ACT Parks and Wildlife, Management of the Murrumbidgee River Corridor

In the mid semester break just past I got to experience my dream job with ACT Parks and Conservation. I was lucky enough to be granted a spot with the department at their Murrumbidgee River Corridor Depot located in the Cotter Reserve. Over five days I accompanied some of the rangers for their usual tasks over a working week. I was involved in a range of monitoring, restoration and conservation work.

The depot is responsible for land and catchment management of the Murrumbidgee River Corridor in the ACT. This region includes the Lower Cotter Catchment, which has a primary management goal of protecting Canberra’s water supply. The rangers at the depot have a wide range of skills, which they require to manage such a large and diverse region.

On the first day of my placement I was lucky enough to join most of the rangers on a trip within the Namadgi National Park. Namadgi National Park is at the northern end of the Australian Alps and has a rich history of indigenous occupation and early European settlement. The reason for the days visit was to discuss the management history and restoration of pine plantations in the area. In the late 1900’s, and into the 2000’s, much of Namadgi was covered in pine plantation. Management strategies to clear existing plantations, wild pine, and to then revegetate with native species were addressed along with the implications of the 2003 bushfires. Restoration and regeneration work is imperative to conservation efforts today and to understand some of the government processes’ surrounding this work was really valuable.

Zones of Namadgi National Park

Zones of Namadgi National Park

I then got to experience firsthand some revegetation work in the Woodstock Nature Reserve in the West Belconnen area. This area is home to the pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella), earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) and the striped legless lizard (Delma impar) which have been featured in the ANU’s Biodiversity Conservation course. These species utilise embedded surface rocks to bask on, which are in no short supply in this area. Several species of Eucalypt were planted and we avoided areas that would block sunlight from the existing rocks in the future. Casuarina trees were also planted in the creek line where mature casuarinas had since died.

Shepherds Lookout

Shepherds Lookout – Woodstock Nature Reserve

Planting my first tree

Planting my first tree

Some of the rangers at the depot had previously noted two protected flora species growing in the Pine Island Reserve in the Tuggeranong district. This was an exciting discovery and in order to protect these populations from the threats of grazing animals we constructed exclusion fences around the plants. True conservation at work if you ask me!

One of the exclusion fences - now that’s some handy work

Some of our handy work

The last two days at the depot I spent on two of their long-running programs. The depot is responsible for feral animal and invasive specie control in the region. The rangers use a highly monitored fox (Vulpes vulpes) control program to regulate the numbers of this feral species in their area of responsibility. 1080 poison was laid throughout the Lower Cotter Catchment Reserve to initially reduce fox numbers and is now used continuously to maintain control. The rangers are responsible for monitoring the baiting areas on a regular basis. All of the baits are checked and replaced if need be on a weekly basis. This program is important for the conservation of native species, particularly those in the critical weight range as well as ground-nesting birds, which are heavily preyed upon by foxes.

Radiata Pine (Pinus radiata) plantations were once spread throughout the Murrumbidgee River Corridor and Namadgi National Park and have since posed issues for ACT Parks and Conservation. Pine trees are an invasive species due to their fast growing nature and easy dispersal through wind transport. Their needles affect the fertility of Australian soils, while they also utilise more water than native species, reduce light levels due to their thick cover of needles, and lack support of native faunal species through food or habitat. The rangers have long been managing the pine populations that have escaped designated plantation areas. During my placement I was able to help in some manual removal of this escaped pine. I was also involved in some monitoring and assessment of particular populations.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with the amazing, dedicated and hard working rangers at the Murrumbidgee Depot and have arranged further volunteer work with ACT Parks and Conservation.

Lauren Smith, u5372741


ACT Government, 2010. Summary of the Namadgi National Park Plan of Management. Available at: [accessed September 9 2016].

Further Reading

ACT Government, 2010. Namadgi National Park Plan of Management 2010. Available at:

ACT Government, 2016. Transport Canberra and City Services. Available at:

Environment and Planning Directorate, 2016. Murrumbidgee River Corridor. ACT Government. Available at:

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The National Seed Bank: Native Plant Conservation

In the recent break I spent several days (8th, 12th and 13th Sept) volunteering at the Seed Bank in the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG). The main function of the Seed Bank is storing seeds for conservation, undertaking native seed research, supplying the ANBG with seeds and supplying seeds to other organisations for research (ANBG, 2011). While the Seed Bank contains many different collections, there has been a large focus on collecting endemic plant species from local alpine, subalpine and grassland communities (ANBG, 2011).

During my time at the Seed Bank I mainly worked with Pomaderris Cotoneaster, an endangered native shrub species that is being stored by the Seed Bank for research, conservation of the species and possibly in the future grow seedlings that may be re-established in their original ecosystems. Along with storing the seeds, the Seed Bank is conducting ecological assessments on the species and the University of Wollongong is conducting germination tests.

Pomaderris Cotoneaster seeds

As part of the storage and ecological assessment, I conducted 1000 seed counts on P. Cotoneaster, which determines the average weight of seeds from individual P. Cotoneaster plants and provides information about the health of the species. For these 1000 seed counts, the seeds were separated by a machine into five samples of 50 seeds each, which are then weighed and recorded. These weights are then added together, divided by 250 and multiplied by 1000, providing the 1000 seed weight.

After the 1000 seed counts I tested the relative humidity (RH) of the seeds to ensure that it was low enough for storage (around 5% RH). I then vacuum packed and labelled the seeds, after which they were placed in the freezer with Silica gel. The Silica gel is a desiccant, meaning it absorbs moisture, maintaining the seed relative humidity for storage.

Right Image: Seed counting machine; Left Image: Vacuum packing machine

After storing the P. Cotoneaster seeds I began working with seeds from Kakadu National Park that had been stored in the cold room. Due to the size and irregular shapes of these species the counting had to be conducted by hand, something that really makes you appreciate the counting machine. After the rest of the Kakadu seeds are counted and weighed, germination tests will be conducted to assess if the seeds are able to germinate.


Seeds from Kakadu National Park

Volunteering at the seed bank allowed me to experience real world conservation and research, all within the beautiful ANBG. Along with my experience was made great by the numerous people who work and volunteer at the seed bank were lovely and very happy to share their knowledge. While seed counting can seem a monotonous task and can make you feel crazy after hand counting a few thousand, the biodiversity conservation value gained from it makes it worthwhile, and I’m excited to return to the Seed Bank over the next few weeks to participate in the germination of the Kakadu seeds.


Australian National Botanic Gardens

Emma Pearce


Australian National Botanic Gardens, 2011. The National Seed Bank. Available at: (accessed 15th September 2016).

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Legless and seeing Dragons: Managing environmental offsets in the ACT


Besides both species missing the usual body parts, Striped Legless Lizards (Delma impar) and Grassland Earless Dragons (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) have a few things in common. For example, both species live out their lives in the ACT’s dwindling areas of native temperate grassland.  Similarly, both are severely under threat (Legless Lizards  are listed as vulnerable in the ACT while Dragons are listed as endangered). Lastly, both species are currently the subject of intense interest to the ACT’s environmental offsets team. I was lucky to be working with this team during the term break, helping conduct a survey of all ACT offsets that contain, or supposedly contain, populations of Lizards and Dragons.  Besides gaining an opportunity to contribute to the conservation of some of the ACT’s most elusive grassland species I was also interested to see how the theory behind offsetting translates into practice.

Prime Grassland Earless Dragon habitat at Jerrabomberra East.

Prime Grassland Earless Dragon habitat at Jerrabomberra East.

During my stay with the offsets team, I conducted surveying at two offset sites: Mulanggari Grasslands in Canberra’s North-West, and Jerrabomberra East in the ACT’s South. Both sites were a mixture of Native Temperate Grassland (‘NTG’), and exotic grassland species such as Phalaris (Phalaris aquatic). The sites had been put aside as offsets because of both the presence of NTG and the vulnerable fauna living in the grassland itself. The surveys were conducted on large 100 m2 plots each with 30 roofing tiles placed at even intervals across the plot. The tiles were then left for a two-week ‘settling-in’ period so that they could become a normal part of the landscape (at least from the lizard’s perspective). The idea is that these tiles act as refuges for lizards and other small creatures in much the same way as small scattered rocks and logs. Once this two-week period is over the sites are surveyed for any fauna using the tiles. I was involved in the initial stages of the project. My job therefore consisted mostly of carrying heavy roofing tiles around wet grasslands. Luckily, this also gave me the opportunity to talk to a group of highly knowledgeable and interesting people.

Plotting out the Eastern corner of a survey site at Jerrabomberra East.

Plotting out the Eastern corner of a survey site at Jerrabomberra East.

What I learnt

Aside from learning about Legless Lizards and Dragons, the key lesson that came out of the experience for me was an appreciation of the difficulties of managing offset sites. Having gained a basic theoretical understanding of offsetting, I appreciated the opportunity to gain an insight into the particular issues involved in managing these sites once they are selected. For example, while Legless Lizards and Dragons both live in NTG they prefer different grassland structures. Legless Lizards, for example, prefer grasslands with a thick tussock level and with high levels of surface soil cracks. Conserving both Legless Lizards and Dragons in the same area therefore becomes a struggle between managing the same NTG site for conditions suitable to both Lizards and Dragons, often an impossibility. This management issue is compounded by the legal nature of offsets which result in guarantees from the Government to protect, and increase, populations of both species on these sites. Another example of this can be found at the offsets managed for the Golden Sun Moth (Synemon plana). Many of these sites are managed both for the presence of Golden Sun Moth and for the conservation of NTG. However, these two management commitments can come into conflict with each other. Alongside the NTG at a number of sites is Chilean Needle Grass (Nassella neesiana), an exotic which is also excellent habitat for Golden Sun Moths. There is tension between removing Chilean Needle Grass and therefore removing Golden Sun Moths habitat and leaving the needle grass to potentially encroach upon the NTG. Clearly, meeting both management targets will be a difficult task.

Striped Legless Lizards (left) and Grassland Earless Dragons (right)

Striped Legless Lizards (left) and Grassland Earless Dragons (right)

Another issue with the management of offset sites involves their separation from other types of conservation within the ACT’s environmental management framework. This came up in two ways during my short stay with the offset team. The first was the occasional lack of data sharing between different groups of managers. This can lead to a situation in which two management teams surveying for similar data at adjacent sites do not have all of the available information. Another issue was the inability to manage for issues within offset sites by carrying out activities outside those sites. One example of this is the management of weeds to maintain healthy structure amongst the NTG at some offset sites in the ACT. Often weed management is only effective when it can be conducted both within and outside the borders of the offset sites, something which is not possible.


Despite the hurdles presented by the offset system I was impressed by the dedication and effectiveness of the offset team. Although I have focused on some of the management issues with offset sites, I witnessed far more positives while working with the team. For example, Jerrabomberra East is an old farm that would have had little potential conservation value without its inclusion within the offset scheme. Instead, a number of professional environmental managers and one decidedly unprofessional student were crawling over the farm doing their best to preserve two vulnerable lizard species. With continuing management by the team (and hopefully more funding) Dragons, Legless Lizards, and the native temperate grassland in which they live have a much better chance at survival than they would otherwise.

Matthew Kowaluk



Department of the Environment 2016, ‘Delma impar – Species Profile and Threats Database’, Department of the Environment, Canberra, <;, viewed: 11 Sep 2016.

Department of the Environment 2016, ‘Tympanocryptis pinguicolla – Species Profile and Threats Database’, Department of the Environment, Canberra, <;, Accessed: 11 Sep 2016.

Environment and Planning Directorate ACT 2016, ‘Environmental Offsets’, Environment and Planning Directorate, Canberra, <;, viewed: 12 Sep 2016.

Gibbons P, Lindenmayer, D 2007, ‘Offsets for land clearing: No net loss or the tail wagging the dog?’ Ecological management and restoration, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 26-31.

Hunter D 2012, Grassland Earless Lizard, photograph, <;, viewed: 14 Sep 2016.

Miller K et al. 2014, ‘The development of the Australian environmental offsets policy: From theory to practice’, Environmental Conservation, vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 306-314.

Robertson P Date Unknown, Striped Legless Lizard, photograph, <;, viewed: 14 Sep 2016.

Posted in biodiversity conservation, Volunteer work | 1 Comment

Birdwatching for Biodiversity: Woodland Bird Research in the Southwest Slopes Bioregion

The charisma of the Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is difficult to describe to the unknowing. A bird much bolder than its size would suggest, the Wagtail is one of Australia’s most widespread bird species. As such, the sight of a Wagtail’s characteristic restless swaying – moves not misplaced at an 80’s disco – is commonplace to most Australians owning a backyard. It was my job to follow this species for two weeks with a GPS logger, watching it dip and dive its way through the woodlands of southern NSW. Aside from tracking the Willie Wagtail in its cheerful forays, I also followed the activities of the Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), opened a lot of farm gates, and enjoyed many a country bakery during my voluntary duties. Watching birds, following birds, thinking like a bird, for day upon day, with just the trees and the birds.

I spent the term break volunteering under ANU PhD candidate Donna Belder, who is into her 2nd year of research into the effect of restoration plantings on woodland bird species. Located within the Southwest Slopes bioregion, which comprises a large area of southern NSW, Donna’s project addresses key themes in biodiversity conservation and habitat restoration.

Some of the more commonly sighted woodland bird species. From left to right: Top: Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys), Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), Grey Fantail (Rhipidura albiscapa). Bottom: Red-capped Robin (Petroica goodenovii), White-plumed honeyeater (Lichenostomus penicillatus), Grey Shrikethrush (Colluricincla harmonica). Images courtesy of

Some of the more commonly sighted woodland bird species. From left to right:
Top: Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys), Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), Grey Fantail (Rhipidura albiscapa).
Bottom: Red-capped Robin (Petroica goodenovii), White-plumed honeyeater (Lichenostomus penicillatus), Grey Shrikethrush (Colluricincla harmonica).
Images courtesy of

The aim of Donna’s research is to determine whether restoration plantings in an agricultural setting are sustaining populations of endemic woodland bird species. The principle of her research method is to compare various measurements and observations at remnant woodland patches, to revegetated areas of various shapes and sizes. However, her research methods are unique in that they follow the movements and activities of individual birds, rather than relying on basic survey presence/absence data. Individual nests are monitored over the breeding season, often with the use of camera traps, in order to paint a picture of nesting success. Furthermore, individual birds within various sites are banded with identifying colour bands on their legs. This enables an indication of whether individual birds are remaining at the same site, or moving across habitat patches in order to find sites of better habitat quality.

Shifts generally started at sunrise and finished at sunset.

Shifts generally started at sunrise and finished at sunset.

It takes a skilled eye to distinguish a blue band from a green band on a Fairy-wren’s foot, as it leaps across dense thickets of Acacia. That is why I was assigned the slightly easier task of following individual Willie Wagtails and Superb Fairy-wrens with a GPS in order to map their home ranges. This usually involved watching and listening to an individual bird, recording the bird’s activities and the substrates it lands on, and then getting the coordinates for these points. An accurate representation of an individual bird’s territory usually requires over a hundred data points, which takes anywhere from 1.5-3 hours. By mapping the size and distribution of these territories, this component of Donna’s research hopes to provide an indication of the concentration and distribution of habitat resources across remnant woodlands and restoration plantings.

An example of a preliminary territory map at a restoration planting. The large territory belongs to a Willie Wagtail, and the smaller home ranges are characteristic of Superb Fairy-wrens. Notice the use of paddock trees in the Wagtail’s home range. ^Credit?

An example of a preliminary territory map at a restoration planting. The large territory belongs to a Willie Wagtail, and the smaller home ranges are characteristic of Superb Fairy-wrens. Notice the use of paddock trees in the Wagtail’s home range.

Donna’s PhD project seeks to fill an important void of knowledge in biodiversity conservation. Habitat loss represents the most significant threat to biodiversity in Australia, with agricultural landscapes responsible for a substantial claim of Australia’s biodiversity loss (Montague-Drake et al, 2009). Once dominated by box-gum grassy woodlands, remnant patches of native vegetation in the South-west Slopes are small and isolated (Gibbons and Boak, 2002), leading to considerable recent efforts to revegetate parts of the landscape (Montague-Drake et al, 2009). However, the efficacy of these plantings for biodiversity conservation requires ongoing research and monitoring.

Established in 2000 and led by Professor David Lindenmayer at the ANU, the long-term South West Slopes Restoration Study aims to examine faunal responses to revegetation efforts in an agricultural matrix. Previous research by Lindenmayer et al (2010) suggests that the effect of restoration plantings on bird species can be understood through three main characteristics of the planting – context, configuration and content.

The importance of landscape context for woodland birds is well known, with bird species richness found to be strongly correlated to the characteristics of the area surrounding plantings (Montague-Drake et al, 2009; Lindenmayer et al, 2010). This reinforces the notion that the matrix matters, with native vegetation providing additional habitat for bird species and facilitating movement between patches (Lindenmayer et al, 2010). Upon watching several Wagtails dive between isolated paddock trees on their forages outside restoration plantings, this much is clear. The same can be said for many species that likewise use paddock trees as stepping stones in a matrix largely devoid of shelter or habitat resources.

Paddock trees were observed to provide valuable stepping stones for many bird species.

Paddock trees were observed to provide valuable stepping stones for many bird species.

Whilst the voids of a fragmented landscape can be partially filled by native vegetation, the issue of edge effects remain, with the increased edge effect characteristic of small or linear plantings shown to correlate to a decline in woodland birds (Montague-Drake et al, 2009). In visiting a variety of planting configurations, this decline in species richness was obvious, and there was a greater tendency for birds such as the Willie Wagtail to perch and forage outside patch boundaries.

Native vegetation plantings are configured in numerous ways in the landscape, playing an important factor in bird occupancy.

Native vegetation plantings are configured in numerous ways in the landscape, and are an important factor in determining bird occupancy.

Finally, the actual content of restoration plantings bears a large influence on bird occupancy. Lindenmayer et al (2010) found that key habitat variables supporting woodland birds include the presence of fallen logs, mistletoe, understorey and mid-storey. In drawing on the observed habits of the Superb Fairy-wren, there is a notable preference for this species to nest, perch and forage in a dense mid-storey and understorey. Similarly, fallen logs provide a great place for a Wagtail to forage in search of insects that inhabit these structural components.

Spot the difference – contrasting habitat components of a remnant woodland (top) and a restoration planting (bottom).

Spot the difference – contrasting habitat components of a remnant woodland (top) and a restoration planting (bottom).

It is difficult to make sweeping land management recommendations at this stage of Donna’s research, but the implications of this research for the conservation of woodland birds are significant. With an increasing impetus to revegetate parts of the Australian agricultural landscape, directing these efforts towards methods that will maximise the return for biodiversity conservation is a big step forward in a country rapidly losing its unique flora and fauna.

A final word of thank you to PhD candidate Donna Belder for sharing her knowledge and letting me tag along on her fieldwork adventures.

Matthew Gale



Gibbons, P., Boak, M., 2002. The value of paddock trees for regional conservation in an agricultural landscape. Ecological Management and Restoration 3(3): 205-210.

Lindenmayer, D. B., Knight, E. J., Crane, M. J., Montague-Drake, R. M., Michael, D. R., MacGregor, C. I., 2010. What makes an effective restoration planting for woodland birds? Biological Conservation 143: 289-301.

Montague-Drake, R. M., Lindenmayer, D. B., Cunningham, R. B., 2009. Factors affecting site occupancy by woodland bird species of conservation concern. Biological Conservation 142: 2896-2903.

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My Turtely Awesome Conservation Experience

Throughout the recent break (4/7/16 – 11/7/16) I had the unique opportunity to experience the (very sandy!) life of threatened flatback (Natator depressa) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacae) turtles. I assisted in data recording of both species (though primarily flatbacks) as they nested and started new lives along the shores of Bare Sand Island, one of a small chain of islands, about 50km off the coast of Darwin. Green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles also forage in the area, though focus now occurs primarily on recording nesting populations, so I did not interact with these guys. Over an amazing week long period, I assisted in the daily routines of locating, measuring and recording tags of adult female flatbacks past the hours of high tide (tidal range on the island restricts the nesting periods to approximately 2 hours following high tide).

Female flatback turtle laying eggs on the beach

Female flatback turtle laying eggs on the beach


Mornings then involved the fascinating task of following nestling tracks to locate hatched nests. We then dug up these nests to record hatching success, through the number of shells, extended tracks and occasionally (if we were lucky) live hatchlings in the nests! We also had the nitty gritty (often very smelly) task of opening unhatched eggs to determine whether eggs were depredated, embryos or undeveloped. Eggs unhatched after initial hatches are very unlikely to be successful so this did not interfere with development.

Opening flatback eggs to determine contents

Opening flatback eggs to determine contents

This routine helps to document the overall success of laying turtles and of different nesting locations. Any live hatchlings were then taken back to camp for short periods to show to visiting tourists in the evenings, and occasionally to take individual hatchling data recordings, if found in sufficient numbers.

Some live hatchlings found in a morning nest assessment

Live hatchling found in a morning nest assessment

Hatchlings are then released to the ocean and begin their long perilous journey for survival. Sadly, the average hatchling has between 1 in 1000 or 1 in 10 000 chance of survival (largely due to natural predation from both land dwellers (such as; birds, crabs, goannas) and sea dwellers (such as fish, sharks and sea birds). Still we tried our best to send them happily on their way (can only hope)!

But why conduct this research?

Australian waters represent one of the most important havens for marine turtles in the world, particularly for nesting in the Indo-Pacific region. Over these areas contain 6 of the only 7 marine turtle species globally. Unfortunately, each of these species are listed as either vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN Red list, due to a long history of human-induced decline thanks to factors such as; pollution, overharvesting, accidental captures, disease, marine debris and, of course, the destruction of critical habitat.

Waste material washed up from the ocean

Waste material washed up from the ocean

These issues (along with predation) continue to threaten populations globally and Austurtle works to combat further decline by continuing to monitor population size and abundance of nesting turtles in addition to determining any threats to survival. Data collection is limited due to funding but the interest from both volunteers and the ever-growing tourism helps in the quest to inform conservation efforts.

Some issues of contention: turtle and egg munchers

One of the more debated threats to these conservation efforts I found, was the allowance of local indigenous harvests of both sea turtles and eggs for food and ceremonies. These rights have remained over time despite continual depletion of turtle population numbers and increasing pressure to retain species survival. Undoubtedly these harvests are not the most pressing of threats to population survival though continue to arouse debate around many of the public with interest in the marine conservation.  Rights are exclusive to tribes associated with the area, though this eligibility is often difficult to prove, particularly in times with little visitation from researchers or public.

Some issues of contention: tourism

Another interesting and debatably threatening issue to conservation in the area, is the growing interest and funding for tourism on the island. Nearly every evening of my week-long trip, the island was visited by a small boatload of tourists, who would remain on the island for several hours to view available hatchlings and upcoming nesting females. This, importantly, sparks an awareness for conservation and a reasonable amount of tourist money contributes to Austurtle research (particularly through fundraising dinners), though large proportions of money are specifically used to fund the associated tourism businesses. These visits are not generally an issue, as most tourists are prepped on the appropriate behaviour to use around the turtles and supplied with red headtorches to view them. Turtle behaviour is generally associated with the lunar cycle, and they are attracted to bright light of the moon to navigate seaward. However, the use of occasional flash photography, fast movements and bright lights of tourism boats and tourist technology can seriously confuse and distress the turtles, and (critically) redirect both adults and hatchling turtles off their natural path to the water (as I noticed several times during my trip). In addition, any disturbance noted by a laying female may cause her to abandon the nest and often return to sea. Tourism impacts to the turtles are yet to be formally assessed, though it was one that concerned me several times during my volunteering, and will likely have more effect as the recreational attraction for the area grows.

Continuing the conservation: my Austurtle experience

Overall I had an amazing experience with the program and hopefully will make some small difference in providing the data needed to find conservation solutions. Hopefully with continued funding from volunteers and the public, this program may be extended to provide better management of threats and encourage the future survival of these wonderful Aussie turtles. This funding will be critical in the future conservation efforts of such programs, along with providing greater scientific research to address the impact of potentially risky issues such as tourism before they become problematic. Furthermore, I found volunteering to be a really profitable way to contribute to future conservation and feel so lucky to have been a part of it! Thankyou so much to my amazing research and volunteer team!


Further reading

~ Alicia Palmer – u5520212


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The proposed biodiversity reforms in New South Wales: an opportunity lost

In pursuit of economic growth, Australia still clears equivalent to 170,000 Sydney Cricket Grounds (or 150,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds) of native forest every year.

Impacts from clearing native vegetation are well documented.

Habitat loss is the single greatest threat to biodiversity in Australia, promotes dryland salinity, contributes to soil loss and deterioration of water quality and represents approximately 7% of our carbon emissions.

The main driver for land clearing in Australia is agriculture.

However, policy development within this space in Australia looks something like this: Labor Governments periodically introduce reforms to curb land clearing; and these are subsequently relaxed by Coalition governments.

This cycle is currently playing out in New South Wales: biodiversity law reforms introduced by the Carr Government in 2005 are about to be repealed by the Baird Government.


I recently led the Ecological Society of Australia’s submission on the draft biodiversity law reforms in NSW. Here, I summarise the key issues.

Key issues with the NSW reforms

There is a perception that farmers are overly hamstrung in their ability to clear native vegetation in NSW under current laws. The proposed reforms seek to redress this in several ways, such as reducing the amount of clearing that requires formal approval.

However, using formal statistical analysis, I found that land clearing rates have not significantly changed in NSW since 1989-90 (Figure 1), suggesting the argument that the existing laws have gone too far in protecting native vegetation is without foundation.

Annual clearing of native woody vegetation (ha) for rural land uses in NSW before (black bars) and after (white bars) introduction of the NSW Native Vegetation Act that the proposed reforms seek to repeal. The dotted line represents the moving average (calculated over 3 years).

Figure 1. Annual clearing of native woody vegetation (ha) for rural land uses in NSW before (black bars) and after (white bars) introduction of the NSW Native Vegetation Act that the proposed reforms seek to repeal. The dotted line represents the moving average (calculated over 3 years).

Further, 87% of all clearing for rural land that occurs in NSW (as detected by satellite imagery) does not appear in the public register of clearing approvals, which means that the vast majority of clearing has been permitted without formal approval. This suggests that further relaxing the requirement for formal approval to clear native vegetation is also not a well-targeted reform.

“87% of all clearing for rural land that occurs in NSW has been permitted without  formal approval”

There is also an argument that the current regulatory regime impedes productivity in the agricultural sector in NSW. Farmers’ terms of trade has been falling nationally in Australia for several decades despite periods when changes to land clearing laws in other states, such as Queensland, allowed large areas of native vegetation to be cleared (Figure 2). That is, the profitability of agriculture in this country is not linked to the amount of land that is cleared—a pattern seen in developed countries generally.

Annual land clearing in Figure 2. Australia (blue) and national farmers' terms of trade (grey).

Figure 2. Annual land clearing in Australia (blue) and national farmers’ terms of trade (grey).

However, there is evidence to justify why land clearing should be reduced in NSW. Habitat loss is associated with the majority of threatened species in Australia and is listed as a key threatening process in NSW and Commonwealth threatened species legislation. Preventing broadscale clearing is one of the most cost-effective way to protect biodiversity, while restoration of threatened species habitat is costly and unreliable.

The proposed reforms in NSW are contradictory in this respect. On one hand considerable tax payer money is allocated to conserve threatened species and their habitats (e.g., $240 million for conservation of priority areas on private land and $100 million for the Saving our Species Program). On the other hand, threatened species habitat can be cleared under the same reforms.

Another issue for biodiversity is that impacts of land clearing on native species begins to rapidly accelerate once a landscape has less than 30% native vegetation remaining. Approximately one quarter of the landscapes in NSW are now below this threshold, which means that every new hectare of native vegetation that is cleared in these landscapes will affect more species than it did in the past. The reforms are likely to accelerate clearing in these already over-cleared landscapes and thus accelerate the loss of biodiversity.

Thus, we predict that the proposed biodiversity law reforms in NSW will not meet the stated objectives: they will not provide a boost for agricultural profitability and they will have a negative impact on biodiversity.

What does genuine reform look like in this space?

In Australia’s National Food Plan it is argued that improving the profitability of Australian agriculture requires a focus on research and development to support productivity growth, innovation and adoption of new technology across the supply chain and value adding. A reform package that seeks to improve the profitability of agriculture needs to invest in these areas rather than spending resources to stimulate further land clearing.

Preventing broadscale clearing is a more cost-effective way to protect biodiversity than trying to reintroduce species to areas where their habitats have been previously cleared. The rate of biodiversity loss is greatest in already over-cleared landscapes. Thus, policies that stop broadscale clearing in threatened species habitats and over-cleared landscapes and increase the representation of these areas in the existing reserve system will improve outcomes for biodiversity.

Unfortunately the Baird Government appears to be charging ahead with its biodiversity law reforms, which neither offers a pathway for growth of the agricultural sector nor improvements for biodiversity conservation.

Phil Gibbons

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Mapping Bettong habitat at Tidbinbilla

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, where I hung out for an incredible week in the mid-semester break, is playing an integral role in reintroducing the Eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi) back onto the Australian mainland through its breeding program for the species.

The species was exiled from the Australian mainland in the early 1900’s due to a combination of the usual pressures brought by European settlement. Fortunately, Tasmania has been an oasis for the species where it remains common, however the recent advent of the European Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) onto the island is a significant threat given Tassie’s geographic isolation.

Testament to the devotion of all staff involved, success in the breeding program has led to robust populations of Eastern (aka Tasmanian) bettongs at Tidbinbilla and Mulligan’s Flat Woodland Sanctuary, the result of a momentous journey that originated with the translocation of six wild individuals from Tasmania in 2011.

The next step for Tidbinbilla’s Bettong breeding program is to establish a free-ranging population with less active management.   My project involved using a GPS tracker (to be followed by ArcGIS analysis) to map the locations of suitable Bettong habitat inside the 30acre woodland where the new population will call home. The findings of the mapping will enable staff to focus camera monitoring in areas with maximum likelihood of bettong presence.

A little Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby being cared for by staff!

A little Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby being cared for by staff!

Research into the ecology of the species helped me to adopt a bettong mentality by thinking about how they interact with their environment; basically I just combed the landscape pretending to be Bettong, which was good fun.

‘Bettong Bel-Air’ habitat features I searched for included ground story complexity through mature tussock grasses and logs amongst which to build their woven grass nests, over and mid-story coverage to conceal from aerial predators and foraging opportunities offered by patchy ground cover in conjunction with Eucalyptus or Acacia trees where fruiting fungal bodies (a staple of the bettong diet) are often well established.

Good mature tussock grass, but too open as no overstory

Good mature tussock grass, but too open as no over-story

Some grasses suitable for nesting (could be a bit more for concealment), coarse woody debris offers complexity, patchy ground cover for foraging, sufficient canopy cover but more mid-layer complexity for added protection from predators needed

Some grasses suitable for nesting (could be a bit more for concealment), coarse woody debris offers complexity, patchy ground cover for foraging, sufficient canopy cover but more mid-layer complexity for added protection from predators needed

I was lucky enough to attend the fine-tuned operation of a trapping night with three of the Tidbinbilla wildlife team; Leith, Kym and Lindsay. We identified all Bettong individuals by microchip, weighed, checked pouches of females, measured scrotal diameters of males and checked their general condition.

We also trapped a female Southern brush-tailed Rock wallaby who had a pouch young about 10cm long. It was pretty amazing, recognizing how with such critically low population numbers, this individual is a vital part of the species future. This little critter will be flown in a humidi-crib to Adelaide to be mothered by a surrogate Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby as part of the cross-fostering technique helping to rescue this critically endangered species.

Invading the privacy of a female Bettong, but note their cool prehensile tails!

Invading the privacy of a female Bettong, but note their cool prehensile tails!

It was cool to see how the scientific principles of conservation breeding programs pervaded everyday management decisions regarding each individual animal. Particularly ensuring maximum genetic diversity and the need for an intimate knowledge of the species biology and ecology.

While interventions for species whose futures hang in the balance can have great outcomes, as the success of the bettong program shows, breeding programs cannot be seen as a fallback that prevents us tackling the pressures on their habitats at the source. For conserving one element of biodiversity is problematic if the ecological community they belong to is not also conserved and protected. Furthermore such programs are costly (resulting in triaging) and are too risky to rely upon, as some species cannot thrive in a captive breeding environment such as the Northern-hairy nosed wombat.

Conserving intact ecosystems with all their parts, including bettong ‘ecosystem engineers’ is a far superior option than trying to piece an ecosystem back together again, as these systems are likely far more complex and fine-tuned than us mere humans can grasp.

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