Category Archives: Techniques & methodology

Post-fire assisted regeneration at Rutidosis Ridge, Scottsdale Reserve, Bredbo NSW

 

Figure 1. Undamaged grassy woodland reference site occurring at high elevation at Scottsdale (Photo: Brett Howland)

Introduction. Scottsdale Reserve is a 1,328-hectare private conservation reserve, near Bredbo NSW, owned and managed by Bush Heritage Australia. For over 100 years prior to purchase in 2006 the property was utilised for grazing and cropping. While most of the higher elevation areas of the property remained intact and offered the basis for improving landscape connectivity for wildlife, the agricultural land use had resulted in conversion of the flats and lower slopes of the property to largely exotic pasture species and accompanying weed.

This case study focuses on one approx 10 ha Apple Box (Eucalyptus bridgesiana) / Snow Gum, (Eucalyptus pauciflora) grassy woodland ridge within the property – named ‘Rutidosis Ridge’ because it is the location of a small population of the Endangered plant species Button Wrinklewort (Rutidosis leptorhynchoides). Set-grazing by sheep as well as some cropping had left the site nearly wholly dominated by the landscape-transforming exotic pasture grasses African Love Grass (Eragrostis curvula) and Serrated Tussock (Nasella tricotoma). Some scattered copses of eucalypts and some herbaceous natives remained, however, suggesting that the site might have some native regeneration potential, but the number and abundance of natives on the site appeared very low and the site was very dissimilar to a nearby healthy reference site (Fig. 1).

Works undertaken. Around a decade after land purchase and the discontinuation of grazing and cropping, Rutidosis Ridge was aerially sprayed during winter with flupropinate herbicide at a low dilution (1L / ha) known to be effective on some strains of African Love Grass and Serrated Tussock without killing native grasses and forbs. While the African Love Grass and Serrated Tussock had died by the following spring as a result of this soil-active herbicide, no substantial native regeneration was observed due to the persistence of the thick thatch of dead African Love Grass (Fig 2).

  • Figure 2.  Typical site showing sprayed African Love Grass thatch even many years after aerial spraying. (Photo T. McDonald )
  • Figure 3.  Intense wildfire that passed through Bredbo, NSW in early February. (Photo” New York Times)

An intense wildfire passed through the property on 2nd February 2020 (Fig. 3). This largely consumed the thatch, exposing stony topsoils and providing opportunities for regeneration of both natives and weeds that were stored in the soil seed bank.  Anticipating the need for post-fire spot-spray follow-up after the fire to avoid any native regeneration being overwhelmed by weed, Bush Heritage Australia (BHA) collaborated on a program of regular selective treatment of weed with the restoration organisation the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators (AABR). Personnel involved both contractors and volunteers skilled in recognising natives and weeds at seedling stage capable of spot-spraying with negligible off-target damage (Fig 4).  

Because the fire had removed African Love Grass thatch and cued germination of natives and weeds, the aim was to treat all weed prior to its seeding.  This allowed the managers to (a) take advantage of the fire’s flushing out the weed soil seed bank and avoid its further recharge and (b) retain maximum open spaces for further natives to emerge and colonise. 

During the year after the fire (March 2020-April 2021), the ~10ha site had been subjected to approx. 600 person hours of spot spraying, mainly undertaken by experienced bush regenerators. This commenced in March 2000 and continued at least fortnightly during the growing season.

Figure 4. Location of comprehensively spot-sprayed areas and target-weeded areas at Rutidosis Ridge. An opportunity exists to compare differences in richness and cover of natives and weed between the two treatments, ensuring comparisons are confined to within-comparable condition classes.

What we found by 1 year of treatments.  Post-fire observations in  March 2020 revealed Snow Gum resprouting from lignotubers and roots and Apple Box and Candlebark (Eucalyptus rubida) resprouting epicormically.  A wide suite of native grasses and forbs were starting to resprout or germinate alongside diverse herbaceous weeds. Within the first 12 months of regular spot-spraying, the cover and seed production of approx. 30 weed species was very substantially reduced.  Combined with fairly evenly distributed rainfall in the follow 12 months this reduction in weed allowed ongoing increases in native species cover and diversity per unit area, with seed production likely by most native species.  There was negligible off-target damage from the spray treatments. In December 2020 over 50 native herbaceous and sub-shrub species (including at least 11 Asteraceae, 9 Poaceae, 4 Fabaceae and 2 Liliaceae) were recorded within the work zones, with cover of natives very high in the higher condition zones, but plentiful bare ground remaining in the lower condition zones (Fig. 5).  

Figure 5.  Top:  Directly after wildfire showing black stubs of African Love Grass; Middle: Volunteers spot-spraying during the growing season, and Bottom: same site after 12 months but when native grasses were curing off after seeding. (Photos T. McDonald)

Predominant weed species included recovery African Love Grass, Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare), St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Yellow Catsear (Hypochoeris radicata), Common Plantain (Plantago major), a range of thistles and around 20 other weed species.

Predominant natives included speargrasses (Austrostipa spp.), Redleg Grass (Bothriochloa macrantha), Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), Native Panic (Panicum effusum), Common Raspwort (Gonocarpus teucrioides), Bindweed (Convolvulus erubescens), bluebells (Wahlenbergia spp.), Common Everlasting (Chrysocephalum apiculatum), fuzzweeds (Vitadennia spp.), Bear’s Ear (Cymbonotus lawsonianus), Creamy Candles (Stackhousia monogyna), Yellow Pimelea (Pimelea curviflora subsp. fusiformis) and Native St John’s Wort (Hypericum gramineum).  Species of higher conservation interest that regenerated included Blue Devil (Eryngium ovinum) and Threatened species that regenerated included Silky Swainson’s Pea (Swainsona sericea) and Button Wrinklewort. (Some of these species are pictured in Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Some of the forbs that flowered on Rutidosis Ridge during the growing season – including the Endangered Button Wrinklework (centre) and Vulnerable Silky Swainson’s Pea.(bottom left). (Photos various.)

Gradient of condition improving over time. As expected, the sites showed a gradient of condition (Fig. 7), with highest natural regeneration capacity retained in the tree clusters and stony crest, perhaps due to these less likely to be less favoured by sheep. (The tree clusters appear not to have been used as sheep camps). By March 2020, 1 year after work commenced, all sites were on a trajectory to move to the next higher condition class, assuming successful Winter 2021 aerial spray re-treatment of African Love Grass.  (Note that, while the pre-fire flupropinate treatment would normally have a residual effect for a few years and thus preventing germnation of this species, massive germination did occur of African Love Grass in many areas, which we speculate was either due to suitable post-fire germination conditions being delayed by the presence of dead grass thatch or to a possible denaturing of the chemical by the fire.)  

Figure 7. Condition classes in the Rutidosis Zones A-E revealed during the first few months of treatment. By the end of the growing season and after regular follow up spot-spraying it was clear that all zones comprehensively treated were improving in their native: weed cover ratio except for an increasing cover of African Love Grass, the treatment of which was deferred until a second aerial spray scheduled for winter 2021. (Map: T. McDonald)

Acknowledgements: This project would not have been possible without the help of BHA and AABR volunteers.

Contact: Tein McDonald and Phil Palmer, Scottsdale Tel: +61 (0) 447 860 613; Email: <teinm@ozemail.com.au and phil.palmer@bushheritage.org.au

 

Crowdy Bay National Park, NSW – Assisted regeneration of a littoral rainforest patch post 2019-20 summer wildfire

Figure 1. Volunteers at the initial working bee in the burnt littoral rainforest.

Introduction. Crowdy Bay National Park is located on the NSW Mid-north coast and comprises coastal landscapes, some of which have were sand mined prior to the area’s acquisition for conservation in the 1970s. Littoral rainforest remnant and regrowth patches occur within the Park and are listed at State level and as Endangered Ecological Community and at national level as a Threatened Ecological Community. The rainforest community type forms in the dune swales, protected by Coast Banksia (Banksia integrifolia) and is dominated over time by Tuckeroo ( Cupaniopsis anacardioides) and Beach Alectryon (Alectryon coriaceus), with other rainforest co-dominants and associated shrubs, vines and groundcovers.

For over four decades,  a regeneration program has been carried out in the park by volunteers working through the National Parks Association (NPA), Mid North Coast Branch. This short summary refers to the condition of one floristically diverse littoral rainforest patch at Kylie’s Beach, half of which was burnt in a spot-wildfire in late 2019 and in which weed managment works commenced 2 years prior to the wildfire due to pre-existing weed issues (Fig 1).

The wildfire and early recovery. The wildfire burnt all the banksias on the foredune crest that were providing wind protection for the littoral rainforest, as well as 1ha of the littoral rainforest. It left the ground layer beneath both areas largely bare. In the areas burnt, all trees appeared dead. With rainfall occurring soon after the fire, post-fire coppicing of rainforest trees and Banksia commenced; with germination of native seedlings occurring with the arrival of heavy rains in December 2020 -January 2021. By mid-autumn 2020 the northern foredune section was thickly covered with colonising Blady Grass (Imperata cylindrica) that provided cover for other successional natives (Fig 2) .

Weed recovery, however, was very rapid. As early as May 2020, the site was a sea of annuals, with abundant Lantana (Lantana camara), Coastal Morning Glory (Ipomoea cairica), Cape Gooseberry (Physalis peruviana), Crofton Weed (Ageratina adenophora) and scatterings of Cape Ivy (Senecio mikanioides) and Tobacco Bush (Solanum mauritianum). Volunteers were at a loss to see how the site could be helped to regenerate. Not having previously worked in a burnt rainforest, the first though was to take out all the weeds. Under the guidance of retired regenerator Tom Clarke from the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators (AABR) however, a different approach was taken.

Figure 2. Blady Grass has covered much of the floor.

Works undertaken. Commencing in May 2020 Sue Baker from NPA and Tom Clarke from AABR conducted monthly working bees to strategically remove weeds. The approach was to  regard the weeds as the new canopy cover and primary colonisers, providing invaluable shade and moisture retention for the regenerating rainforest species. It was agreed that the main initial objective was to see the re-establishment of a canopy, however low, to protect the ground moisture levels and any recovering herb layer. At this point any woody weeds were considered allies in that they were resprouting along with many native pioneer species. Treatment of woody weeds was selective and dependent upon direct competition with native plants. Instead, treatment of weed vines and creepers was targeted, with removal of Morning Glory and Cape Ivy a priority, at least to the edge of the burnt zone.

Subsequently, apart from preventing the spread of Cape Ivy and removing dense infestations of fruiting Cape Gooseberry, the method was to remove weeds only where they were competing with native seedlings with as much removal of their fruits and seeds as possible, followed by thinning out later where helpful. By January 2021, native ground cover had recovered sufficiently to remove the annuals, some of which were 2m high. Over time, the selective treatment of woody weeds has continued as more and more native regen appeared. By taking this approach we have left nature largely to do its own thing with minimal detrimental impact from weeding.

In addition, we have taken the view that the wildfire was not soley a negative; it has also provided an opportunity to address some of the long-standing weed issues in the broader area of Kylie’s Beach including that of Glory Lily (Gloriosa superba) and Golden Wreath Wattle (Acacia saligna) which the fire stimulated to germinate from the soil seed bank in their thousands.

As well as the weed management work, over a kilogram of native seed was broadcast in mid-summer 2020 in the hope it might improve recovery of the ecosystem.

Volunteer visits. After a site inspection tour on 14th May 2020 there have been at least 17 visits to Crowdy Bay National Park where regeneration works has been carried out, not only in the littoral rainforest, but also in the broader Kylie’s beach area. These occurred in May (1 visit), July (3 visits), August (4 visits involving 12 volunteers), September (2 visits), October (4 visits), November (1 visit) and lately in January 2021 (2 visits).

Figure 3. Tuckeroo coppicing from the burnt stump.

Figure 4. Lillypilly coppicing.

Results to date.  The site has demonstrated itself to have high levels of native resilience, having been in relatively healthy condition apart from per-existing weed infestations. High levels of rain in the 2020-21 summer has promoted extensive and vigorous growth. At February 2021, the forest floor was a carpet of native vegetation and some areas knee-high in dense native grasses. Less care in selecting woody weeds for treatment is now required.

Much of the regeneration is from germinating seeds but some has been from re-sprouting rootstocks, resprouting stems or coppicing from the bases of trees, including rainforest trees (Figs 3 and 4) although some large trees are dead  (See Table 1). With the assisted regeneration work (i.e. strategic weed removal post-fire) the site is quickly shifting from a predominantly weed-dominated post-fire succession to one dominated by native plants.

There is no evidence that the sown seed has yet contributed to the regeneration at this stage.  Native regeneration was occurring across the area prior to the date when germination of sown seed would be expected and it is now clear that additional seed was not required.

Plans for ongoing management.  The continued wet and humid conditions in summer 2021 have provided highly favorable conditions for regeneration. During 2021 the volunteers will try to keep up with the work at Kylie’s Beach through regular bush regeneration camp outs (as organised for many years, except 2020 which was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions). Work plans for the next camp-out have been scheduled to include the Kylie’s Beach littoral rainforest site and will include follow-up treatment of vines and Crofton Weed. Full recovery is likely to take years as the recovery process moves at its own pace.

Two major issues remain – dense ground and canopy cover of coastal morning glory in the area will need meticulous treatment. Also an entire drainage line on the steep, rocky cliff face behind the dune is densely infested with Crofton Weed that must be left in place to stabilize the slope until sufficient native cover takes hold. Volunteers were able to remove flowers from the Crofton Weed for a certain distance up the slope. Contractors will be needed in 2021 to deal with the upper slope.

Acknowledgements: We thank the organisation and leadership of NPA group.  The fact that this was already in place prior to the fire, was a key to the success of the work to date. This group has an outstanding history and connection with many sites in the Park over many years. The linking of AABR to the project provided additional support in project design and facilitating additional volunteer from the ABBR network for the post-fire restoration side of the program.

Contacts:  Tom Clarke AABR 0418411785 and Sue Baker (NPA MNC branch)

Table 1. Kylie’s Beach Littoral Rainforest Post Fire Restoration  – responses of native and exotic species (Exotics marked with an asterisk)

Scientific name Common name Response of the species at this site Notes
Grasses
Imperata cylindrica Blady Grass Resprouted Dominating burnt floor devoid of canopy
Oplismenus aemulus Basket Grass Resprouted and germinated Near edge of existing canopy
Ehrharta erecta* Panic Veldtgrass Germinated Hillside on open ground near crofton weed
Eriochloa procera Spring Grass Germinated Near edge of existing canopy
Scramblers and Climbers
Marsdenia flavescens Hairy Milk Vine Resprouted and germinated At edge of existing canopy
Senecio mikanioides* Cape Ivy Resprouted Remnants creeping through grasses, has been heavily targeted.
Ipomoea cairica* Mile-a-minute Resprouted and germinated Existing condition taking advantage, targeted for weeding
Desmodium sp. (varians?) Desmodium Germinated Carpeting over slope to dune swale
Glycine sp. (tabacina?) Love Creeper Germinated Carpeting over slope to dune swale
Sarcopetalum harveyanum Pearl Vine Resprouted and germinated Near edge of existing canopy.
Stephania japonica Snake Vine Resprouted and germinated Near edge of existing canopy or large remnant structures
Dioscorea transversa Native Yam Resprouted Near edge of existing canopy or large remnant structures
Passiflora edulis* Blue Passion Flower Resprouted and germinated Single isolated plant. Previously overlooked?
Rubus parvifolius Native Raspberry Resprouted and germinated Creeping through rank grasses
Cayratia clematidea Slender Grape Resprouted and germinated Creeping through rank grasses
Cissus antarctica Kangaroo Grape Resprouted Mostly at edge of existing canopy.
Tetrastigma nitens Three-leaved Water Vine Resprouted Near edge of existing canopy
Flagellaria indica Whip Vine Resprouted Isolated individuals searching for structure
Geitonoplesium cymosum Scrambling Lily Resprouted Creeping through rank grasses
Smilax australis Austral Sarspariila Resprouted Moving into grass floor plus climbing burnt structures.
Ground Covers and Herbs
Hydrocotle bonariensis* Pennywort Resprouted Associated with commelina in low swale
Commelina cyanea Scurvy Weed Resprouted Feature of low swale within open floor area; also underneath grasses.
Melanthera biflora Melanthera Resprouted Carpeting top of rise from dune swale
Tufted Plants
Crinum pedunculatum Swamp Lily Resprouted Seaward edge to dune swale
Dianella congesta Coastal Flax Lily
Lomandra longifolia Mat Rush Resprouted and germinated Isolated individuals, seedlings and survivors
Ficinia nodosa Knobby Club-sedge Resprouted Seaward side pushing up from dune swale below
Cyperus sp. (sanguinolentus?) Sedge Resprouted Associated with commelina etc in swale near False Bracken
Alocasia brisbanensis Cunjevoi Resprouted Scattered near edge of existing canopy or structures.
Ferns
Doodia aspera Rasp Fern Resprouted Mostly near edges of existing canopy
Pellaea falcata Sickle Fern Resprouted Mostly with grass at edge of existing canopy
Calochlaena dubia False Bracken Fern Resprouted Dense patches on floor adjacent to Blady Grass
Dicksonia antarctica Treefern Resprouted Unaffected individuals near edges
Shrubs
Acacia longifolia (var. sophorae?) Golden Wattle Germinated Seedling growth mostly seaward edge of floor.
Breynia oblongifolia Coffee Bush Germinated Isolated individuals from seedlings
Banksia integrifolia Coastal Banksia Resprouted and germinated Coppicing from burnt stumps plus seedlings
Physalis peruviana* Cape Gooseberry Rampant pioneer exotic targeted for weeding
Solanum nigrum* Blackberry Nightshade Germinated Rampant pioneer exotic targeted for weeding
Lantana camara* Lantana Resprouted Rampant pioneer exotic targeted for weeding
Poyscias elegans Celerywood Germinated Scattered seedlings
Trema tomentosa var. viridis Native Peach Germinated Pioneer from seedlings; competing well
Conyza sumatrensis* Tall Fleabane Germinated Rampant pioneer exotic targeted for weeding
Notelea venosa? Mock Olive Resprouted Coppicing from burnt stump.
Bidens Pilosa* Cobbler’s Pegs Germinated Rampant pioneer exotic targeted for weeding
Phytolacca octandra* Inkweed Germinated Isolated patches
Ageratina Adenophora* Crofton Weed Resprouted and germinated?? Isolated patches on floor plus large, dense infestation covering hillside soak
Chrysanthemoides monilifera* Bitou Bush Resprouted and germinated Isolated individual plants
Trees
Cupaniopsis anacardioides Tuckeroo Resprouted and germinated Coppicing from burnt stumps plus seedlings
Wilkiea huegeliana Wilkiea Resprouted Coppicing from burnt stumps
Homalanthus populifolius Bleeding Heart Germinated Pioneer from seedlings; competing well
Alectryon coriaceus Beach Tamarind Resprouted Coppicing from burnt stumps.
Solanum mauritianum* Tree Tobacco Germinated Pioneer exotic targeted for weeding
Ficus rubiginosa Port Jackson Fig Resprouted Coppicing from burnt stumps
Laurel type Coppicing from burnt stumps
Synoum glandulosum Scentless Rosewood Resprouted Coppicing from burnt stumps

Second trial of watering device design to facilitate seed dispersal into revegetation sites

Amanda Freeman

Figure 1. Watering device on stand with camera above.

Introduction. This summary reports on methods and results of a trial to improve the design of a watering device. (See preliminary trial in EMR summary). This trial drew upon lessons learned In the “Kickstart” pasture conversion project,  (see https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1bhz81L%7EGwOHhQ) where perches and water basins were installed on two private properties in the upper Barron, Queensland, with the aim of catalysing rainforest regeneration.  The seeds of 31 species of bird-dispersed forest trees and shrubs were deposited in water basins, largely due to Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) using the water to regurgitate seeds. The Kickstart Project demonstrated that there is potential for supplementary water to enhance seed dispersal into revegetation sites; however, the seeds regurgitated into basins in that study were not deposited in sites suitable for germination, limiting the basins’ usefulness as restoration tools.

Our 2016 EMR Project Summary described a watering device designed to overcome this problem of seed being deposited in water receptacles.  The trial was conducted at the School for Field Studies property near Yungaburra, Queensland and this summary reports the results of our trial which aimed to identify whether frugivorous birds would use our watering device. We also assessed the amount of maintenance the watering device required to function effectively.

Figure 2. A Lewin’s Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii) at a watering device, May 2017.

Watering Device Trial. In July 2016, three 3 x 3m plots were established in an approximately 120 x 30m area of disused pasture at the School for Field Studies property. The site was located 15m from the edge of primary rainforest on one side and adjacent to a mosaic of scattered trees, restoration plantings and secondary forest on the other three sides. Each plot had a perch, 3-4m high, cut to standard form from Sarsaparilla (Alphitonia petriei) trees. Each plot also had a watering device placed close to the base of the perch. These were commercially available automatic water dispensers used for poultry set on a 1.5m high base with a perch that allowed birds of different sizes to access water from several angles and for expelled seed to fall to the ground (Figs. 1-3).

Motion-activated cameras (Ranger Compact 2 MP) were installed above each watering device to monitor visits to the water. Apart from a total of 37 days when the cameras were removed for maintenance, the three watering devices were monitored from 22 July 2016 to 13 December 2018 when the trial ended. In the analysis, continuous series of images of one or two birds at a watering device were treated as one visit by that species.

The three plots with a perch and watering device were interspersed with plots that only had a perch or had no structures at all. Apart from within the plots and a narrow access track between them, grass and woody vegetation were not controlled in the surrounding disused pasture.

Figure 3. A Victoria’s Riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae) at a watering device, October 2016.

What we found. Eighty-six visits by three frugivorous bird species were recorded across the three watering devices over the course of the trial. Ninety percent of visits were during the late dry seasons (September-November). One watering device was visited much more often than the others, receiving 70% of all visits. The other two watering devices received 20% and 10% of visits respectively (Table 1).

One bird species, the generalist Lewin’s Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii), was by far the most frequent visitor to the watering devices, making up 80% of frugivore visits (Fig. 2). Victoria’s Riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae) was the next most frequent visitor (14% of visits, Fig. 3) and Little Shrikethrush (Colluricincla megarhyncha) was the least frequent visitor (6% of frugivore visits). The only other species that used the watering devices was the Olive-backed Sunbird (Nectarinia jugularis) for which five visits were recorded. All species were recorded drinking from the watering devices. Only the Olive-backed Sunbird could bathe in the small water outlets and were recorded doing so on three occasions.

The watering devices required little maintenance over the 2.5yrs they were deployed. Water was replenished when needed at roughly six-monthly intervals and the water outlets, which collected debris and algae, were cleaned monthly. The devices had no noticeable deterioration at the end of the study.

Table 1. Number of frugivorous bird visits to three watering devices in disused pasture, 22 July 2016 to 13 December 2018.

  1 2 3 Total
Lewin’s Honeyeater Meliphaga lewinii 51 8 10 69
Victoria’s Riflebird Ptiloris victoriae 6 0 6 12
Little Shrikethrush Colluricincla megarhyncha 3 1 1 5
Frugivorous bird visits 60 9 17 86

Conclusions. Our watering devices were only used by three frugivorous bird species, most frequently by the Lewin’s Honeyeater a dietary generalist. Generalist avian frugivores tend to move mainly in more open habitats enhancing the dispersal of pioneer or non-forest trees across the landscape rather than carrying seeds from remnant forest into pasture.

Bird use of the watering devices was highly variable and largely confined to the late dry season when rainfall is low, and temperatures are warm to hot. These are poor conditions for germination and plant growth and likely limit recruitment of dispersed seeds.

Despite these limitations, watering devices are a low-cost intervention that may augment perches and attract frugivorous birds, thereby accelerating forest regeneration. The watering devices deployed in this trial did not collect seed, preserving the potential for seed to be dispersed. They required little maintenance and proved suitable for prolonged outdoor use. Watering devices warrant further investigation. 

Acknowledgements. Thanks to William (Bill) Johnson and John Hall for designing the watering device stand and camera attachment and preparing and maintaining the plots. The School for Field Studies funded the trial.

Contact. Amanda N. D. Freeman. Nature North, PO Box 1536, Atherton, Qld, 4883 Australia. The School for Field Studies, Centre for Rainforest Studies (PO Box 141, Yungaburra, Qld 4884 Australia; Tel: +61 (0) 438 966 773; Email: amandafreeman@naturenorth.com.au).

See also EMR project summary on the preliminary trial of this project: https://site.emrprojectsummaries.org/2016/11/02/a-water-point-design-to-facilitate-seed-dispersal-into-revegetation-or-pasture-sites/

Waterponding the Marra Creek, NSW rangelands – UPDATE of EMR feature

Ray Thompson and Central West Local Land Services

[Update of EMR feature – Thompson, Ray F (2008) Waterponding: Reclamation technique for scalded duplex soils in western New South Wales rangelands. Ecological Management & Restoration 9:3, 170-181. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1442-8903.2008.00415.x]

Figure 1.  Scalded country with 30cm of sandy loam topsoil swept away by wind after extensive overgrazing. (Photos NSW SCS)

Introduction. Overgrazing of native pastures in the second half of the 19th Century stripped vegetation and led to the wind erosion of sandy topsoil during inevitable dry periods.  By the 1960s, tens of thousands of square kilometres of rangeland sites in western NSW had a legacy of moderate or severely bare or ‘scalded’ lands. This left bare and relatively impermeable clay subsoil which prevents water penetration and is very difficult for plants to colonize (Fig 1.)

Waterponding is the holding of water on the scald in surveyed horseshoe-shaped banks, each covering 0.4 ha. The ponds retain up to 10 cm of water after rain which leaches the soluble salts from the scalded surface. This improves the remaining soil structure, inducing surface cracking, better water penetration and entrapment of wind-blown seed. Consequently, niches are formed for the germination of this seed and recovery of a range of (typically around 15 out of a total of about 30) locally native chenopod (saltbush) grassland species on the sites.

The original 2008 EMR feature described how barren scalds at a range of properties in Marra Creek, near Nyngan in semi-arid NSW were transformed during the 1980s and 1990s into biodiverse native pastures through a technique called ‘waterponding’ developed after five decades of work by consecutive soil conservation officers exploring a range of prototype treatments.  Over time, a wide range of machines have been used to construct waterponding banks including standard road graders (ridged frame and articulated) or similar. Pre-1985 road graders were generally too small to construct banks of sufficient size, which resulted in too many breached banks. Over a 4-year period, the Marra Creek Waterponding Demonstration Program, backed by committed landowners, researched different horsepower road graders, constructing different size banks, winning the dirt from different locations, and evaluating the economics of construction methods. The results showed that the higher-powered articulated road graders exceeding 200 HP proved to be the most economical and efficient for waterpond construction. This type of machine has the power to  form the bank with one pass on the inside of the bank and two passes on the outside, achieving a bank with well over 2 m base width and over 60 cm in height (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. The process of of waterponding including (a) ute-mounted laser levelling to design the waterpond for a particular site, (b) bulldozing the pond walls to the designed levels, (c) rainfall filling the pond to allow deep watering and cracking of the clay subsoil and (d) resulting revegetation within the walls of the pond. (Photos NSW SCS)

Update and the broader program.  Photos and pasture measurements undertaken on ‘Billabong’ Marra Creek NSW, till 2014 show that the waterponding site had increased ground cover (predominantly native species) from 1% in 2005 to 84 % in 2014. After five to seven rainfall years a typical treatment can result in recovery of up to 15 native species from a range of up to 31 species (Table 1). The method in the last 20 years has also included broadcasting seed of some of the more important perennial species of healthy native chenopod grasslands including  Oldman  Saltbush  (Atriplex nummularia), Bladder Saltbush (Atriplex vesicaria) and Mitchell Grass (Astrebla   lappacea) (Fig 3).  Landholders in the Marra Creek district observe a range of fauna frequently on and between the ponds, including Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus), Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus), Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), Brolga (Grus rubicunda) and the Eastern Bluetongue Lizard (Tiliqua scincoides). A species of Monitor (Varanus sp.) also sometimes traverses the waterponds. Formal monitoring of smaller reptile and invertebrate use of waterponded sites is yet to occur.

Figure 3. Curly Mitchell Grass (Astrebla lappacea) sown on pond banks. (Photo NSW SCS)

Marra Creek was not the first series of waterponding programs in the Nyngan area – nor the last. The outputs of the entire program by 2019 included over 80,000 waterponds laid out and constructed, resulting in 40,000 hectares returned to local native vegetation. A total of 164 properties in the rangelands area are now using waterponding, the majority of landholders in the Marra Creek district and representing an increase from 17 landholders back in 1984 when we first ran the waterponding.

Figure 4. Landholders themselves are teaching the Waterponding technique to other landholders. (Photos NSW SCS)

Economic model of waterponding. The primary driver for land reclamation was not biodiversity conservation but returning the natural capital of rangelands. As such the program has returned a clear profit to the landholders in terms of increased native pastures that can be grazed, improving ecologically sustainable income sources for farming families.

With the reinstatement of vegetation, there have be increases in total stock feed, resulting in an increase in lambing percentages and wool cuts, as well as the ability to carry stock further into prolonged dry periods with overhead cost per head remaining static. Once rehabilitation has been completed, stocking  rates have been raised from zero to one sheep to 1.5 ha. This iseffectively the long-term grazing average for  saltbush pastures in the Nyngan district.

A treatment involving the full design and survey, pond construction and revegetation cost the landholder about $144.00 per hectare. (This includes approximately $25 a hectare for seed.) If the landholder does all the work the cost is reduced to $72/ha. The type of land involved was calculated in 2008 to normally  have  a  resale  value  of  about $365.00 per hectare In its unproductive state.  Scalded land does not contribute to the farm income yet still incurs rates. Investment in rehabilitation, in contrast, improves carrying capacity thus reducing hand-feeding costs, improving lambing percentages and avoiding forced stock sales. This allows landholders to pass the property to the next generation in a far better condition than it has been previously.

Research has found that the scalds store approximately 18.7 t/h of soil organic carbon to a depth of 30 cm. Once the landscape has been restored by waterponding and revegetation, we have found there is a rapid increase in soil organic carbon up to 25 t/ha within five years. The results are indicating that land in the rangelands that has been rehabilitated using waterponds does sequester carbon. This could lead on to waterponding being eligible for a carbon abatement activity and hopefully lead to Carbon Farming Initiative activity for carbon credits.

Figure 5. Australian National University students attending ‘21 years of participation in Rangelands Waterponding’. (Photos NSW SCS)

Potential for further application. After decades of field days and uptake of the methodologies by local graziers (Fig. 4), waterponding now forms part of standard district farming methodologies and landholders are now passing on knowledge to new generations, including through universities (Fig. 5). The methodologies have also been applied at one national park and one Trust For Nature site in Victoria, and are being applied in the Kimberley, with potential for far greater application in desert conservation reserves throughout Australia and the rest of the world (See Fig. 6 and https://justdiggit.org/approach-2/#).

Contact. Kyra Roach, Central West Local Land Services, Nyngan, 2825 Australia. Email: kyra.roach@lls.nsw.gov.au

Figure 6. A total of 79 trainees from 26 Africa countries (including Ghana, Tunisia, Rwanda, Burundi and Djibouti) over a three year period were sponsored by AusAid to study waterponding in Nyngan. Resullting work in African countries is making a big difference to degraded lands particularly in North Sudan and Kenya (Photo NSW SCS)

Table 1. Species found in waterponds after standard revegetation treatments and five to seven rainfall years. The species found by Rhodes (1987b) are still commonly found, with additional species (marked with a diamond +) observed by Ray Thompson. (Plant names are consistent with the New South Wales Herbarium database PlantNet, http://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/ and  growth forms are consistent with Cunningham et al. (1981) (Exotics are marked with an asterisk)

Scientific name Common name Growth form
Alternanthera denticulata Lesser Joyweed Annual forb
Astrebla lappacea+ Curly Mitchell Grass Perennial grass
Atriplex leptocarpa Slender-fruited Saltbush Perennial subshrub
Atriplex lindleyi+ Eastern Flat Top Saltbush Annual subshrub
Atriplex nummularia+ Oldman Saltbush Perennial shrub
Atriplex pseudocampanulata Mealy Saltbush Annual subshrub
Atriplex semibaccata+ Creeping Saltbush Perennial subshrub
Atriplex spongiosa Pop Saltbush Annual forb
Atriplex vesicaria Bladder Saltbush Perennial subshrub
Centipeda thespidioides Desert Sneezeweed Perennial forb
Chamaesyce drummondii Caustic Weed Annual or short-lived perennial forb
Chloris truncata Windmill Grass Annual or perennial grass
Diplachne fusca Brown Beetle Grass Perennial grass
Eragrostis parviflora Weeping Lovegrass Annual or short-lived perennial grass
Eragrostis setifolia Neverfail Perennial grass
Hordeum leporinum* Barley Grass Annual grass
Hordeum marinum* Sea Barley Annual grass
Maireana pentagona Hairy Bluebush Perennial subshrub
Malacocera tricornis Soft Horns Perennial subshrub
Marsilea drummondii Common Nardoo Perennial forb
Medicago minima* Woolly Bur Medic Annual forb
Medicago polymorpha* Burr Medic Annual forb
Osteocarpum acropterum+ Water Weed Perennial subshrub
Phalaris paradoxa* Paradoxa Grass Annual grass
Pimelea simplex Desert Rice-flower Annual forb
Portulaca oleracea Common Pigweed Annual forb
Salsola kali var. kali Buckbush Annual or biennial forb
Sclerolaena brachyptera Short-winged Copperburr Short-lived perennia
Sclerolaena calcarata+ Red Copperburr Perennial subshrub
Sclerolaena divaricata+ Pale Poverty Bush Perennial subshrub
Sclerolaena muricata Black Roly-poly Short-lived perennial
Sclerolaena trycuspis Streaked Poverty Bush Perennial subshrub
Sporobolus actinocladus Katoora Grass Perennial grass
Sporobolus caroli Fairy Grass Perennial grass
Tragus australianus Small Burr Grass Annual grass
Tripogon loliiformis+ Five Minute Grass Perennial grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rehabilitation of former Snowy Scheme Sites in Kosciuszko National Park – UPDATE of EMR feature 2019.

Gabriel Wilks

Update of EMR feature – MacPhee, Elizabeth and Gabriel Wilks (2013) Rehabilitation of former Snowy Scheme Sites in Kosciuszko National Park.  Ecological Management & Restoration, 14:3, 159-171. Doi https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/emr.12067

Key words.  Habitat construction, steep slopes, rock spoil.

Figure 1. Shaped rock spoil ready for planting more than 50 years after being dumped.

Introduction. Our original EMR feature article described the origins of this large, long-term rehabilitation program and the challenges faced in the first 10 years. The program’s aim was to address a range of impacts upon montane and sub-alpine vegetation and river corridors in Kosciuszko National Park from the Snowy Hydro Scheme, constructed from 1949 to 1974. Impacts included dumping of large volumes of rock spoil, loss of topsoil and native vegetation, introduction and spread of weeds and asbestos fragments in the landscape.  The article outlined the development of methodologies for restoration, particularly planting trials on steep rock spoils, and how obstacles such as slope instability, plant material availability and lack of soil were being overcome. The process of program implementation was given, including environmental and cultural heritage assessments undertaken as part of site works.  In 2013 a number of positive outcomes were already evident at the 200 sites that had been subjected to at least some treatment, including 18 sites where major rehabilitation works were undertaken. Outcomes included reduction in waterway impacts and invasive weeds, expansion of the Kosciuszko fauna database, regional community benefits, and production of an Australian Alps Rehabilitation Field Guide.

Further work. The Former Snowy Scheme Rehabilitation Program continues to reduce the long term environmental and safety risks of old degraded construction sites to Kosciuszko National Park, as well as improve their visual and ecological function. Some sites treated by 2013 have blended in with the surrounding landscape and are difficult to identify. Many sites are continuing to improve in condition over time, with distinct vegetation layers, natural plant recruitment and evidence of native fauna habitat. Construction history, rock spoil and loss of soil and plant species remain evident at highly altered sites, despite a high standard of rehabilitation work.

An additional 12 Major rehabilitation works have been undertaken since 2013, with selected signature projects and rehabilitation techniques described below.  Note that the former Snowy Scheme rehabilitation program does not address the impact of current Snowy Hydro Limited or proposed infrastructure and support networks such as powerlines, easements, river regulation or roads.

1. Rehabilitation of the Tooma–Tumut Access Tunnel Adit Spoil Dump. This spoil dump (Fig. 1) is located on the highly incised upper reaches of the Tumut River.  The spoil originates from construction in 1958-1961 of the Eucumbene–Tumut Tunnel, which transfers the headwaters of the Tooma River to Tumut Pond. Following earthworks in 2017, the planting crew successfully planted, watered, fertilised and mulched approximately 12,000 plants on rock spoil, with monitoring being undertaken by Greening Australia Capital Region staff (Fig 2.)

Figure 2. Year 1 Revegetation monitoring at Tooma-Tumut SD by Greening Australia Capital Region staff, 2018

2. Construction of contained habitat for the Southern Corroboree Frog. A series of remote enclosures (Fig 3) have been constructed in both rehabilitation areas and former habitat locations to enable re-introduction of this Critically Endangered species (Fig 4), following the devastating impacts of chytrid disease. These enclosures are developing essential stepping stones for frogs from captive breeding programs to move back into the wild. Design of enclosures requires ensuring self-sustaining food and water, shallow ponds for breeding, ability for Threatened Species staff to monitor and control disease and exclusion of other frogs. These works have been done in partnership with NSW Threatened Species staff and zoo institutions.

Figure 3. Constructing Southern Corroboree Frog enclosures in remote locations

Figure 4. Southern Corroboree Frogs living successfully back in Kosciuszko

3. First live record of Smoky Mouse in Kosciuszko National Park. The Smoky Mouse (Pseudomys fumeus Fig. 5) was found alive and well for the first time in Kosciuszko National Park, at a Happy Jacks rehabilitation site. Up until the discovery, the only currently known population of the small, smoky grey coloured mouse still surviving in NSW was in the Nullica area, NSW South Coast.  Three individuals, 2 males and 1 female were a significant find for survival and database records of this Critically Endangered Species, and a technical short note was published in EMR in 2017 by fauna surveyor Martin Schulz who found the animals.

Figure 5. A Happy Jacks Smoky Mouse.

4. Making people and places safer with rehabilitation. Sites that housed construction depots and townships during Snowy scheme construction still contained fragments of asbestos which were rapidly degrading due to weather exposure. As total removal was not feasible, the rehabilitation team worked with asbestos experts to develop practical measures to reduce public safety risks. At the remote Junction Shaft Contractors Camp (at Happy Jacks, Figs 6 and 7) and a former township and current camping ground at Island Bend a range of techniques were developed, delineation of zones for suitable uses, creating natural vegetation buffers and capping with rock spoil and plants.

Figure 6. The Junction Shaft Camp in 1955.

Figure 7. The same site 62 years later (and one year after works) with a range of capping and planting zones, including a heli-pad, Mountain Pygmy Possum habitat, and new plantings to improve safety and environment.

5.  Applying techniques beyond Kosci. Project team members took some winter time out of Kosciuszko to ‘grow’ a protection zone for a known population of Endangered Green and Golden Bell Frog (Litoria aurea) and constructed a series of ponds for future breeding in an old sand quarry at Worrigee Nature Reserve, Nowra (Fig 8). Given former quarries are a feature of a large infrastructure project such as the Snowy Scheme, the team had the technical knowledge for how to restore ecological function despite a radical departure from usual flora and fauna species. A range of techniques including neighborhood consultation, barrier logs and blocks, berms and vegetation were used to reduce the impact of recreational and unauthorised motorbikes and rubbish dumping.

Figure 8. Creating Bell Frog habitat in degraded borrow pits.

6. Growing rehabilitation resources and protecting karst ecosystems. The use of treated waste at the Yarrangobilly Caves visitor precinct to grow snow grasses (Poa spp.) for use in rehabilitation projects across Kosciuszko and been continued and developed (Fig. 9). A renewed emphasis on site production has enabled Poa seed to be available for other projects within the Park. This provides an ecologically preferable option for soil stabilisation and ground cover establishment, reducing the risk of weed invasion and dependence on sterile rye corn as the only available option.

Figure 9. Inspecting plants for seed harvest, which yielded 52 kgs of Poa seed in 2017.

Lessons Learned. It is clear that this is a unique rehabilitation project due to the large number of sites, the natural and heritage values of Kosciuszko National Park and the longevity and continuity of the commitment (approx. 20 years).  Understandably, however, at this point in time challenges in rehabilitation remain. ‘Off the shelf’ rehabilitation products are limited due to remoteness of locations, plant species required, Park management policies and required hygiene protocols. It is important that additional threats are not accidentally introduced, such as foreign pathogens and flora and fauna. As much as possible, resources such as coarse woody debris, woodchip, plant material and compost are sourced from within the Park. A flexible and dynamic approach to the very definition of rehabilitation and techniques and materials is required.  Specific lessons include the following.

Adding organic material on degraded sites is always beneficial. Rehabilitation success has been most obvious where logs, litter, woodchip and straw have been added to the site, to provide mico-niche climate, habitat, and improve soil. While this may increase short term management requirements such as weed control, the commitment is worth it due to the improved results.

Creating compost from old sawmill sawdust has worked well for this rehabilitation project. The most recent development however is in the use of organics waste and treated effluent from visitation facilities as a compost, and there is opportunity for this on-Park recycling to develop.

Other resources such as rice straw have become limited during periods of sustained drought and less rice production. This will remain a challenge into the future. The value of minimising ground cover loss, retaining natural soil characteristics and organic matter in situ and ensuring rapid rehabilitation after disturbance in future developments will become increasingly important for rehabilitation success.

Be creative with team skills and capacity. Problems such asbestos contaminant presence must be addressed for safety, but doesn’t mean walking away from the challenge. A degraded site may be the perfect place to develop species targeted habitat.  Seek expertise advice and consider a range of current and new solutions.

ContactGabriel Wilks, Senior Project Officer, NPWS Southern Ranges Services. PO Box 472, Tumut NSW 2720.  Email: Gabriel.Wilks@environment.nsw.gov.au

Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub: is fire the key to restoration? – UPDATE to EMR FEATURE

Geoff Lambert, and Judy Lambert

[Update to EMR Feature – Geoff Lambert and Judy Lambert (2015) Progress with restoration and management of Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub on North Head, Sydney.  Ecological Management & Restoration, 16:2, 95-199. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/emr.12160]

Key Words. Banksia Scrub, North Head, Critically Endangered Ecological Community, Diversity.

Fig 1. Images of the same location over time, taken from “walk-through” photographic surveys (top to bottom) pre-fire, immediate post-fire and 5-years post-fire. (Photos Geoff Lambert)

Introduction. In the original feature, we reported on a number of projects related to the fire ecology of Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub (ESBS), also known as Coastal Sand Mantle Heath (S_HL03), located in conserved areas on North Head, Sydney Australia. Following a Hazard Reduction burn in September 2012, we examined changes in species numbers and diversity and compared these measures with control areas which had been thinned. We fenced one-third of the survey quadrats to test the effects of rabbit herbivory. There had been no fire in this area since 1951.

Twelve months after treatment, burned ESBS had more native plants, greater plant cover, more native species, greater species diversity and fewer weeds than did thinned ESBS (Fig 1). Areas that had been fenced after fire had “superior” attributes to unfenced areas. The results suggested that fire could be used to rejuvenate this heath and that this method produced superior results to thinning, but with a different species mix. Results of either method would be inferior were attempts not made to control predation by rabbits (See 2015 report).

Further works undertaken. In 2015 and 2017 we repeated the surveys, including photographic surveys on the same quadrats. Further Hazard Reduction burns were conducted, which provided an opportunity to repeat the studies reported in the 2015 feature. The study design of the burns was broadly similar to the earlier study, but rabbits were excluded by fencing four large “exclosures” over half the burn site. The pre-fire botanical survey was carried out in 2014, with logistical difficulties delaying the burn until late May 2018. Drought and other factors saw a post-fire survey delayed until October 2019. Photographic surveys of the quadrats have been completed.

Seven cm-resolution, six-weekly, aerial photography of North Head is regularly flown by Nearmap© (Fig 2). We use this photography to monitor the whole of the headland and, in particular, the various burn areas. In order to extrapolate from our quadrat-based sampling (usually 1% of a burn area), the University of Sydney flew 5mm-resolution UAV-based surveys on our behalf, on one of the 2012 burn areas and on the 2018 burn area in November 2017 (Fig 3) .

Apart from the fire studies, the general program of vegetation propagation and management has been continued by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and the North Head Sanctuary Foundation. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy has also undertaken a “whole of headland”, quadrat-based vegetation survey as the first stage of its “Ecological Health” rolling program for its sites.

Fig 2. Nearmap© site images (top to bottom) pre-fire, immediate post-fire and 7-years post-fire. (Photos Nearmap)

Further results. The original results suggested that fire could be used advantageously to rejuvenate ESBS and produced superior results to thinning. While subsequent photographic monitoring shows distinct vegetation change (Figs 1 and 2), on-ground monitoring showed that by five years after the fire we could no longer say this with any optimism. In summary:

  • In the immediate fire aftermath, there was vigorous growth of many species
  • Over the ensuing 5 years, plants began to compete for space, with many dropping out
  • Species diversity was high following the fire but then dropped below pre-fire levels
  • Some plants (e.g. Lepidosperma and Persoonia spp.) came to dominate via vegetative spread
  • The reed, Chordifex dimorphus has almost disappeared
  • Tea-trees (Leptospermum spp.) are gradually making a comeback
  • Between 2015 and 2017, ESBS species numbers were outpaced by non-ESBS species, but held their own in terms of ground cover.

The total disappearance of Chordifex (formerly an abundant species on North Head and prominent in the landscape) from fully-burned quadrats was not something that we could have predicted. This species is not in the Fire Response database, although some Restio spp. are known to be killed by fire. This contributes greatly to the visual changes in the landscape. The great proliferation of Lance Leaf Geebung (Persoonia lanceolata) has also changed the landscape amenity (Fig 1, bottom).

To summarise, the 2012 burn has not yet restored ESBS, but has produced a species mix which may or may not recover to a more typical ESBS assemblage with ongoing management over time. Given that the area had not been burned for 60 years, it may be decades before complete restoration.

Our further studies on the use of clearing and thinning on North Head as an alternative to fire (“Asset Protection Zone Programme”), indicates that thinning and planting can produce a vegetation community acceptable for asset protection fire management and potentially nearly as rich as unmanaged post-fire communities (Fig 4). It is necessary to actively manage these sites by removing fire-prone species every two years. In addition, a trial has been started to test whether total trimming of all except protected species to nearly ground level in an APZ, is an option for longer-term management.

Fig 3. “Thinning Experiment” fenced quadrat #3 in July 2019. The quadrat was created in 2013 by removing Coastal Teatree (Leptospermum laevigatum) and Tree Broom Heath (Monotoca elliptica). The experimental design is a test of raking and seeding, with each treatment in the longer rows. All non-endangered species plants were trimmed to 0.25 metres height in mid-2017. (Photo Geoff Lambert)

Lessons learned and future directions. It is too early to say whether we can maintain and/or restore North Head’s ESBS with a single fire. Further fires may be required. A similar conclusion has been drawn by the Centennial Parklands Trust, with its small-scale fire experiments on the York Road site. We need new and better spot- and broad-scale surveys and further burns in other areas on North Head over a longer period. The spring 2019 survey, just completed, offers an opportunity to better assess the notion that fire is beneficial and necessary.

It will be necessary to monitor the effects of future fires on ESBS diversity closely and for much longer than five years. More active management of the post-fire vegetation may be needed, as we have previously discussed in the feature, and as happens at Golf Club sites (also see video) .

The 2012 burn was relatively “cool”. There is some evidence that “hot” burns (such as have been carried out by NSW Fire and Rescue at some Eastern Suburbs golf courses) may produce improved restoration of ESBS. The 2018 burn on North Head was planned as a “hot” burn. This was not completely achieved, but we may be able to compare “hot” and “cool” burn patches within it.

Fig 4. A 2017 UAV image of quadrat 23 five years after the 2012 burn. The image has been rotated to show the quadrat aligned on the UTM grid. The red square shows the rabbit-proof fences; the black square shows the survey quadrat and the blue squares show the four 1×1 metre vegetation plots. The resolution is approximately 5 mm. (Photo University of Sydney Centre for Field Robotics)

Stakeholders. Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, North Head Sanctuary Foundation. Australian Wildlife Conservancy, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Fire & Rescue NSW.

Funding Bodies. Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife [Grant No. 11.47], Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Contact Information. Dr G.A.Lambert, Secretary, North Head Sanctuary Foundation, (P.O.Box 896, BALGOWLAH 2093, Tel: +61 02 9949 3521, +61 0437 854 025, Email: G.Lambert@iinet.net.au. Web: https://www.northheadsanctuaryfoundation.org.au/

Still repairing wetlands of the Lower Murray: continuing the learning – UPDATE of EMR feature

Anne Jensen

[Update to EMR feature – Jensen, Anne (2002) Repairing wetlands of the Lower Murray: Learning from restoration practice. Ecological Management & Restoration, 3:1, 5-14. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1442-8903.2002.00092.x]

Key words:         Environmental water requirements, regeneration, wetlands, black box seedlings, Lower Murray Valley

Figure 1. Location of the Lower Murray Valley in South Australia (Map A. Jensen)

Introduction. As highlighted in the original EMR feature this summary is updating, in the Lower Murray Valley 1100 wetlands have been identified in 250 hydrologically-linked complexes (Fig. 1). They have undergone major changes to their water regime over the last 100 years, altering the timing, frequency and duration of floods. Wetlands at lower elevations have become permanently flooded by stable river levels and wetlands at higher elevations are ‘droughted’ by much reduced flooding. All would benefit from environmental watering, to fill gaps in breeding and regeneration cycles.

Our 2002 feature showed that, from 1998 to 2002, the not-for-profit conservation company Wetland Care Australia coordinated on-ground projects to repair priority wetlands in the Lower Murray. The Gurra Gurra project was the largest of these projects, with engineering works at 17 sites to restore multiple flowpaths through the 3000 ha floodplain complex.

Key funding from the National Heritage Trust terminated in 2002 and Wetland Care Australia relocated in 2003 to northern New South Wales, where project funding for wetland projects was still available. However, individuals involved with the Wetland Care Australia projects remained in the Lower Murray Valley in other jobs, so the intellectual property was retained and wetland conservation activities continued.

In 2002, the extent and severity of drought conditions in the Murray River Valley were just being recognised. By 2004, a survey estimated that >75% of the two main tree dominants in floodplain woodlands –  River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) and Black Box (E. largiflorens)  – were dead, dying or extremely stressed along 700 km of the Murray River Valley . The Millenium Drought (2000-2010) caused extreme stress to both ecological and human communities. Government agencies commenced emergency environmental watering from 2004 through the Living Murray program to limit catastrophic damage at eight iconic sites but millions of mature eucalypts were lost from floodplain woodlands along river valleys.

The Millenium Drought changed the governance context radically, with the Water Act 2007 establishing a new Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin Plan. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) was able to purchase water for environmental use.

Nature delivered life-saving floods in 2010-12, which broke the drought and sent flows through the Gurra Gurra complex flowpaths, so the works completed back in 2000 finally fulfilled their function (Fig. 2). Water flowed through the pipes at Tortoise Crossing for 170 days in 2010-11 and again for 71 days in 2012.

Figure 2. The sign at the key Tortoise Crossing flow path explains that replacing three pipes with 160 pipes back in 2000 now allows 50 times more flow when the river floods, as seen at the flood peak in December 2016 (Photos A. Jensen)

The sequence of floods led to mass germination of Black Box at medium floodplain elevations, with mass River Red Gum seedlings at lower elevations. A range of studies show that the survival of these seedlings is critical to fill age gaps and replace the losses from the Millenium Drought, as survival rates from germination events in the 1970s and 1990s were very poor and the last successful mass recruitment of Black Box in the Lower Murray Valley was from the 1955-56 floods.

Following the floods in 2010-2012, conditions were dry in 2013-15 and the fields of mass seedlings began to dry out and die. A further short flood in 2016 watered the surviving fields of Black Box seedlings for at least two weeks, adding to prospects of survival and flowing through the Tortoise Crossing pipes for 75 days. However, conditions in 2018-19 and into summer 2019-20 are once again extremely dry, with stress appearing in mature trees and saplings dying off. The Lower Murray Valley is still recovering from the Millenium Drought, thus needing more frequent watering over a sequence of years to bring mature trees back to health and full seed production, so this is a significant setback.

Further works and activities since 2002. Since 2008, the environmental charity Nature Foundation SA (NFSA) has been undertaking environmental watering projects on smaller, privately-owned sites in the Lower Murray, many from the original Wetland Care Australia list. In the Lower Murray Valley, water needs to be lifted up to 3 m from the river channel to reach wetlands on the floodplain, requiring costly energy. This is done using irrigation techniques, including pumps, pipes and sprinklers. These smaller projects complement government agency projects using major infrastructure to deliver environmental water to much larger wetland complexes.

In 2008-09, the primary purpose was to acquire water and use it to limit extreme environmental damage in the drought. In 2009 NFSA provided supplementary water for Little Duck Lagoon, one of the sites from the Wetland Care Australia Gurra Gurra project.

From 2012-19, NFSA has held a contract partnered with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) to deliver up to 10 GL/y of environmental water to selected sites. A priority for the NFSA Water for Nature program has been to sustain the mass germination triggered by the 2010-12 floods, watering fields of seedlings and saplings so they can fill the very large gap in age structure of Black Box populations. Stressed mature Black Box trees are being watered to improve their condition and volumes of seed produced. While delivering water to a defined wetland is relatively simple, with water pumped to an inlet point and allowed to pool in the wetland, watering scattered fields of seedlings and saplings on relatively flat floodplain land is a challenge, especially when they are in gaps between mature trees. The solution has been to use high-throw sprinklers (simulating rainfall) and operating them at night, to allow soakage into clay soils and to avoid evaporative loss during the day.

Since 2008, NFSA has delivered almost 13 GL of water to 97 watering sites in 20 wetland complexes, covering 27 different ecological targets across 12 habitat types. A total of 4.9 GL was delivered to 15 sites in 2017-18 and 1.55 GL was delivered in 2018-19 to 25 sites covering 126 ha. Rolling 5-year watering plans have been developed for each site, able to respond to annual water availability, Basin-wide priorities, environmental water requirements, climatic conditions, site watering history and feasibility of delivery.

One of the NFSA sites is Lyrup Lagoon in the Gurra Gurra complex, being watered to reduce accumulated salinity from groundwater inflows. Importantly, the infrastructure of the Central Irrigation Trust was used to deliver water to the lagoon. Thus, local irrigators are partners in delivery of water for regional environmental benefits and river health.

Figure 3. Watering guidelines developed by the Water For Nature program for stressed and healthy woodlands, for (a) River Red Gum and (b) Black Box (Water for Nature).

Further Results. The initial watering guidelines reported in the original EMR feature have been expanded through research and monitoring of responses to watering events, developing guidelines for timing and frequency of wetting and drying cycles to promote recovery in mature trees and support germination and survival of seedlings. These have been applied for each site in the rolling 5-year watering plans, which then determine the annual list of sites due for watering (see NFSA 5 year strategy and Fig. 3).

Watering by NFSA 2013-2019 has sustained Black Box seedlings and saplings through four dry summers, with watered plants 2-3 times taller than non-watered plants (Fig. 4). The Water For Nature monitoring report shows that, at NFSA sites, mature Black Box trees that have received periodic environmental water as determined by their 5-year watering plan during 2015-2019 were 21-46% (average 36%) better in health than adjacent non-watered sites, with denser, more vigorous canopies and the relative improvement was greatest during hotter and drier periods. The watering events thus provided water between natural floods to sustain growth in saplings and crop cycles in mature trees. Watering at other NFSA sites has provided vital habitat for vulnerable and endangered fauna including the Murray Hardyhead (Craterocephalus fluviatilis), Southern Bell Frog (Litoria raniformis), Regent Parrot (Polytelis anthopeplus) and Latham’s Snipe (Gallinago hardwickii).

Figure 4. Watered River Red Gum saplings at Thiele Flat, Loxton; November 2013 (top) and March 2018 (bottom). Note 2016 flood level mark on foreground trees (Photos A. Jensen)

Lessons learned and future directions. The significant benefits of environmental water have been demonstrated at NFSA’s Water For Nature sites, for floodplain vegetation communities and in temporary wetlands. Evolving research indicates that watering in late spring-early summer mimics peak flows in the natural water regime, coinciding with highest chances of breeding and germination events and thus ecologically ideal timing (See bibliography). Benefits are increased if seasonally filled wetlands are topped up in early summer, to ensure sufficient duration to sustain frog and waterbird breeding.

As well as ideal timing, studies have shown that watering at any time of the year can be beneficial, including enhancing soil moisture storage in the unsaturated zone and sustaining volume in bud and fruit crops. A key finding has been that watering in late autumn-early winter sustains soil moisture, priming sites to give an enhanced response to watering in the following spring-summer.

However, dry climatic conditions and political pressures to minimise water recovery volumes are combining to reduce availability of environmental water, with only very highest priority sites likely to receive water in the 2019-20 water year. Environmental water cannot create floods, it can only provide water to selected priority sites during dry times and enhance the benefits of any natural floods. Current volumes can only meet the requirements of a limited number of sites, leaving many sites without the water needed to sustain them through dry times or to recover from the severe impact of the Millenium drought.

Bureaucratic processes for approvals also hinder effective delivery of environmental water. With the water year coinciding with the financial year from July to June, water delivery stops in June to allow water accounts to be finalised. Approval to water in the following year can take 2-3 months, meaning no water can be delivered during the winter months for priming, missing the advantage of low evaporation rates and higher chances of piggy-backing on rainfall events.

Funding for environmental projects tends to be short term, leading to job insecurity for project managers, loss of continuity and project knowledge, and inability to complete watering sequences. Very significant volunteer resources are required to make these watering projects happen, including inputs from landholders who have donated electricity connections to the floodplain, transported diesel to re-fuel pumps, loaned pumps, tractors and irrigation equipment, plus use of irrigation and local government infrastructure to deliver water, and physical assistance and maintenance from local volunteer groups.

Practical on-ground watering knowledge is maturing well; what is needed now is sufficient water and ongoing consistent funding to support projects to deliver minimum environmental water requirements for the wetlands of the Lower Murray Valley. The pipes at Tortoise Crossing, installed in 2000 and only flooded twice, are more than ready for the next high flows to pour through!

Stakeholders and Funding bodies. The monitoring project was supported as part of the project Ecological Responses to Environmental Watering in the South Australian River Murray Valley, assessing the benefits of salinity interception schemes on floodplain vegetation, coordinated by Australian Water Environments for SA Water from March 2015 to June 2017. Continuing funding for monitoring in 2017-2019 was provided in a grant from the Ian Potter Foundation to Nature Foundation SA, as well as funding from the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (2018-19). Water for the environmental watering projects studied here was provided through annual allocations of water from the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office to Nature Foundation SA.  Water delivery was managed by the NFSA Water For Nature program through Program Manager Natalie Stalenberg. Practical support and site access was provided by Steve Clark, landholder and committee member for Water for Nature program, and landholders John and Bronwyn Burford.

Contact. Dr Anne Jensen, Environmental Consultant; Volunteer member, Water for Nature Committee, Nature Foundation SA; part-time consultant Wetland Ecologist for Water for Nature Program of Nature Foundation SA (7 Ford Street, Maylands SA 5069, Australia; Tel: +61 407 170 706; Email: ajensen@internode.on.net

The rise of invasive ant eradications since the success of the Kakadu project  – UPDATE of EMR feature

Benjamin D Hoffmann

[Update of EMR feature – Hoffmann,  Benjamin D and Simon O’Connor (2004) Eradication of two exotic ants from Kakadu National Park. Ecological Management & Restoration, 5:2, 98-105. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1442-8903.2004.00182.x]

Key words. pest species management, invasive species, biosecurity

Figure 1. Kakadu staff in 2001 spreading formicide over a super-colony of African Big-headed Ant. This involved a team of people, aligned in a row, walking from one edge of the infested area to the other in parallel paths. (Photo courtesy of Simon O’Connor.)

Introduction. Invasive species management, especially eradications, has been at the forefront of biodiversity conservation gains over the past two decades. For example, over 1,200 invasive vertebrate eradications have been achieved on over 800 islands worldwide and the conservation benefits of such actions have been overwhelmingly positive and often dramatic. Efforts against invasive ants have also been particularly notable over the past two decades, with ants now being the second-most eradicated taxa globally having been eradicated from more than 150 locations, with the largest eradication covering 8300 ha. Two decades ago there were only 12 confirmed ant eradications using modern baits with a combined area totalling a mere 12 ha.

As reported in our original EMR feature, the last treatments against two invasive ants in Kakadu National Park, northern Australia: The African Big-headed Ant (Pheidole megacephala) and the Tropical Fire Ant, (Solenopsis geminata) were conducted in 2003; and the ants were declared eradicated two years later (Hoffmann & O’Connor 2004). At the time this was a globally significant eradication, and the positive outcome was a partial catalyst for the creation of many other relatively small exotic ant eradication attempts around Australia, including against Tropical Fire Ant on Melville island, and African Big-headed Ant on Lord Howe Island. Incidentally, the work coincided with the approximate timeframe of when two other highly invasive ant species were first detected in Australia: Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) (Solenopsis invicta), and Electric Ant (Wasmannia auropunctata), prompting the initiation of two massive national cost-shared eradication programs. One of these, the RIFA program, has become Australia’s second-most expensive eradication program at AUD $428 million as of at July 2019. Together, all of these actions put ants high on Australia’s biosecurity and environmental management radars, prompting the development of Australia’s Tramp Ant Threat Abatement Plan and yet even more eradication programs.

Figure 2. Ant bait being dispersed aerially by helicopter using an underslung spreader and side-mounted dispersers. (Photos Ben Hoffmann)

Further advancements in ant eradication programs.  As Australia’s eradication programs became more numerous and larger, it became apparent very quickly that the methodologies and technologies available were insufficient to achieve success in the increasingly challenging conditions being encountered. In response, over the next two decades, there has been an impressive range of advancements that significantly improved our capacity to manage and eradicate invasive ant incursions.

The biggest issue was that work needed to be conducted over such large or inaccessible areas that ground-based work (Fig 1) was not feasible. So, treatments quickly became aerial, using multiple helicopter-based delivery platforms (e.g. underslung buckets and side-mounted hoppers, Fig 2). Even so, there have been locations that are too remote, too small, or too difficult (ie cliffs) to treat using a helicopter. To meet this challenge, in just the last five years treatments have been conducted for the first time using drones, and there is a great focus now to improve the technology so that it becomes more cost effective and more autonomous (Fig 3). This is occurring at such a pace that just a few years ago drones could only operate for a few hours at most on battery power, and only carry a few kilograms. This year we will be using a drone with unlimited flying capacity (petrol driven) that can lift 70 kg per load.

Figure 3. The Fazer with side-mounted bait carriers that can lift up to 40kg of payload. This is soon to be superseded by a drone that can lift a 70k g payload. (Photo Ben Hoffmann)

Assessments for the presence of ants, either before or after treatments, was originally very time consuming, involving teams of people walking ground very slowly and often utilising thousands of attractive lures (Fig 4). At most, only small ant populations (about less than 20 ha) within good working environments (ie open landscapes) could be assessed using teams of people, and it took large amounts of time. It was found very quickly that detector dogs could be trained on the scent of each ant species, and a single dog could cover more than five times the area of a team of people in a single day with greater efficacy (Fig 5). There are now more than 20 detector dogs operating in Australia and New Zealand that have been trained on the scent of four ant species. But even a team of dogs cannot fully cover entire areas at the landscape-scale, such as is the case for the RIFA program, especially in areas with long grass or rugged terrain. One of the saving technologies for the RIFA program has been the development of a multi-spectral sensor and associated algorithms that can identify RIFA nests from imagery captured by remote sensing (Fig 6). This allows program staff to assess just a few identified point locations in a landscape rather than the entirety of landscapes, to determine RIFA presence or absence. The next envisaged step is the development of biosensors that can detect the odours of target ant species, just like detector dogs, and with time these will become small enough to be transported by small drones throughout landscapes to detect ants.

Figure 4. An area covered with hundreds of flags marking spoonfulls of catfood being used as lures to attract African big-headed ant to assess eradication success or failure. (Photo Ben Hoffmann)

Figure 5. An ant detector dog searching for the presence of Red imported fire ant. (Photo courtesy of The State of Queensland (Department of Agriculture and Fisheries 2010–2019))

Australia was caught particularly unprepared two decades ago when the two new exotic ant species were detected for the first time because there were no baits registered for their management in Australia, so legally there were no treatment products that could be used. Even with the implementation of Emergency Use Permits for some unregistered products, as well as the use of the few products that were available for other species, it was often found that individual products could not be used in particular circumstances, especially around water, within crops and on organic farms. Additionally, available baits often did not have high efficacy. With time many baits (comprised of combinations of an attractive food laced with an active constituent) have been formulated and tested providing a greater array of baits that can be used on any new incursion and in numerous settings. The most recent has been the development of hydrogel baits that essentially deliver a liquid product in a solid form.

Figure 6 a and b. Multi-spectral camera flown underneath a helicopter to detect Red imported fire ant nests. (Photos courtesy of The State of Queensland (Department of Agriculture and Fisheries) 2010–2019)

Among the numerous advances described already, possibly the greatest development is on the threshold of becoming a reality, in the form of genomic solutions for individual species. RNA interference, and gene-drive technology are rapidly being developed for a suite of economically important species, and ants are among the taxa that are highest on the priority list as targets for this research. At best, these genomic advances promise to provide species-specific solutions, thereby alleviating the current non-target issues of using toxicants.

Conclusion. Our ability to eradicate ants has improved dramatically over the past two decades, with technologies and methodologies available now that were as yet not thought of back when our work was conducted in Kakadu National Park. New programs are constantly arising, and forging ahead in increasingly challenging situations, and a great deal of effort is placed in information-sharing among programs. Simultaneously there is a sustained focus to improve biosecurity at Australia’s borders, as well as throughout our region to help prevent the need for eradications in the first place.

Contact. Ben Hoffmann, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Health & Biosecurity (PMB 44 Winnellie NT 0822 Australia; Tel: +61 8 89448432; Email: Ben.Hoffmann@csiro.au).

More than just a Long Paddock: Fostering native vegetation recovery in Riverina Travelling Stock Routes and Reserves – UPDATE of EMR feature

Ian Davidson

[Update of EMR feature – Davidson, Ian and Peter O’Shannassy (2017) More than just a Long Paddock: Fostering native vegetation recovery in Riverina Travelling Stock Routes and Reserves. Ecological Management & Restoration, 18:1, 4-14.  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/emr.12247]

Roger Harris with direct seeded shrubs –  Rand TSR. (Photo Ian Davidson)

Introduction.  As described in our 2017 EMR feature, the Enriching biodiversity in the NSW Riverina project was a five-year project funded by the Federal Government’s Carbon Farming initiative and managed by Murray Local Land Services (LLS). The project aimed to maintain the condition of the highest quality TSRs and improve the condition of 10% of all other TSRs, some of which had been receiving degrees of grazing management for many decades to optimize resilient native pastures (Refer to our earlier 2005, EMR feature). Given the NSW Riverina TSR network contains over 600 reserves, a sample was first selected for inspection to identify reserves with the potential for further active management. This led to the implementation of recommended land management and works on 109 reserves covering 13,558 ha and the subsequent monitoring of those reserves. Results indicated that, of these reserves, 70 had improved in vegetation condition by 2017. This project proved that large scale protection and improvement of TSR condition was possible using existing staff and provided valuable lessons that could be applied elsewhere across the state.

Table 1 Summary of key lessons learnt from the project and recommendations for effective TSR management

Human resources ·       Use existing knowledge where available

·       Maintain continuity of leadership

Assessment and

monitoring

·       Establish broadly applicable and consistent assessment and monitoring criteria

·       Use methods which are easily understood

·       Consider seasonal effects on the timing of surveys

·       Recommended actions should be appropriate for the site condition

Project Scale ·       Larger project areas and longer project timelines increase the rate of success

·       Regular monitoring avoids major problems

Revegetation ·       Seed banks are vital to achieving large scale revegetation

·       Multiple species should be used in direct seeding

·       Exotic grasses should be controlled prior to direct seeding

·       Native species can assist in spreading shrubs over time

Land Management ·       Controlling herbivores is critical during early growth stages

·       Grazing indicators/surrogates are useful

·       Stock type impacts grazing style

·       Cattle can graze areas with shrub seedling germination under certain conditions

·       Fencing and water points offer flexibility in managing stock for regeneration

·       Noisy Miners reduce small woodland bird numbers and they are difficult to control

Unplanned Impacts ·       Human intervention in unpredictable Natural events can lead to major changes in land management focus

Stuart Watson monitoring vegetation at Narrow Plains TSR. (Photo Ian Davidson)

Subsequent developments. Since the publication of our 2017 feature ‘More than just a Long Paddock: Fostering native vegetation recovery in Riverina Travelling Stock Routes and Reserves’ the following five key developments regarding nature conservation on TSRs in NSW have occurred.

  1. Developing and applying a simple field based consistent method for assessing and monitoring vegetation condition across the TSR network – A new rapid assessment and monitoring method was developed and trialed in this project for use by land managers with limited botanical and scientific skills and limited time. This field-based method known as Rapid Conservation Assessment Method (RAM) proved useful and has the potential for broader adoption across NSW. For detailed information refer to https://www.lls.nsw.gov.au/livestock/stock-routes/conservation-of-tsrs
  2. Categorizing the conservation status using an agreed method of TSRs across NSW – Using the RAM to complete assessments and collating all previously assessed TSR reports, LLS developed a consistent statewide map of the conservation status for the 534,000ha under their control (refer to https://www.lls.nsw.gov.au/livestock/stock-routes/conservation-of-tsr). This enabled LLS, the statewide land manager, to better understand the overall vegetation condition, extent and distribution of their TSR assets from a nature conservation perspective.
  3. Developing a Best environmental management practice (BeMP) Toolkit for TSRs to ensure good long-term conservation objectives – Key knowledge learnt from the Riverina project, LLS ranger’s knowledge and experience and existing literature influenced the development of the NSW Travelling Stock Reserves State Planning Framework 2016–21 (the Framework), which provides the framework for managing TSRs for conservation. A Best Environmental Management Practice (BeMP) toolkit was also prepared from this collation of knowledge to assist LLS deliver land management outcomes (including grazing, apiary, native seed collection, emergency response/refuge for livestock, threatened ecological communities and species, revegetation on TSRs, weed control, pest animal control, soil disturbance and drainage changes) consistent with the Framework. The BeMP is currently in draft form.
  4. Developing a statewide plan of management (PoM) for TSRs to ensure consistency across administrative boundaries – The NSW government is finalizing the details of a PoM which provides LLS staff, TSR stakeholders, investors, partners and customers with our shared vision and common mission. It sets out agreed strategies, approaches, principles and quality system to better manage the reserves. This PoM aims to improve social, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes while maintaining grazing as an important economic use and conservation tool. Importantly this plan establishes the need for shared responsibility and collaborative funding. For more information refer to https://www.lls.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/839930/NOV-TSR-PoM-MOedits-1.pdf
  5. Attracting significant investment to assist with protection and maintenance of TSR environmental values – LLS the managers of NSW TSRs receive no recurrent funding from government for the environmental management of the TSR estate and therefore have been dependent upon the proceeds from permits and leases e.g. grazing and annual grants e.g. weed and pest animal control to maintain the condition of TSRs. Now however, based on the PoM and guided by environmental management and works consistent with best environmental management practice, the LLS is negotiating with a government investor to fund agreed long term maintenance and enhancement of selected high and moderate conservation value TSRs.

Peter O’Shannassy with direct seeded shrubs on Snake Island TSR. (Photo Ian Davidson)

Lessons learned. Together, the five developments above show how the large-scale restoration project reported in 2017 has been further developed as a model for TSR protection and restoration across NSW, enabling buy-in by LLS to better manage these invaluable natural resource assets across NSW.

Acknowledgements. LLS staff Peter O’Shannassy steered most aspects of the project from its inception, whilst Stuart Watson and Roger Harris managed most of the on-ground management and works and lately Gary Rodda the Murray General Manager who has overseen the statewide development of the PoM. Lastly, I dedicate my TSR work to my great mate Rick Webster who was lost to us recently and with whom I shared a deep, long standing curiosity and love of these special areas.

Contact.  Ian Davidson (for technical matters) ian@regenerationsolutions.com.au  or  Peter O’Shannassy  (for land management and operational matters) peter.o’shannassy@lls.nsw.gov.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

Butterfly population persists 10 years after emergency habitat restoration and translocation – UPDATE to EMR feature

[Update to 2008 EMR feature  –  Raymond Mjadwesch and Simon Nally (2008) Emergency relocation of a Purple Copper Butterfly colony during roadworks: Successes and lessons learned. Ecological Management & Restoration,  9:2, 100-109.   https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1442-8903.2008.00400.x]

By Simon Nally and Raymond Mjadwesch

Fig 1.  The endangered Purple Copper Butterfly (Paralucia spinifera) (Photo Raymond Mjadwesch)

Key wordsParalucia spinifera, Purple Copper Butterfly, reintroduction, invertebrate, threatened species.

Introduction: As reported in the original EMR feature, the unintended destruction of the habitat of a population of the endangered Purple Copper Butterfly (Paralucia spinifera, Fig 1) north of Lithgow, Australia in 2004, precipitated a bold, innovative, and rapid emergency program of habitat restoration and butterfly larvae translocation.

A stand of the butterfly’s larval host plants, Blackthorn (Bursaria spinosa subsp. lasiophylla), had been largely destroyed to enable road construction (Fig 2a). The butterflies had commenced emerging from their nearly nine-month-long pupation in the attendant ant’s (Anonychomyrma itinerans) underground nests to find an absence of host plants.

Construction work ceased immediately, and supplementary Blackthorn plants were planted throughout the area of predicted butterfly emergence. The Blackthorn were planted in their pots, to allow for later removal and replanting in the area where the habitat was being restored.  The Blackthorn were sugar-baited to attract the attendant ant as the ant was assumed to affect the male butterfly’s selection of home ranges, and ultimately, egg-laying on these larval host plants. Concurrently with the provision of Blackthorn for egg-laying, an adjoining degraded area of potential habitat was treated for infestations of woody weeds and growth of emergent Eucalyptus trees that excluded Blackthorn or blocked sunlight, precluding its suitability for occupation by the species.  Once weeds were controlled, Blackthorn was established in this area using tube-stock planting.

Attendant ants were enticed to all the Blackthorn introduced to the site, male butterflies established territories and were successful at attracting females with whom to mate, and these females laid eggs on the Blackthorn. The project partners were relieved at these initial results! However, as much of the site was to be permanently destroyed due to road construction, this temporarily reprieved population had to be translocated.

Over 12 nights, 1,260 of the facultatively nocturnal larvae were collected (along with any associated attendant ants) as they emerged to feed on Blackthorn leaves and translocated to the newly created habitat established on an adjacent restoration area (Fig 2b). Each translocated larva was monitored until it was attended by ants (again attracted to the recipient habitat using a sugar bait). Further monitoring continued to confirm continued growth of larvae until pupation was assumed to occur.

The duration of the emergency habitat restoration and translocation activities from first discovery of the habitat destruction to the assumed pupation of the translocated larvae in the newly established habitat (Fig 3) was less than five months.

After the autumn and winter pupation period, the project partners were delighted to find butterflies emerging, mating, and laying eggs on the remaining restored habitat, one year after the initial habitat destruction was first detected. Monitoring of larval numbers during 2005-2008, which involved systematic nocturnal inspection of all Blackthorn plants at the site, indicated that the population was secure and had grown after an initial reduction in calculated numbers in the first year after translocation.

Figure 2a. 2004 – The site as found showing the extent of habitat destruction (when the butterfly and habitat loss was initially detected). (Photo Raymond Mjadwesch)

Figure 2b. 2005 – Larvae from yellow-delineated area were translocated (after temporary introduction) into the blue-delineated area and bushland further right. (Photo Raymond Mjadwesch)

Monitoring update: In 2013 and 2015 monitoring reverted to an area search method, counting flying butterflies – a technique routinely used to indicate butterfly distribution / areas of activity at each of the other known populations. In 2015, ten years after the emergency translocation and habitat restoration, 48 butterflies were observed in the restored habitat, the second highest number recorded for this site.

Note that the results of monitoring counts can vary with date of survey relative to the flying period, time of day, and weather conditions on the day, and represent an indicator of presence and activity rather than a measure of absolute abundance. During some years multiple monitoring events occurred; in 2013 and 2015 there was only a single monitoring count.

There have been no further nocturnal larvae counts since the culmination of the project.

A 2019 site assessment identified the need for further woody weed maintenance works (which has been ongoing in the interim, funded by the LLS) to avoid potential degradation of the habitat quality due to competition with and shading of the host plant, Blackthorn.  Longer term maintenance of this site may require active management to ensure persistence of Blackthorn either through burning or mechanical damage to Blackthorn to promote re-sprouting from the rootstock and juvenile leaf production. Juvenile leaves lack the hairy indumentum present on the lower surfaces of intermediate and adult Blackthorn leaves, and have been observed to be preferentially skeletonized by early-instar larvae.

The 2019 site inspection also revealed that powerline easement works had resulted in weedicide spraying of eucalypt (Eucalyptus ssp.) saplings throughout the restored habitat, with Blackthorn plants and other native plant species affected.

Figure 3a – the site in 2005, after restoration works were complete, showing the initial flush of pioneer species after soil disturbance and restoration. (Photo Raymond Mjadwesch)

Figure 3b – the site in 2019 showing the final shrubby understory of sedges and shrubs (including scattered Blackthorn) typical of the locally native open forest community. (Photo Raymond Mjadwesch)

Lessons learned and future directions: Several factors contributed to the success of the habitat restoration and translocation program, some of which were of notable serendipity. It was extremely fortunate that the species was detected within the affected area (after the initial survey of the site had failed to detect habitat for the species); that Blackthorn tube-stock (upon which the restoration relied) was available; that an area considered likely to support Purple Copper Butterfly suitable for rehabilitation lay adjacent to the affected area; and that the timing of the damage in the annual lifecycle of the species allowed the partners to work with the opportunity to establish larval food plants  when it was required.

However, we believe that it was human factors that fundamentally combined to create the environment for success:

  • the commitment of the NSW Roads and Maritime Services (then the RTA) to immediately and fully support restoration works to ameliorate the damage and maximize the chances of the population surviving in the long term, including changing the design of the works to reduce the extent of permanent damage, and the funding of the restoration, translocation, and monitoring activities.
  • the project partners, including the authors, the RTA, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers, and Lithgow LandCare unified in collaboration, ceasing other activities to direct all necessary effort to maximize chances of success.
  • the quick, resourceful and bold action to trial and implement innovative techniques that were risky and speculative, such as luring attendant ants to planted Blackthorn using sugar, trial translocating attendant ants, and translocating larvae.
  • that there had been sufficient field observations to  predict the likely behavior of butterflies and larvae and to predict the likely response of the species’ habitat to management intervention.

We encourage restoration practitioners to immerse themselves in the environments they intend to manipulate, and ponder on the behavior, function, and interactions between each element of the ecosystem before them. When choosing to act – to intervene – to manipulate, do so sensitively to what you both know and feel that you have learned in the field, and act decisively, quickly, and boldly. Most importantly, corral a team of partners who believe in the endeavor and who fully commit their support to each other for a common restoration objective.

Endnote: In September 2019, an unplanned fire burnt much of the site. Given the monitoring data available for this site, further monitoring to study the effect of fire on the species and its habitat is being considered.

 Stakeholders and Funding bodies:   NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (now NSW Roads and Maritime), NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (now NSW Office of Environment and Heritage), Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers, Lithgow LandCare, Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy

Contact information: Simon Nally, 8 Gurney Place PAGE ACT, Australia, Tel: +61 407870234, Email: suseandsimon@bigpond.com. Ray Mjadwesch, Mjadwesch Environmental Service and Support, 26 Keppel Street, Bathurst, NSW 2795 Australia, Tel: +61 423949789, Email:  ray@mjadweschenvironmental.com.au