Restoring grasslands and grassy woodlands at Carnarvon Station Reserve

Wednesday 20 June, 2007

Bush Heritage Ecologist Murray Haseler reports on the recovery of the grasslands at Carnarvon Station Reserve.

Recovering bluegrass downs. Photo Joss Bentley.Recovering bluegrass downs. Photo Joss Bentley.

The renaissance of the grasslands at Carnarvon Station Reserve in central Queensland has been very exciting.

Before Bush Heritage purchased Carnarvon Station in 2001, the native bluegrass downs had been heavily grazed. Once Carnarvon had been acquired, the stock were removed and we began a regime of ecological burning.

Over the past five years we've watched with delight as these threatened grasslands have returned to being functioning, healthy ecosystems to which scurrying, slithering and soaring beasts have returned.

Nature reserves and national parks have traditionally been declared on land that has little or no productive value for agriculture. Thus grasslands and grassy woodlands have largely been excluded from the national reserve system.

Black-headed python. Photo Murray Haseler.Black-headed python. Photo Murray Haseler.

Consequently, at Carnarvon Station Reserve, the fertile bluegrass downs, poplar box grassy woodlands and grassy woodlands of coolabahs and cycads are among its most important ecosystems.

This region receives moderate but very seasonal rainfall. Following the spring rain, the grass grows fast and prolifically and then dies off in winter. With no stock to eat it, the grass now dumps a plentiful supply of nutritious seed into the food chain.

Fires encourage a flush of new green shoots and highly nutritious small herbs to grow in the grasslands, and cause the regeneration of a diversity of shrubs and trees in the grassy woodlands. It’s a finely balanced but resilient cycle.

Many years ago the local Aboriginal people worked with the rain and fire to create a mosaic in the vegetation of cover and exposed ground. This provided shelter and food for the native fauna they hunted. A hundred years later, the reserve managers at Carnarvon Station Reserve have again adopted this strategy.

Narrow-nosed planigale. Photo Murray Haseler.Narrow-nosed planigale. Photo Murray Haseler.

They are re-creating one of very few examples of a productive Australian grassland that is again supporting only native animals and plants.

The return of wildlife

The return of the wildlife to the grasslands has been spectacular. The large grass-eaters reappeared first. Mobs of grey kangaroos and red-necked wallabies came in to feed on the grassy flats, and euros and whip-tailed wallabies used the slopes. Herbert’s rock wallabies could be seen near the rocky outcrops, and swamp wallabies near the shrubby areas.

These species are wide-ranging and come and go with the seasons but they are clearly increasing in number with the absence of stock. Their natural predators, dingoes and birds of prey, have also increased. Dingo kills are now reported regularly.

Three years ago staff and volunteers started trapping to find out what small species were present and where they occurred. We also hoped to monitor changes in their abundance.

Euro. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.Euro. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Each year new species have been recorded and we're beginning to understanding the habitat needs of each. The delicate, Forrest’s and chestnut mice feed mostly on seeds at the edges of the grasslands. Common and narrow-nosed planigales hunt in the cracking clays under the grasslands and regenerating poplar box, where there are now plenty of invertebrates.

The tiny common and stripe-faced dunnarts and more robust yellow-footed antechinus work the wooded fringes. Nine species have been recorded so far and we expect to find up to seven additional species.

Yellow-footed antechinus. Photo Andrew Henley.Yellow-footed antechinus. Photo Andrew Henley.

The birds are returning too. Numbers of seed-eaters such as the plumheaded finch and turquoise parrot have increased, the latter recently recorded for the first time. Brown quail, buttonquail and the threatened squatter pigeon are in large numbers and now feeding a diverse group of resident birds of prey and large reptiles, including the black-headed python.

Our experience at Carnarvon Station Reserve shows that when stock are removed from our native grasslands and where there's effective management of fire and feral animals, the response from the landscape and its species is spectacular.

The obvious visual changes we're seeing and the efforts of staff and volunteers are giving us an exciting picture of the renaissance of this grassland. We have only just begun to explore and document the ecology of the reserve and to attract more students and volunteers to help.

Knowing and understanding what's being re-created out there will take time and effort. Our observations, however, are telling us that we not only have a living example of original Australia, but a reserve that will function as a refuge for species that are being severely threatened elsewhere.

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