Australasia and Australian Plant Conservation.

Radiocarbon Dating of Sediments. Our THPSS research has involved 35 new radiocarbon (14C) analyses so far across the three sites (Goochs, Queens, Hanging Rock) mentioned above, with a few more planned soon. Twenty of these dates resulted from two AINSE grants, which allowed accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) 14C dates. This dating was undertaken to develop robust chronologies of the sediments so that palaeoenvironmental changes could be well constrained, but we also undertook some experimentation to consider the optimum sediment fraction for future 14C dating. The sediment fractions considered were charcoal, pollen and short-lived plant macrofossils that were all isolated from the same depth in the sediment profiles. Preliminary results, in preparation for submission at the moment, suggest that charcoal has an inbuilt age of 60-500 years and plant macrofossils return an age closest to the true (modeled) age of that depth.

Preliminary Palaeoenvironmental Interpretation and Conclusions. A variety of palaeoenvironmental techniques have been applied to the sediments sampled from Goochs Crater and together they provide information about past environmental conditions. As an example, sediment humification, which provides clues to surface moisture conditions at the time of deposition, suggests that the period from 9,500 to 7,500 cal y BP was relatively dry, which contrasts with previous palaeoclimatic inferences for this region. As different photosynthetic and metabolic pathways mean that the ratio of carbon/nitrogen can distinguish between aquatic and terrestrial sources of organic matter we analysed this ratio in 32 samples across the G2 core from Goochs Crater. These results suggests that aquatic sources of organic material dominated from 17,500 to 15,000 cal y BP and between 15,000 to 10,000 cal y BP conditions favored both aquatic and terrestrial sources. A rapid departure to highly terrestrial sources was evident at 10,000 cal y BP, after which a gradual change towards contemporary conditions, with a small aquatic influence, was evident.

While this demonstrates that much of the (contemporary) accumulating sediments at Goochs Crater are derived from within the site, it also receives inorganic aeolian materials from a larger source area.  To investigate this component we quantified the grainsize along the sediment profile to reveal that although clay content remains near constant (~ 5%) for the entire period, sand-sized particles shows a distinct increase in the period between 10,000 and 7,000 cal y BP before disappearing from the record. X-ray fluorescence scanning was also conducted on the G2 core resulting in elemental profiles for 32 elements at a very high (1mm) resolution. While the geochemical investigation of peat and organic sediments is in its infancy, several elements show considerable promise as palaeoenvironmental proxies. In our record, titanium, probably resulting from freshly weathered materials and washed in during periods of high surface runoff, is variable between 17,500 and 12,000 cal y BP, followed by sustained low values throughout the Holocene except for an abrupt, brief increase at 10,000 cal y BP followed again by high levels from 9,500 to 8,500 cal y BP. Bromine, which indicates the deposition of marine aerosols, shows an opposite trend to titanium, with low values until the early Holocene when a gradual increase begins, most likely indicating increased maritime influence on the hydrology of the site as sea level rose and stabilized in the post-glacial period.

In summary, it appears that Goochs Crater began accumulating organic sediments around 17,500 cal y BP, shortly after which a small, shallow lake developed and persisted in an otherwise sparsely vegetated landscape. The establishment of shoreline vegetation by about 15,000 years ago contributed to the accumulating sediments and this seems to have occurred under a climate of strong but variable westerly winds. A gradual but increasing oceanic influence affected the site until 10,000 cal. BP. before abrupt drying occurred. Increased sand present in the record during the early Holocene and other information suggests a relatively dry period. During the rest of the Holocene, the site returned to a wet, swampy environment: we are currently re-analysing the edge core with a broader suite of proxies to better characterize the late Holocene and it is envisaged that this will result in a complete moisture-focused palaeoenvironmental record from the site from 17,500 cal. BP to present. In the rest of this project (it will run until the end of 2016) we will finalize the interpretation of the other sites and the synthesis will provide a regional picture of palaeoclimatic influences on these important ecological communities. This work will also be compared to high-resolution fire histories that are being developed across the region.

Stakeholders, Funding and Acknowledgements. This research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program. This work has benefited from discussion with Martin Krogh, Doug Benson, Sarsha Gorissen, Geoff Hope, Roger Good and Jennie Whinam.  This work has also been supported by a 2014 and 2015 AINSE Research Award (ALNGRA14019 and 15019) to SM.

Contact information. The project ‘Palaeoenvironments of sandstone peat’ is being undertaken by A/Prof Scott Mooney (School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) UNSW +61 2 9385 8063, s.mooney@unsw.edu.au), Professor James Goff  (School of BEES UNSW j.gof@unsw.edu.au) and Mr Len Martin (PhD candidate, School of BEES, UNSW, +61 2 9385 8063, lennard@student.unsw.edu.au).

A novel multispecies approach for assessing threatened swamp communities

Hannah McPherson and Maurizio Rossetto,

Key words:   Swamp conservation, chloroplast DNA, genetic diversity, landscape connectivity

Introduction. Little is known about the historical or present-day connectivity of Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone (THPSS) in the Sydney Basin (NSW). Recent technological advances have enabled exploration of genetic complexity at both species and community levels.  By focusing on multiple plant species and populations, and investigating intraspecific gene-flow across multiple swamps, we can begin to make generalisations about how species and communities respond to change, thereby providing a solid scientific basis from which appropriate conservation and restoration strategies can be developed.

The study area comprised eight swamps distributed across four sites along an altitudinal gradient: Newnes (1200m); Leura (900m); Budderoo (600m); and Woronora (400m), see figure 1.

Map of the Sydney Basin region showing four study sites and eight swamps. Greyscale shows altitude gradient.

Map of the Sydney Basin region showing four study sites and eight swamps. Greyscale shows altitude gradient.

The aims were:

  • To assess the relative genomic diversity among target species representing a range of life-history traits. This was achieved by sequencing chloroplast DNA and detecting variants in pooled samples from 25 species commonly occurring in swamps.
  • To explore geographic patterns of diversity among swamps and across multiple species by designing targeted genomic markers and screening variants among populations within and between sites (for ten species occurring in up to 8 swamps).
  • To develop a set of simple, effective and standardised tools for assessing diversity, connectivity and resilience of swamps to threats (from mining to climate change).
Fig 2. Broad Swamp, Newnes Plateau (Maurizio Rossetto)

Fig 2. Broad Swamp, Newnes Plateau (Maurizio Rossetto)

Our study comprises three main components:

1. Species-level assessment of genetic variation of swamp species

We have taken advantage of new available methods and technologies (McPherson et al. 2013 and The Organelle Assembler at http://pythonhosted.org/ORG.asm/) to sequence and assemble full chloroplast genomes of 20 plant species from swamps in the Sydney Basin and detect within and between-population variation. This enabled a rapid assessment of diversity among representatives of 12 families and a broad range of life-history traits – e.g. table 1. We are currently finalising our bioinformatic sampling of the data to ensure even coverage of chloroplast data across the species, however these preliminary data show that relative estimates are not a product of different amounts of chloroplast data retrieved (e.g. for the seven species with sequence length greater than 100,000 base pairs variation ranges from absent to high).

2. Swamp-level assessment of variation and connectivity using three target species – Baeckea linifolia (high diversity), Lepidosperma limicola (low diversity) and Boronia deanei subsp. deanei (restricted and threatened species).

From the initial species-level study we selected three very different species for detailed population-level studies. We designed markers to screen for variation within and among sites and explore landscape-level connectivity. We identified the Woronora Plateau as a possible refugium and we have uncovered interesting patterns of gene-flow on the Newnes Plateau. Two species, Lepidosperma limicola and Baeckea linifolia seem able to disperse over long distances while Boronia deanei subsp. deanei showed unexpected high levels of diversity despite very limited seed-mediated gene-flow between populations. Its current conservation status was supported by our findings. A unique pattern was found for each species, highlighting the need for a multispecies approach for understanding dynamics of this system in order to make informed decisions about, and plans for, conservation management.

3. Multi-species approach to assessing swamp community population dynamics

Since the population study approach proved successful we expanded our study to include population studies for a further ten species. This required development of new Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) approaches applicable to a wide range of study systems. This kind of approach will allow us to make informed generalisations about swamp communities for conservation management planning.

Fig 3. Paddy’s Swamp, Newnes Plateau (Anthea Brescianini)

Fig 3. Paddy’s Swamp, Newnes Plateau (Anthea Brescianini)

Table 1. Preliminary results showing relative chloroplast variation among 25 swamp species. Sequence length is in base pairs (bp) and relative level of variation was calculated as sequence length divided by number of variants to obtain an estimate of number of SNPs per base pair.  Relative variation was then categorised as: High (one SNP every <1,000 bp); Moderate (one SNP every 1,000 – <5,000 bp); Low (one SNP every 5,000 – <10,000 bp); Very low (one SNP every >10,000 bp); or absent (no SNPs).

table

Fig 4. Banksia ericifolia (Maurizio Rossetto)

Fig 4. Banksia ericifolia (Maurizio Rossetto)

Results to date. We have assembled partial chloroplast genomes of 20 plant species from THPSS in the Sydney Basin and categorised relative measurements of diversity. Preliminary data from the three target species highlighted the need for multispecies studies and we are now finalizing our results from an expanded study (including 13 species) in order to better understand connectivity and resilience of THPSS and provide data critical for more informed conservation planning. We have produced unique, simple methods for assessing genetic diversity and understanding dynamics at both the species and site levels.

Lessons learned and future directions. We found that individual species have unique patterns of genetic variation that do not necessarily correspond with phylogeny or functional traits and thereby highlight the benefit of multispecies studies. We have developed a unique, simple method for screening for genetic variation across whole assemblages which can be applied to many study systems. Since our data capture and analysis methods are standardised it will be possible in the future to scale this work up to include more species and/or more geographic areas and analyse the datasets together to address increasingly complex research questions about the resilience of swamps in a changing landscape.

Stakeholders and Funding bodies. The following people have contributed to many aspects of this research, including design, fieldwork and data generation and analysis: Doug Benson and Joel Cohen (Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust), Anthea Brescianini and Glenda Wardle (University of Sydney), David Keith (Office of Environment and Heritage).

This research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd. Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program.

Contact. Hannah McPherson, Biodiversity Research Officer, Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, Mrs Macquaries Road, Sydney 2000; Tel: +61292318181 Email: hannah.mcpherson@rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au

Hydrology of Woronora Plateau Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone

William C Glamore and Duncan S Rayner

Key words: water balance, groundwater, soil, subsidence, under mining

Introduction. The Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone (THPSS) ecological community consists of both temporary and permanent swamps developed in peat overlying Triassic Sandstone formations at high elevations, generally between 400 and 1200 m above sea level on the south-east coast of Australia. THPSS are listed as an endangered ecological community (EEC), threatened by habitat destruction and modification of groundwater and hydrology. The primary impact of longwall mining is to swamp hydrology, influencing long-term surface and groundwater regimes. This, in turn, can have a devastating impact on swamp ecology including many important habitats for protected flora and fauna. While the ecological value of THPSS is well understood, our current understanding of the hydrology of THPSS is limited. THPSS have been found to be dependent on groundwater, and subsequently the impact of modifying groundwater interactions can be significant. Recent research has concluded that a thorough understanding of the impact of longwall mining on the surface waterways and groundwater system is necessary before any remediation options to reduce loss of water into subsurface routes and minimise impact on water quality are considered.

Aims. To address this major knowledge gap, research into the fundamental hydrology of THPSS was undertaken. The purpose of this investigation was to understand the role of surface water and groundwater inputs and losses in maintaining swamp hydrology, providing a base level foundation from which the impacts of long-wall mining on ecology can be determined and guide future remediation efforts. To undertake on-ground research, multiple locations where data collection in peat swamps was being undertaken were utilised to form a foundation from which to expand swamp investigations and target site data gaps. Two swamps were selected for further detailed investigations, both located on the Woronora Plateau, approximately 80km south of Sydney, Australia. One site was within the Woronora Nature Reserve, where vegetation has been monitored regularly for 30+ years and basic climate monitoring for the past 5 years, and another swamp within the Sydney Metropolitan Catchment Management Area where climate monitoring, groundwater levels and swamp discharge has been monitored for the previous 5 years.  Extensive on-ground investigations were undertaken (and continue to be monitored) at these sites, providing fundamental scientific information for further assessment.

Methods. A series of groundbreaking on-ground investigations were undertaken to characterize the swamp hydrogeology and surface hydrology.  Detailed surveys of peat depth were initially undertaken using a push rod and RTK-GPS to determine digital elevation models (DEM) of surface topography and subsurface sandstone. Depth to underlying sandstone was found to be variable throughout the swamps (Figure 1). This survey guided the location and density of soil profiles and piezometer installations to characterize sediment characteristics, monitor water level fluctuations and assess water and soil chemistry.  A total of 17 piezometers were installed to bed rock, including logging soil stratigraphy and soil grab samples. Slotted 50mm diameter PVC was installed with a water level logger deployed near the bedrock. Soil samples were analysed for pH, EC, moisture, organic matter and a suite of analytes via ion chromatography. Hydraulic conductivity of the upper peat layer was also tested in-situ. Collected field data and site characterization surveys were combined to construct a three-dimensional numerical hydrological groundwater model to assist in determining the swamp water balance, hydrodynamics and to refine future sampling/analysis.

Figure 1: Example swamp depth survey and piezometer locations with conceptual groundwater flow paths

Figure 1: Example swamp depth survey and piezometer locations with conceptual groundwater flow paths

Findings. Findings include fundamental swamp hydrogeolgical characteristics, water balance summaries and analysis of degrees of freedom.  Swamp sediments were observed to vary both within swamps and between swamps. Sediment depths were found to range between 0.5 m to 2.6 m deep, with typical peat depths ranging between 30 cm – 100 cm of a dense organic layer in various stages of decomposition. The organic layer is underlain by grey sandy clay with clay content decreasing with depth (Figure 2). Sand and gravel was observed in the 10 cm to 30 cm range above bedrock.  Soil acidity was observed to be relatively uniform over depth with an average pH 5.7, however electrical conductivity and chloride decreased with depth; suggesting evapo-concentration of salts within the upper layers of the swamp. Soil moisture by weight and organic content were measured to decrease with depth, indicating decreasing porosity. Specific yield of swamp surface soils (0 m to 0.2 m) ranged between 15-20%, with deeper sediments (0.2 m to 0.4 m) approximately 10% greater.

Analysis of the water levels across the swamps, in conjunction with preliminary water balance modelling, indicates that despite the current data collection program, significant degrees of freedom remain unaccounted. Key factors such as transpiration, runoff, infiltration, interflow and groundwater losses are currently unknown and present seven sources of uncertainty within the water balance model. To reduce the uncertainty and close the water balance of peat swamps, further long term monitoring and site specific measurements are required. With the addition of soil core samples, soil hydraulic conductivity, long term water level data and further swamp geometry data, eight out of a total of nine water balance quantities will be known for the swamp, enabling increased reliability to assess the impacts of climate change, changes in land use, and undermining on long-term swamp ecology.  The findings from this study provide fundamental information that forms the basis for ongoing investigations critical for understanding peat swamp hydrology.

Figure 2: Typical swamp lithology

Figure 2: Typical swamp lithology

Acknowledgements. This research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program.

Contact. William C Glamore and Duncan S Rayner, Water Research Laboratory, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW Australia (110 King St, Manly Vale, NSW 2093, Australia, Tel: +61/ 2 8071 9868. Email: w.glamore@wrl.unsw.edu.au ).

Conservation of an endangered swamp lizard

Key words:         Eulamprus leuraensis, fire impacts, disturbance ecology, habitat requirements, Scincidae

The Blue Mountains Water Skink is known from less than 60 isolated swamps in the Blue Mountains and Newnes Plateau of southeastern Australia (Fig 1). Understanding the species’ ecology, notably its vulnerability to threatening processes such as fire and hydrological disturbance, is essential if we are to retain viable populations of this endangered reptile.

Fig 1. Swamps containing Eulamprus leuraensis used in our baseline surveys (from Gorissen et al., 2015)

Fig 1. Swamps containing Eulamprus leuraensis used in our baseline surveys (from Gorissen et al., 2015)

Design: We surveyed swamps across the species’ known range to identify critical habitat requirements, and to examine responses both of habitat features (vegetation) and lizard populations to fire regimes and other anthropogenic disturbances. Our analyses of fire impacts included both detailed studies post-fire, and GIS-based analyses of correlations between lizard abundance and fire history.

Results to date: Blue Mountains Water Skinks appear to persist wherever suitable swamp habitat is maintained, although lizard numbers decline after frequent fires, hydrological disturbance or urbanization. However, the lizards (especially, adults) rarely venture out from the core swamp habitat into the surrounding woodland matrix. The “fast” life-history of this species (rapid growth, early maturation, high reproductive output) enables populations to recover from local disturbances, but very low vagility means that re-colonisation of a swamp after extirpation of a population is likely to be very slow (if it occurs at all).

Fig 2. Blue Mountains Water Skink within its swamp habitat (Photo: S. Dubey)

Fig 2. Blue Mountains Water Skink within its swamp habitat (Photo: S. Dubey)

Fig 3. Sarsha Gorissen checks a trap for lizards in a Newnes Plateau swamp (Photo: N. Belmer)

Fig 3. Sarsha Gorissen checks a trap for lizards in a Newnes Plateau swamp (Photo: N. Belmer)

Lessons learned and future directions: The suitability of a montane swamp for Blue Mountains Water Skinks can be readily assessed from soil-moisture levels and vegetation characteristics. Effective conservation of this endangered reptile species should focus on conserving habitat quality in swamps, rather than targeting the lizards themselves. If healthy swamps can be maintained, the lizards are unlikely to face extinction. Given high levels of genetic divergence among lizard populations (even from adjacent swamps), we need to maintain as many swamps as possible.

Stakeholders and Funding bodies: This research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program.

Contact information: Prof Richard Shine, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Heydon-Laurence Building A08, University of Sydney, NSW 2006 Australia. Phone: (61) 2-9351-3772; Email: rick.shine@sydney.edu.au

The spatial distribution and physical characteristics of Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone (THPSS)

Key words: wetlands, upland swamp, geomorphology, mapping, Sydney Basin

Effective conservation and management of natural resources requires that we have an understanding of the spatial distribution and physical characteristics of the systems of concern. The results of the THPSS mapping project summarised here provide an essential physical (geomorphological) template atop which a range of other biophysical information on swamp structure, function and condition can be collated and interpreted.

Design. Using a 25 m Digital Elevation Modal (DEM) coupled with orthorectified aerial photography, the THPSS of the Sydney Basin were mapped in ArcGIS. Only valley-bottom swamps were mapped. Hanging swamps or hillslope drapes were excluded. In ArcGIS, the physical attributes of the swamps were attributed and measured. This included swamp area, elevation above sea level, swamp slope, catchment area, swamp and catchment elongation ratio, swamp length and distance to coast.

Figure 1: Regions in which THPSS occur in the Sydney Basin

Figure 1: Regions in which THPSS occur in the Sydney Basin

Results. Five regions of THPSS were mapped (Figure 1); Newnes (Figure 2), Blue Mountains (Figure 3), Budderoo (Figure 4), Woronora (Figure 5) and Gosford (Figure 6). Across these regions there is a total of 3208 individual THPSS. The combined area of these swamps is 101 km2 (10,100 ha) and the combined catchment areas that contain them cover 789 km2. They occur at a median distance of 57 km from the coast, but this is highly varied, ranging from 0.4 – 96 km.

The swamps occur in areas with an average annual rainfall of 1505 mm/year and average annual temperature is 15oC. They occur at a wide range of elevations. Those closer to the coast occur on elevations as low as 160 m ASL, and those further from the coast on plateau country can occur at elevations up to 1172 m ASL. The bulk of these systems occur at median elevations of 634 m ASL. The swamps are elongate in shape, having a median elongation ratio of 0.46. This makes the majority of these systems relatively long (median length is 216 m) and narrow. They occur in relatively elongate catchments with median elongation ratios of 0.61 and median catchment lengths of 488 m. Almost all these valleys terminate at their downstream ends at a valley constriction or bedrock step, making the valleys ‘funnel-shaped’.

Catchment areas draining into the swamps are, on average, 0.25 km2. This means these systems tend to occur in the very headwaters of most catchments in first or second order drainage lines. Each swamp is, on average, 31,537 m2 in area (3.1 ha). These swamps form on deceptively steep slopes. Median minimum swamp slope is 6.2%. The funnel-shaped valleys produce effective constrictions behind which alluvial materials and peat can accumulate, resulting in valley fills forming on relatively steep slopes.

 Stakeholders and Funding bodies. This research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program. This project was also partly funded by an ARC Linkage Grant (LP130100120) awarded to A/Prof. Kirstie Fryirs and A/Prof. Grant Hose at Macquarie University. We thank Will Farebrother for working on this project. We thank the NSW Land and Property Information for the orthorectified aerial photographs that are used under a research-only license agreement.

Contact information. A/Prof. Kirstie Fryirs, Department of Environmental Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW 2109; +61298508367; kirstie.fryirs@mq.edu.au  A/Prof. Grant Hose, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW 2109; +61298508367; grant.hose@mq.edu.au

Figure 2: THPSS of the Newnes region

Figure 2: THPSS of the Newnes region

Figure 3: THPSS of the Blue Mountains region

Figure 3: THPSS of the Blue Mountains region

Figure 4: THPSS of the Budderoo region

Figure 4: THPSS of the Budderoo region

Figure 5: THPSS of the Woronora region

Figure 5: THPSS of the Woronora region

Fig 6 - Gosford swamps map

Figure 6: THPSS of the Gosford region

Integrating conservation management and sheep grazing at Barrabool, NSW

Martin Driver

Key words: semi-arid, grazing management, conservation management, rehabilitation, ecological restoration

Introduction. Barrabool is a 5000 ha dryland all-Merino sheep property between Conargo and Carrathool in the Western Riverina, NSW. Native pastures are the mainstay of Barrabool, as they are of other grazing properties in the arid and semi-arid rangelands of New South Wales that generally lie to the west of the 500 mm average rainfall limit.

Indigenous ecosystems at Barrabool occur as native grassland, mixed acacia and callitris woodlands and shrublands. The main grass species in the grasslands are Curly Windmill (Enteropogon sp.), White Top (Rytidosperma sp.), Box Grass (Paspalidium sp.), Speargrass (Austrostipa spp.), and Windmill Grass (Chloris sp.). Broad-leaved species include Thorny Saltbush (Rhagodia sp.), Cotton Bush (Maireana sp.) and a diverse annual forb layer in Spring..

The majority of the property has belonged to the Driver family for over 100 years. Like many of the surrounding stations a gradual but noticeable increase in exotic species occurred during the mid-to-late 20th Century, and a decline in native species. This transition has occurred because of species being transferred by livestock movements and because sheep graze not only on grass, but also saltbush shrubs and sub-shrubs as well as seedlings of native trees such as Boree (Acacia pendula) and White Cypress Pine (Callitris glaucophylla). It is well known, for example, that the preferential and continuous grazing of Boree by sheep can turn a Boree woodland into a grassland .within a manager’s lifetime unless rest and regeneration are allowed.

In recent decades – because of the Driver family’s interest in conservation and our exposure to advances in grazing management, paddock subdivision and stock water relocation – we have developed in recent decades a managed grazing system based on feed availability, regeneration capability and seasonal response to rainfall. It was our hope that this system could improve the condition of native vegetation while also improving feed availability.

Figure 1. Boree (Acacia pendula) and Thorny Saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens) in grazed paddocks at the Driver’s 5000 ha sheep property, Barabool, in the western Riverina. (Photo M. Driver).

Figure 1. Boree (Acacia pendula) and Thorny Saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens) in grazed paddocks at the Driver’s 5000 ha sheep property, Barabool, in the western Riverina. (Photo M. Driver).

Works undertaken. Over the last 35 years we have progressively fenced the property so that it is subdivided by soil type and grazing sensitivity, with watering systems reticulated through poly pipe to all those paddocks. This enables us to control grazing to take advantage of where the best feed is and move stock from areas that we are trying to regenerate at any one time; and it gives us a great deal more control than we would have had previously.

Using our grazing system, we can exclude grazing from areas that are responding with regeneration on, say Boree country, for periods of time until Boree are less susceptible to grazing; at which time we bring stock back in. We take a similar approach to the saltbush and grasses, moving sheep in when grazing is suitable and moving them off a paddock to allow the necessary rest periods for regeneration. In this way we operate a type of adaptive grazing management. We also have areas of complete domestic grazing exclusion of very diverse and sensitive vegetation which are essentially now conservation areas.

Figure 2. Mixed White Cypress Pine Woodland grazing exclosure on Barrabool with regeneration of Pine, Needlewood, Sandalwood, Rosewood, Butterbush, Native Jasmine, mixed saltbushes and shrubs. (Photo M. Driver)

Figure 2. Mixed White Cypress Pine Woodland grazing exclosure on Barrabool with regeneration of Pine, Needlewood, Sandalwood, Rosewood, Butterbush, Native Jasmine, mixed saltbushes and shrubs. (Photo M. Driver)

Results. The native vegetation at Barrabool has noticeably improved in quality terms of biodiversity conservation and production outcomes over the last 35 years, although droughts have occurred, and in fact been more frequent during this time.

In terms of conservation goals Boree regeneration and Thorny Saltbush understory restoration has been both the most extensive and effective strategy. Areas of mixed White Cypress Pine woodland have proven to be the most species diverse but also offer the greatest challenges in exotic weed invasion and management. The Pines themselves are also the most reluctant to regenerate and suffer many threats in reaching maturity while many of the secondary tree species are both more opportunistic and show greater resilience to drought and other environmental pressures. The increase in perenniality of grass and shrub components of the property have been significant, with subsequent increase in autumn feed and reduced dependence on external feed supplies.

In terms of production outcomes, after the millennium drought the property experienced three seasons in a row in which there was much less rainfall than the long term average rainfall. At the beginning of that period we had the equivalent of more than the annual rainfall in one night’s fall and then went for 12 months from shearing to shearing with no rain recorded at all. Yet the livestock and the country, however, did very well compared to other properties in the district, which we consider was due to the stronger native vegetation and its ability of the native vegetation to withstand long periods without rain.

Lessons learned and future directions. While many other sheep properties in the wider area are more intent on set stockingin their grazing practices, the results at Barrabool have demonstrated to many people who have visited the property what is possible. I am sure we are also are having some effect on the management systems of other properties in the district especially in the area of conservation areas excluded from grazing.

What we plan for the future is to explore funding options to fence out or split ephemeral creeks and wetlands and encourage Inland River Red Gum and Nitre Goosefoot regeneration.Our long term goal is to maintain the full range of management zones (including restoration zones earmarked for conservation, rehabilitation zones in which we seek to improve and maintain biodiversity values in a grazing context, and fully converted zones around infrastructure where we reduce impacts on the other zones.

Contact:   Martin Driver Barrabool, Conargo, NSW 2710 Email: barrabool@bigpond.com