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Science & art: The revegetation of Monjebup

Published 21 Jun 2013 

Ecologist Justin Jonson has spent the last two years piecing back together a "living mosaic" of plants, animals and landscape at your Monjebup North Reserve. The experience has changed him.

Justin Johnson

Justin Jonson, the ecologist overseeing a visionary habitat restoration project with Bush Heritage and our conservation partners in the south-west of Western Australia. Justin works for Threshold Environmental. Photo Lien Imbrechts

By Jane Lyon

It was a small patch of soil that first made Justin Jonson realise he was not master of all he surveyed. The ecologist had returned to look over his first big restoration project at your Beringa Reserve, when he suddenly noticed that some soil was a bit richer than the surrounding area.

"What came into my mind was: nature has got control of this. I had thought that I was creating nature, but I saw suddenly that I was the servant of a process that is way more complex than I will ever understand. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life," he says.

Justin has brought this reverence for nature to his current project with Bush Heritage at your Monjebup North Reserve, in south-western Australia.

The project will result in the revegetation and repopulation of a cleared area on the reserve, roughly the size of 750 football fields. The first 100 hectares of the 435-hectare block were planted last year, and the remaining hectares will be planted over the next two years.

Jewel spider

Jewel Spider. Photo Justin Jonson

Thinking big - Gondwana Link

The work is part of Gondwana Link, a bigger vision that Bush Heritage shares with a range of conservation groups - a collaborative initiative that aims to reconnect isolated fragments of landscape in the south-western corner of Australia.

The area, once rich with a high concentration of plant and animal life, has lost two-thirds of its vegetation - and with it the homes of many native species.

Monjebup North Reserve had suffered a similar loss. Before the project began, the barren agricultural land was the landing strip for only a few birds, the night-time beat for some bats and the occasional playground of a lone mouse.

Spotted-thigh frog. Photo by Barrie Collins

Spotted-thigh frog. Photo: Barrie Collins

Spotted-thigh frog

In a recent seed-collecting trip Justin and his fellow workers were enjoying the warmth of their swags under the stars, when they were woken by a chainsaw-like call belonging to a spotted-thigh frog.

The camp spot, located under one of only a few isolated mallee trees in the area, seemed an unusual spot for a frog to spend the night, far from the nearest water.

It reminded Justin that even a single tree, can provide shelter for native animals.

The spotted-thigh frog depends on water for breeding, however, and we hope that a shallow wetland area recreated by Bush Heritage staff in 2011 will find them recolonising the landscape in larger numbers.

Justin and his company, Threshold Environmental, has spent the last two years piecing the land, plants and animals back together again, in what he calls a "living mosaic".

This has involved identifying the soils and vegetation at Monjebup North, and recreating a patchwork of plant communities to reflect them.

To create such diversity, Justin has hand‑planted pockets of different native seedlings after a tractor has done the broad brushstrokes of seeding. He has so far planted 133 different species, including 60 kilos of locally collected native seeds and 10,000 seedlings.

"What I do is a mixture between science and art: it's designing by reading the cues that nature gives me and then creating a design that best supports those natural cues and processes," Justin says.

A home-grown Noah's ark

His technique provides not only food for thought but also for animals, with the creation of a wide variety of forage and homes to support their different needs. Pygmy possums, dunnarts, black-gloved wallabies and legless lizards are among the creatures the project hopes to encourage back.

Monitoring has revealed encouraging first results. "It's going to be a real cracker, that 100 hectares," he says. "You can look at it and see that the system in every single seeded area is on a trajectory to becoming really productive and diverse plant communities."

But ultimately, Justin believes that the complexity of ecology makes it more than just the sum of its parts and restoration more than the mere re‑assembling of them. There's magic in its synergy. "Life has a power of its own," Justin says.

Burning seed pods to release seeds and promote germination

Many native plant species have hard woody seed pods that need to be burnt to release the seeds. Photo: Simon Smale

In the media

An interview with Bush Heritage Ecologist Angela Sanders and Gondwana Link Landscape Manager Simon Smale
- ABC Radio National, Bush Telegraph