A novel multispecies approach for assessing threatened swamp communities

Hannah McPherson and Maurizio Rossetto,

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

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

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

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

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

The aims were:

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

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

Our study comprises three main components:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fig 4. Banksia ericifolia (Maurizio Rossetto)

Fig 4. Banksia ericifolia (Maurizio Rossetto)

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

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

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

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

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

Hydrology of Woronora Plateau Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone

William C Glamore and Duncan S Rayner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: Typical swamp lithology

Figure 2: Typical swamp lithology

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

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

Conservation of an endangered swamp lizard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landscape-scale terrestrial revegetation around the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth, South Australia

Hafiz Stewart, Ross Meffin, Sacha Jellinek

Key words. Restoration, prioritisation, woodland, ecosystems

Introduction. Located in South Australia at the terminus of the Murray-Darling River, the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth (CLLMM) region has immense ecological, economic and cultural importance. The landscape varies from the low hills of Mount Lofty Ranges in the northwest, through the low valleys and plains surrounding Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, to the plains and dunes of the Coorong in the southeast (Fig 1). These landforms had a large influence on the composition of pre-European vegetation communities in the region, with the Mount Lofty Ranges dominated by eucalypt forests and woodlands, the lakes surrounded by a mixture of mallee, temperate shrublands and wetland vegetation, and the Coorong supporting coastal and wetland vegetation communities.

The region has been extensively cleared since European settlement and the introduction of intensive agriculture (cropping and grazing), so that now only a fraction of the original native vegetation remains. This has resulted in a substantial decline in biodiversity and recognition of the area as a critically endangered eco-region. These impacts have been compounded by water extraction upstream and anthropogenic changes to hydrological regimes. The recent drought further exacerbated these environmental problems and severely affected the region’s people and economy.

Fig. 1. The Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region showing terrestrial and aquatic plantings.

Figure 1. The Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region showing terrestrial and aquatic plantings.

Broad aim and any specific objectives. In response to drought and other issues affecting the region the Australian and South Australian governments funded the landscape-scale CLLMM Recovery Project (2011 – 2016). This project aims to help restore the ecological character of the site and build resilience in the region’s ecosystems and communities. As a part of this, the CLLMM Vegetation Program aimed to strategically restore native vegetation to buffer and increase the connectivity of existing remnants.

Works undertaken. Three key tools were utilised to achieve these goals. First, an integrated Landscape Assessment was used to identify priority plant communities for restoration in the region. To do this, we classified vegetation types occurring in the CLLMM landscape, then identified suites of bird species associated with each vegetation type. The status and trends of each of these bird species were then used as indicators to determine the conservation priority of each vegetation type. Second, a framework was developed to identify the most appropriate vegetation types to reconstruct at a given site, depending on characteristics such as soil type and landform. This was based on the composition and structure of remnant communities and their associated environmental settings. Finally, a Marxan analysis was conducted across the region to prioritise sites for restoration works based on the aims of the program, with an aspirational target of restoring 30% of each priority vegetation type. Following an expression of interest process that made use of existing networks in the local community and the traditional owners of the CLLMM and surrounding area, the Ngarrindjeri, prioritised sites were then selected from those made available by landholders.

For each site, we developed a plan specifying the site preparation required, and species and densities to be planted. Native plants were sourced from local nurseries, ensuring that provenance and appropriate collection guidelines were followed. Tubestock was used to provide an opportunity for social benefits, including the development of community run nurseries, and due to their higher survival rates. Planting was carried out by regional contractors engaged by the CLLMM Recovery Project Vegetation Program, along with the Goolwa to Wellington Local Action Planning association and the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority. During this program wetland restoration was also undertaken through the planting of a native sedge species, the River Club Rush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani), which assisted in stabilising shorelines and creating habitat for aquatic plant communities.

Results to date. By the end of the program around 5 million native plants will have been planted at 148 sites on private and public land covering more than 1,700 hectares (Fig. 1). In total 202 species of plants have currently been planted, comprising 11% overstorey, 38% midstorey and 51% understorey species. Initial results indicate that around 66% of plants survive the first summer, at which point they are well established. Woodland and mallee bird species are starting to use these revegetated areas. When compared to remnant areas of the same vegetation type, both native plant species richness and bird diversity are lower in restored habitats. However, while the bird communities in restored habitats are dominated by generalist species, specialist species such as endangered Mount Lofty Ranges Southern Emu-Wrens have been recorded in revegetated areas, providing early signs that planted areas are benefiting rarer species. The restored communities are still very young, and over time we expect these areas will start to structurally resemble remnant habitats.

Lessons learned and future directions. Resourcing of research alongside program delivery allowed us to implement a sound prioritisation process and a systematic, strategic, and effective approach to the restoration of the landscape. The capacity to collect good vegetation, soil and bird occurrence data was crucial to this. Successful delivery also required funding for site preparation and follow-up, a well-developed network of native plant nurseries, engaged community and indigenous groups, and good relationships with local landholders.

Stakeholders and Funding bodies. The CLLMM Vegetation Program is a landscape scale habitat restoration project, jointly funded by the Australian and South Australian governments under the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth Recovery Project. We would like to thank the Goolwa to Wellington Local Action Planning Association, the Milang and Districts Community Association and the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority for their assistance in undertaking this revegetation. DEWNR’s Science, Monitoring and Knowledge branch undertook the initial ecosystem analysis.

Contact information.  Hafiz Stewart, Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, South Australia. Hafiz.stewart@sa.gov.au

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: THPSS of the Newnes region

Figure 2: THPSS of the Newnes region

Figure 3: THPSS of the Blue Mountains region

Figure 3: THPSS of the Blue Mountains region

Figure 4: THPSS of the Budderoo region

Figure 4: THPSS of the Budderoo region

Figure 5: THPSS of the Woronora region

Figure 5: THPSS of the Woronora region

Fig 6 - Gosford swamps map

Figure 6: THPSS of the Gosford region

Arid Recovery – Roxby Downs, South Australia

Key words. Feral-proof fence, native animal reintroductions, feral animal control.

Introduction. Arid Recovery is a conservation research initiative based in the South Australian arid zone and dedicated to the restoration of Australia’s arid lands. Established in 1997, the program is centred around a 123km² fenced reserve but it is continually expanding into the wider region. Feral cats, rabbits and foxes have been eradicated from a total of 60km² and this has provided an area of complete protection into which four species of locally extinct mammals have so far been reintroduced.

Although the fenced reserve provides a core area for animal re-introductions, the long term aim of Arid Recovery is to develop broadscale control techniques for feral animals to facilitate the restoration of the entire arid zone ecosystem including re-introducing herbivores, predators and insectivores to create a natural functioning ecosystem that requires minimal management. Specific goals include to:

  • eradicate feral cats, foxes and rabbits and re-establish native species,
  • research and monitor the processes of ecological restoration and provide transferable information and techniques for broadscale management of Australia’s arid lands

Arid Recovery is also committed to increasing education and awareness of arid zone issues and has an education program that includes indigenous youth and local schools.

Degradation. At least 27 species of native mammal once inhabited the Roxby Downs region but over 60% have become locally or completely extinct since European settlement. Some bird species such as the Bush Thick-knee and Plains Wanderer have also become locally extinct or endangered.

The main reasons for the decline of the local native fauna and flora are overgrazing by rabbits and domestic stock, and predation from introduced animals like the feral cat and fox. Medium-sized desert mammals have been most affected with many now globally extinct or have disappeared from mainland Australia and survive only on off-shore islands.

Since the inception of grazing in arid rangelands, there have been extensive vegetation changes. Many parts of arid Australia were severely over-grazed by sheep and cattle during the advent of pastoralism in the 19th Century. Overgrazing by domestic stock and rabbits has a significant effect on arid zone vegetation; long-lived arid zone trees and shrubs are prevented from regenerating, and long-lived plant species are being replaced by short-lived annual and weed species. Whilst current pastoral practices are much more conservative there are still many areas degraded by pastoralism.

Our restoration work. A feral-proof fence has been designed and installed to protect a total area of 123km². The fence was built in blocks and to date, 123 square km of arid land has been fenced and control programs implemented for rabbits, cats and foxes (Fig 1.) . Six locally-extinct threatened species were reintroduced: Greater Stick Nest Rat (Leporillus conditor), Burrowing Bettong (Bettongia lesueur), Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis), Western Barred Bandicoot (Perameles bougainville), Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) and Woma Python (Aspidites ramsayi). (See results below.)

Figure 1. Map of the reserve showing cumulative addition of fenced areas.

Figure 1. Map of the reserve showing cumulative addition of fenced areas.

Monitoring. More than 500 monitoring sites have been established to document the restoration process including annual pitfall trapping, burrow monitoring, seedling counts, photopoints and spoor counts. Recruitment of seedlings is monitored inside and outside the Arid Recovery Reserve to determine the impact of rabbits and domestic stock on the survival of seedlings.

Results of our work.

  • Rabbits, cats and foxes have been eradicated from 60 square km pf the Arid Recovery Reserve.
  • Four of the mammal species (Greater Stick Nest Rat, Burrowing Bettong, Greater Bilby and Western Barred Bandicoot) were successfully reintroduced. The Numbat and Woma Python reintroductions were unsuccessful,
  • The fence design has now been adopted by many projects both within Australia and internationally (e.g. Hawaii, Queensland). Results from 10 years of pitfall trapping show that native rodents have now increased to 10 times inside the Reserve compared to outside areas where cats and foxes are still present.
  • Results of the monitoring of plant recruitment to date suggest that survival of Mulga (Acacia aneura) seedlings is much higher where rabbits and grazing pressure by other herbivores has been removed.

Research program. Where published information or advice was not available, Arid Recovery implemented its own research programs to test various on-ground techniques and then adopted the most effective methods. Arid Recovery’s four co-founders are all ecologists and have ensured that all management and monitoring has an adaptive management focus and that overall ecosystem restoration is more important than single species recovery.

The University of Adelaide is a partner organisation and has provided research students, scientific advice and staff management. Research into effective rabbit and cat control methods has now been published for use by other land managers. Research has been conducted into the ecosystem services provided by re-introduced Bilbies including the increased soil carbon levels and water infiltration recorded within their foraging pits.

Long term monitoring sites have provided critical information on both fauna and flora recovery of in situ species and an insight into their threatening processes. More than 40 scientific papers, internal reports and theses and 25 conference presentations have been produced to date and Arid Recovery is committed to effective dissemination of information to landholders not just the scientific community. Publications in National Landcare Magazine and participation in local NRM fora ensure that the scientific information is transformed into easily digestible and practical land management applications.

Further directions. Arid Recovery is now researching ways to move beyond the fenced reserve through improved predator management and increasing the predator-awareness of threatened species. Another current and future direction is preventing overpopulation of reintroduced species within the reserve through the use of one way gates and predators. Arid Recovery has recently partnered with Bush Heritage to form the South Australian Rangelands Alliance (SARA) with both organisations aiming to restore the plants and animals in the arid zone.

Lessons learned. The partnership between industry, government, community and research institutions has been integral to the success of Arid Recovery. Each partner has brought skills, resources and expertise to the program and ensured a balance is achieved in ecological restoration activities.

The winning combination of solid on-ground works and adaptive management based on sound scientific research is the key to Arid Recovery’s success. By ensuring that effective monitoring is regularly conducted and reviewed, Arid Recovery staff are able to implement changes to reserve management effectively and quickly.

Another important lesson learned is that restoration does not happen on its own, it requires long hours of hard work from both staff and volunteers. Arid Recovery is indebted to the hundreds of people who have given up their time to shoot cats, trap rabbits, count birds, measure plants and most importantly erect fencing.

Stakeholders. Arid Recovery is a partnership between BHP Billiton, S.A. Department for Environment, University of Adelaide and the Friends of Arid Recovery. All four partners contribute funding and in kind contributions and have committed to long term support for the program.

Contact. Please contact Arid Recovery for more information on :  (08) 8671 2402 or www.aridrecovery.org

See also: One-way gates: Initial trial of a potential tool for preventing overpopulation within fenced reserves

Seagrass rehabilitation and restoration, Cockburn Sound, WA

Key words. Coastal ecosystems, transplanting trials, compensatory restoration, Posidonia

Introduction. Seagrasses are flowering plants that form extensive underwater meadows, transforming bare sandy areas into complex 3-dimensional habitats for a diverse faunal community. They provide a wide range of ecosystem services including nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, and coastal stabilization. Once impacted, seagrass meadows can take decades to recover.

The need for seagrass restoration is mainly driven by loss of seagrass due to human activities including ocean discharges and coastal developments, although changing ocean conditions (warming temperatures and increasing acidity) and sea-level rise now provide additional challenges.

 Posidonia australis, from planting unit to spreading and merging shoots.

Figure 1. Posidonia australis showing spreading and merging shoots from what were initially only single planting units (see inset).

Cockburn Sound project. In 2003, the Seagrass Research and Rehabilitation Plan (SRRP) was established to meet stringent environmental management conditions for two separate industrial development projects in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia. Both projects, Cockburn Cement Ltd and the state Department of Commerce, impacted upon seagrass ecosystems.

The SRRP was aimed at developing and implementing seagrass restoration procedures that are economically feasible and environmentally sustainable. The collaborative project team was coordinated by BMT Oceanica and included researchers from Murdoch University, The University of Western Australia, Edith Cowan University, the Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority, environmental consultants and a marine engineering firm.

Works and their results. Implementing the SRRP involved a range of experimental transplantings of the seagrass Posidonia australis (a slow-growing meadow-forming species).

The transplant trials resulted in good health and high survival rates of transplanted shoots. This showed that meadows can be restored and thus are likely to develop and return to the same ecological functions as natural meadows.

In this case, donor material was harvested from a site that was to be destroyed as part of the permitted development. In other cases, donor material has been harvested from meadows that have demonstrated varying levels of recovery, with a number of years required for recovery depending on the intensity of harvesting. The project resulted in site-specific solutions as well as generic technical guidelines for manual transplantation to restoration sites from donor sites.

Lessons and limitations. The main lessons for practice to date are:

  • While the results of this project are encouraging, the challenge of achieving biological diversity in seagrass meadows, particularly to the equivalence of a natural seagrass meadow, has not yet been demonstrated.
  • The scale of this particular project is still small (3.2 Ha) relative to the amount of restoration required. Focus needs to be on research into how such projects can be scaled-up. Seed-based restoration may be more appropriate for some species (including Posidonia).
  • Selection of a restoration site is a strong factor contributing to the success of transplanted material (i.e. the likelihood of success if higher where seagrass was present before).

Contact. Dr Jennifer Verduin, lecturer, Murdoch University , Tel: +61 8 93606412/0404489385; Email: j.verduin@murdoch.edu.au

Also see:

EMR project summary – report on the seagrass transplanting trials:

Full EMR feature article


East Trinity remediation and rehabilitation after Acid Sulfate Soil contamination, north Queensland

Hanabeth Luke

Key words. Mangroves, estuarine habitat, migratory waders, ecological conversion

Introduction. The East Trinity case study describes the remediation of a severely degraded coastal acid sulfate soil site adjacent to the Cairns township in Queensland, Australia (Fig 1). The project involved extensive collaborative research into geochemistry, soil properties, groundwater and tidal behaviour, terrain modelling and flood modelling by a range of institutions. An innovative strategy known as lime-assisted tidal exchange (LATE) was used to reverse the acidification of the wetland, leading to improved water quality and health of coastal and estuarine ecosystems.

Acid sulfate soils are formed through a natural process that occurred when coastal lowlands were flooded in periods of high sea-level, leading to a slow build-up of metal sulfides such as pyrite. When these soils, normally protected by natural wetlands, are drained for farming or other development and exposed to oxygen, rapid oxidation of the pyrite occurred. This leads to a build-up of acidity in the soil as oxidation processes produce sulfuric acid, releasing toxic metals and noxious gases creating hostile conditions for plant growth. The acid also affects the availability of nutrients in the soil, creating another challenge for plant life. Rainfall events cause the acid, metals and nutrients to drain into waterways, impacting on aquatic ecosystems, infrastructure, fisheries and potentially, human health.

Figure 1. Aerial photo of he location of the East Trinity coastal and acid sulfate soil rehabilitation site (Source: Landsat 1999).

Figure 1. Aerial photo of he location of the East Trinity coastal and acid sulfate soil rehabilitation site (Source: Landsat 1999).

Prior condition and the degradation phase. East Trinity is a 940 ha coastal wetland situated between important estuarine habitats and a World Heritage listed wet tropical rainforest. Prior to clearing for farming, it was a mixture of paperbark woodland, tidal mangrove and salt marsh and had high ecological value for both marine and terrestrial faunal species. The area formed part of the traditional territory of the local Indigenous Mandingalbay Yidinji people.

The site was developed for sugar cane farming in the 1970s, with a bund-wall built to halt tidal inundation of the site. This drainage led to the oxidation of soil materials and a build-up of sulfuric acid in the sediments. A range of CSIRO and other reports showed that this affected 720 ha of the 940ha site. Between 1976 and 2004, it was estimated that at least 72,000 tonnes of sulfuric acid was released from the site, as well as soluble aluminium, iron, heavy metals and arsenic. Water bodies on site were routinely found to have a pH of 3.5 or lower. Aluminium levels were of particular concern, exceeding ANZECC guideline levels by as much as 6,000 times.

The discharge of acid and heavy metals led to death and dieback of vegetation (Figs 2 and 3) and had severe implications for aquatic life. These impacts were of particular concern due to the proximity of the site to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, with substantial evidence that acid sulfate soil runoff was discharging into reef receiving waters.

Figure 2a: Aerial view of Firewood Creek area from the 1980s showing extensive grasslands and Melaleuca leucadendra woodlands to the left of the bund wall roadway

Figure 2a: Aerial view of Firewood Creek area from the 1980s showing extensive grasslands and Melaleuca leucadendra woodlands to the left of the bund wall roadway.

Figure 2b: Aerial view of Firewood Creek area in 2013 with extensive flooded areas, Melaleuca woodland die-back and mangrove development.

Figure 2b: Aerial view of Firewood Creek area in 2013 with extensive flooded areas, Melaleuca woodland die-back and mangrove development.

Fig 3. Iron accumulation in oxidised sediments at the East Trinity site.

Fig 3. Iron accumulation in oxidised sediments at the East Trinity site.

Remediation, rehabilitation and restoration phase. The land was purchased by the QLD government in the year 2000, with the ‘Acid Sulfate Soil Remediation Action Plan’ commencing shortly thereafter. This involved a range of engineering solutions to achieved the desired hydrology and apply the lime-assisted tidal exchange remediation strategy, at first on a trial basis. Positive results during the trial period led to the long-term adoption of lime assisted tidal exchange (LATE) at East Trinity.

The LATE remediation strategy. Management strategies for acid sulfate soils are based on the principles of dilution, containment or neutralisation, with each bringing different benefits and challenges. Containment can lead to substantial acid build up and inhibit the movement of aquatic life, whilst the addition of agricultural lime can be costly. The LATE strategy (Fig. 4) was designed to support natural processes by reintroducing tidal flows, encouraging natural systems to restore the wetlands, hence greatly reducing the costs of lime and infrastructure, as well as hands-on management requirements. Flooding the soil stimulated reducing geochemical conditions whilst diluting the acidity. The bicarbonate in seawater provided a large source of alkalinity, whilst the organic matter present provided energy for microbial reactions to take place in the soil, thereby stimulating the in-situ production of alkalinity. Agricultural lime was added to the incoming tide to support the process, and also added to the out-going exit waters to prevent acid-flush into estuarine waters.

Fig 4. The image above shows some of the key parameters improved by the LATE bioremediation strategy.

Fig 4. The image above shows some of the key parameters improved by the LATE bioremediation strategy.

Results of the remediation project. The East Trinity site now has sediments at a spectrum of stages of remediation, with large areas fully remediated. Tidal inundation has ultimately led to a binding-up of heavy metals in the sediments and the neutralisation of acidity to a pH of 6.5, a typical pH for a subtropical estuarine environment. Following six years of gradually increasing tidal inundation, it was found that in-situ microbial and tidal exchange processes accounted for 99% of the change, whilst the addition of agricultural lime contributed less than 1%.

This greatly reduced the release of heavy metals to the estuarine environment and allowed for the re-establishment of mangrove and intertidal ecosystems (Fig. 2b).

Vegetation. Some ecological communities associated with the incursion of seawater and expansion of the tidal zones within the site have reduced while others have expanded. Mangrove communities have expanded and Acrostichum aureum (mangrove fern) fernlands have particularly increased, although some previous fernland transitioned to mangrove. Pasture areas have been largely replaced by Paperbark (Melaleuca leucadendra) shrublands and low woodlands and by the native grass Phragmites (Phragmites karka). The dieback of open forests of Paperbark impacted by the tidal areas continues, with some stands that were healthy in 2008 now in decline. Decline of low Clerodendrum inerme closed vinelands also continues in proximity to the tidal zone, though in other areas this community appears to be recovering.

Birds. A total of 136 species of birds have been observed at East Trinity since the rehabilitation began. Reports suggest that the expansion of mangrove and other higher elevation wetlands associated with the rehabilitation are likely to have benefited a number of bird species, including some internationally important shorebird species listed in agreements with China (CAMBA), Japan (JAMBA) and the Republic of Korea (ROKAMBA). Recently a new wader roosting site has emerged in mangroves on the northern boundary of the East Trinity area and it seems this may be significant in the regional context.

Future directions. The remediation of the East Trinity site has led to the area now having sufficiently high ecological function to be transferred back to Indigneous ownership and management.

The LATE remediation strategy’s regular tidal inundation will remain in place to ensure the acid sulfate soils remain protected from further oxidation; and monitoring and further research will continue into geochemical pathways to avoid degradation re-occurring.

Acknowledgements. The remediation of the East Trinity site and subsequent research has occurred due to the long-term efforts and collaborations between the Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation (DSITI), CSIRO, the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) and Southern Cross University. Figures and data cited in this summary are derived from reports from these organisations available on request.

Contact. Prof Richard Bush, University of Newcastle (University Drive, Callaghan NSW 2308, Australia Tel: +61 (0)2 49215000; Email: richard.bush@newcastle.edu.au) .  Hanabeth Luke is an Associate Lecturer, Southern Cross University (Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia. Tel: +61 (0) 430092071; Email: Hanabeth.luke@scu.edu.au).

Restoring wetland communities in the Coorong and Lower Lakes, South Australia

[Summary will be reinstated soon.]

Integrating conservation management and sheep grazing at Barrabool, NSW

Martin Driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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