Assessing erosion at Yourka Reserve, Qld. Photo: Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
Bush Heritage Applied Ecology Manager Paul Foreman explains the importance of monitoring our work on reserves.
Bush Heritage and its supporters are buying and managing land to protect Australia’s biodiversity. We're also increasingly working with other landowners outside our reserves in order to carry out conservation work over a much greater area. The possibilities are exciting and the benefits enormous.
All our land management work is designed to maintain the health of those ecosystems that are already in good condition and to actively improve the health of those ecosystems that are damaged, including natural waterways.
We do this mostly by removing or reducing grazing pressure, controlled burning, managing weeds and feral animal populations and stabilising the soils. In a healthy environment the animals and plants thrive.
Knob-tailed gecko captured in a pitfall trap.
When we buy a new property we set specific ecological goals that we want to achieve. These goals might include restoring a natural spring damaged by pigs, building up the numbers of a particular threatened bird species, or restoring a burning regime to control woody weeds that are invading a native grassland.
But how do we know if our management activities are actually achieving these ecological goals? How do we ensure that our supporters, who invest generously in the work of Bush Heritage, are getting the best possible return for conservation from their investment?
We monitor closely how the environment changes as a result of our management. Bush Heritage’s Ecological Outcomes Monitoring program has been developed to give us the necessary data. It represents one of the first attempts in Australia to identify the environmental factors that provide reliable and comparable information about the health of our ecosystems.
Setting up pitfall lines at a monitoring site on Charles Darwin Reserve, WA.
In the past this has mostly been determined by the presence or absence of particular species of plants and animals. Our monitoring program is now rolling out across all our reserves, generously funded by the Macquarie Group Foundation.
Over time, as we systematically record changes in the vegetation, the waterways and the populations of animals and plants, then analyse and interpret the data, we can report back on the success of our work. Importantly, the information gleaned allows us to assess and adapt our management strategies to ensure that we get the best results and reach each ecological goal.
So what is involved?
On each new property we first select the monitoring sites. These are located in a representative sample of all ecosystems, and variations within those ecosystems, present on the property. This includes places where there are differences in slope and aspect, management history and fire or flood impacts, and also any current threats or possible future threats.
Reserve Manager Leanne Hales recording orchids at Eurardy Reserve, WA. Photo Paul Hales.
With this information at hand, we prepare the management plans and identify our conservation ‘targets’: those species, ecosystems, ecosystem processes or threats that need special attention. In the case of each target, we set ecological goals that establish what we want to achieve and by when. Work plans, which specify the actions needed on the ground, follow.
Then the monitoring begins. At each site, we record a detailed site description, the status of the bird population, soil-surface dynamics and vegetation structure and the presence of animals and flowering plants. These ‘indicators’ give us valuable information about what's happening at the site and, over time, allow us to monitor changes in the landscape. You can get more information about these indicators and how they were chosen.
We then match our management activities to the changes we see in the land. Each time we record a new set of data at each site, another page in the story unfolds. The land ‘tells’ us how it's responding to the reduced grazing pressure, erosion-control work, controlled burns and management of feral animal and weed species. As our understanding grows, we adapt and hone what we are doing to more effectively reach our ecological goals, a process we've called ‘adaptive management’.
Ecologist Hugh Pringle and Reserve Manager Paul Hales assessing regrowth on saltbush, Eurardy Reserve, WA. Photo: Leanne Hales.
With time, especially as we're now starting to add monitoring sites to those properties that we manage with our partners, we'll be able to see changes in the vegetation and bird populations on a continental scale. This process will provide vital information about how animals and plants are dealing with the effects of climate change.
Reporting back to our supporters, and the community generally, on how their donations and the scarce conservation dollar are protecting our biodiversity is the last critical part of this process. Your enthusiasm and support are keys to our success, so we need to keep you informed about what we're achieving together. Only then will Bush Heritage be the best possible guardian of our natural environment.
As we improve the health and resilience of our reserves, and also of the land that we assist others to manage, the country will be better able to sustain its populations of animals and plants despite further pressures from development or the changes resulting from global warming.