The first thing you notice on Red Moort Reserve is the colour. Immediately surrounding this square of land on Noongar country in south-west Western Australia is the monochrome of crops and paddocks.
But here, over 450 plant species paint the landscape in every colour imaginable. This type of native habitat amidst farmlands is precious, but it’s also vulnerable. If faced with climatic changes, bushfires, disease or predation from feral predators, animals could be left with little refuge to travel through safely.
That will soon change though thanks to Bush Heritage’s recent purchase of the neighbouring property, Ediegarrup.
Since 2016, Bush Heritage has focussed its conservation efforts on ‘Priority Landscapes’ - areas that were identified as being underrepresented in Australia’s network of existing protected areas.
As climate change progresses, however, it’s become increasingly clear that conservationists need to think strategically not just about where they work, but what those landscapes will look like in the future, and how they can be shored up for the changes to come.
For the past two years, Bush Heritage’s Science and Conservation team, led by Dr Rebecca Spindler, has been doing just that. Drawing on published research and climate data from the CSIRO, they gathered as much information as possible about the changes likely to occur within each of Bush Heritage’s Priority Landscapes.
Their analysis included everything from rainfall and temperature projections, to projected species changeover and areas of refugia.
“Refugia includes rocky outcrops, crags, canyons, valleys and protected slopes which offer a natural buffer from extreme changes in temperature or water availability,” says Rebecca. “Whatever biodiversity inhabits these areas; it has a better chance of surviving in a refugial area”.
From this research, Rebecca and her team were able to divide Bush Heritage’s Priority Landscapes into three categories –‘Resilient’, ‘Reconnection’ and ‘Strengthen’ – according to the severity of changes they would likely experience, and the best management strategies for minimising those impacts.
The 70km-wide expanse of land between the Fitzgerald River and Stirling Range National Parks, known locally as the Fitz-Stirling – one of Australia’s great biodiversity hotspots, where Red Moort and Ediegarrup are located, was deemed a ‘Reconnection landscape’ under the climate change assessment.
While widespread clearing for agriculture has left the Fitz-Stirling region heavily fragmented, the pockets of bushland that remain are home to a disproportionately large amount of biodiversity.
But with some models indicating potential for up to 4 degrees of warming and a severe drop in winter rainfall by 2090 (potentially 40% decrease), some species may soon start to find themselves at the limit of what they can endure.
To help them adapt, Bush Heritage’s strategy for this landscape is to reconnect those pockets of remnant vegetation.
“We want to ensure that if species here need to move to find more appropriate shelter, nesting sites or foraging habitat, that they’re able to do so through a connected landscape,” says Alex Hams, Bush Heritage’s Healthy Landscape Manager for the region.
Roughly two-thirds of the Fitz-Stirling region has already been connected, and the newly purchased 1067-hectare Ediegarrup Reserve fills in another gap, linking Bush Heritage’s Red Moort Reserve with the state-owned Corackerup Nature Reserve to the north and crown land to the east.
It includes large tracts of remnant bush, but around 600 hectares of cleared land on Ediegarrup will need to be revegetated before the connection is complete.
Over the next year, Alex and his team will develop a revegetation plan outlining which species will be planted and where, based on factors such as soil type and slope orientation.
“We’ve been able to establish well over 100 plant species into our nearby Monjebup revegetation, which is acclaimed within the industry as being very high standard, and we expect to do even better at Ediegarrup,” says Alex.
He and the team will work closely with Noongar Traditional Owners to ensure that culturally important species are incorporated into the mix. They also plan to trial new techniques aimed at restoring ground covers – something which hasn’t been done before on a large scale.
The hope is that six years from now, Ediegarrup will be entirely returned to bushland in which native species are foraging, creating homes and, importantly, breeding.
Increasing connectivity is important all over Australia, but some landscapes – those classified as ‘Resilient’ in Rebecca and her team’s analysis – contain large enough areas of intact habitat and refugia that they’re already well-placed to weather the impacts of climate change.
One such example is north-west Tasmania’s Liffey Valley, Palawa country, where Bush Heritage recently acquired another new reserve to connect its Oura Oura and Drys Bluff reserves with the 1.5-million-hectare Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
This vast conservation estate boasts many microhabitats, contains significant refugia areas and will allow species such as Tasmanian Devils and Spotted-tailed Quolls to adapt to climate change in-situ. In ‘Resilient Landscapes’, Bush Heritage’s priority is to increase the area of land under protection through new reserves and to build partnerships with existing landholders and Traditional Owners.
Glovers Flat provided a golden and timely opportunity to connect our reserves and manage as a unit.
In other areas – those under the third category of ‘Strengthen landscapes’ – species and ecosystems will need much more support to survive significant climatic shifts.
Bush Heritage’s new 185-hectare reserve in north-central Victoria, on Djandak (Dja Dja Wurrung country), falls into this category. Here, Bush Heritage will work with Dja Dja Wurrung people and researchers to generate and trial innovative management approaches.
The next step for Rebecca and her team is to use predicted likely changes right down to the individual property level, and to consider proactive rather than reactive management actions.
“Knowledge is power,” says Rebecca. “I don’t think we’ve got nearly enough knowledge about the impacts of climate change yet, but we do have enough to start acting. We need to build our toolbox now, so it’s ready when it’s really needed.”
The purchase of Bush Heritage’s new reserves Ediegarrup, Glovers Flat, and John Douglas Reserve was made possible through the support of the Alerce Trust, Mark and Jenny Harwood and a gift in memory of Kaethe Balkau, along with support from many passionate Bush Heritage donors.