A Sunday afternoon offers a host of possibilities: a stroll down the lane, a 12-hour slumber, or maybe it’s just hours of vegging out in front of a television. But there are some possibilities that, I think, are more rewarding than others. This Winter-Spring, I had the opportunity to spend some Sunday afternoons volunteering with Friends of Mount Majura (FoMM) Park Care Group. I joined ongoing volunteer efforts to improve habitat and increase native plant and animal species diversity on the slope of Mount Majura, at a site adjacent to “The Fair”.
The site is Box Gum Grassy Woodland (BGGW), an ecological community listed as Critically Endangered under the Federal EBPC Act. This community used to span the Western areas of The Great Dividing Range, Southern QLD, Western NSW, ACT and Victoria. But now, less than 5% remains in good condition, and most of it is small isolated patches which is still being lost to clearing, weed invasion and overgrazing.
Why is Mount Majura BGGW important? It provides important habitat for countless plant and animal species, including declared, rare, and endangered ones like Glossy Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami), Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang), Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor), Canberra Spider Orchid (Caladenia actensis) and Hoary Sunray (Leucochrysum albicans), and approximately 250 native plant species (Waltraud Pix, pers comm). If we care about protecting healthy, diverse, ecological communities, then it’s on us to protect them.
This site has suffered a variety of threats over the years. Population and economic growth have caused urban and peri-urban expansion, tourism and recreation industries, that have made their mark: Cattle and sheep grazing, car-racing, horse jumping and horse grazing all once took place on this site (Waltraud Pix, pers comm). This has resulted in direct pressures of land clearing and habitat loss/degradation: local trees and native vegetation were cleared, herbaceous weeds replaced ground-cover plants (native grass and wildflowers), and introduced shrubs and trees replaced the local shrubs.
In 2012, FoMM decided to make a change. With years of work, they completely transformed the BGGW, and the story of its transformation is inspiring. In May 2014, the site looked like this:
Dense carpets of weeds, most noticeably Paterson’s Curse (Echium plantagineum). Watch as the site transforms:
1000s of hours of volunteer work, improving ground cover layer by controlling herbaceous weeds, manually loosening compacted soil, spreading wood chip mulch and woody debris, collecting seeds, direct seeding local grasses, and planting wildflowers. And… we have a beautiful woodland with native grass cover and vegetation, fit to support an array of biodiversity.
Now, FoMM work to maintain, and make still-needed improvements to the woodland. Their work basically follows a 3 step method: 1. Weed treatment, 2. Direct seeding native ground cover and planting of tube stock, and 3. Application of a wood chip layer (mulching). I was able to participate in the planting, direct seeding, and mulching elements of this work.
My experience began on National Tree Day, 30 July 2017. The day was a blast with a turnout of over 90 enthusiastic volunteers. Together we planted 200 local native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Most of these were Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata) that we planted along an eroding gully. The main reason for doing this was that Silver Wattle are perfect for holding soil together, thus preventing further soil erosion. I also planted some Spreading Wattle (Acacia genistifolia), which is known to be excellent bird habitat – previous plantings of Spreading Wattle on Mount Majura have resulted in nests of thornbills (Waltraud Pix, pers comm).
All wattles and other native plants were planted in islands, with corridors of plantings connecting the islands together, for example along the gully. The intention in doing this was to not plant a forest, and rather to create clusters of habitat, connected to one another. A diagram of this connectivity structure (restricted to three habitat clusters/islands) can be seen in Figure 9. Connectivity is important because in case of any local extinctions, affecting one or only a few of the islands, e.g. disease or fire, species can recolonise in one of the connected unaffected islands. Connectivity is also important to allow for flow of different genes between the islands, thus maintaining genetic diversity.
The last step was to apply a layer of mulch/wood chip around each of the plantings. This is done for many reasons, but one of these is that it helps suppress weeds when applied in thick layers, because the weeds are competitors for light and water. Mulch also, when coming into contact with soil and decomposing, activates bacteria which consume nitrogen as it decomposes. This is important because high nutrient-level in soil benefits nitrogen-loving weeds such as Paterson’s Curse, whereas native plants have evolved in and are adapted to nutrient-depleted soil (Australian soils naturally have very low nutrient-levels). So, mulch reduces nutrient-level in the soil, changing a soil environment beneficial to weeds into something less beneficial to weeds (Waltraud Pix, pers comm).
Weekends following, I assisted with more mulching, watering of plants, and also direct seeding of native grass species such as Tall Speargrass (Austrostipa bigeniculata), Corkscrew Speargrass (Austrostipa scabra), Red-leg Grass (Bothriochloa macra), and Wallaby Grasses (Rytidosperma spp). These provide native ground-cover habitat for invertebrates, birds and lizards. Some birds that have so far been found include Speckled Warbler (Pyrrholaemus sagittatus), and a number of woodland birds that forage on ground such as Scarlet Robin, wrens, and thornbills. Lizards found include: Bearded Dragon (Pogona spp), Jacky Dragon (Amphibolurus muricatus), Shingleback (Tiliqua rugose) and a range of little skinks. These grasses also reduce erosion by holding together soil, and provide competitive cover as part of ongoing weed control (Waltraud Pix, pers comm).
Throughout my weeks on Mount Majura, the project manager of FoMM, Waltraud Pix, and the community volunteers, were a very welcoming and generous group of people. Waltraud in particular was always so helpful, caring and knowledgeable.
My experience taught me many things about BGGW, conserving biodiversity, planting, seeding and mulching. But most of all, it taught me to appreciate the environment around us, and the fact that while many humans continue to destroy it and endanger its many plant and animal species, others work to undo that damage.
Pix, Waltraud, 2017. FoMM Project Manager, ACT, pers comm