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At Burrin Burrin Reserve, as the sky began to lose its layers of daytime colour, Renee Hartley added layers of warmth, anticipating the approaching dark.
“The red had just disappeared from the sky and the stars were appearing,” says the Bush Heritage ecologist working at the south-east NSW reserve on Ngambri, Yuin walbunja muncata and Ngarigo Country. “There was relative silence across the forest – it was still and very beautiful.”
Standing with Renee were fellow ecologists, Traditional Owners and scientists; they were on the lookout for the curiosity of nocturnal species that call Burrin Burrin home. “With our spotlights shining high in the trees, we began to see Greater Gliders looking down on us – first one, then another.”
Renee was taking part in Bush Heritage’s annual spring time monitoring, which provides information that feeds critical decisions about the land management strategies that will be most effective in nursing the reserve’s ecosystems toward recovery.
In early 2020, 95% of Burrin Burrin’s 411 hectares burnt in the Black Summer fires.
“A lightning strike in the neighbouring state forest quickly spread to Burrin Burrin. Within minutes, the fire consumed the reserve,” says Reserve Manager Phil Palmer. The loss of Burrin Burrin’s precious wildlife and plant life weighed heavily.
“There were many things I thought might never come back,” says Phil. If Phil had known that three years later, his colleague Renee would find a reserve showing great resilience, with healthy Greater Glider populations and a strong bird chorus, he might have breathed a little easier. At the time though, Phil and the team did the only thing they could – start planning.
“After the fire, there were feelings of despair, but the focus quickly turned to addressing the immediate issues. Planning the reserve’s recovery through the various stages was a path to healing.”
Planning is at the heart of Bush Heritage’s adaptive conservation management process, which we use across all our reserves. This process is informed by global best practices and uses strategic indicators to consistently review and evaluate our progress. Renee describes the challenge and importance of adaptive management.
“It can be hard for organisations to make the time to evaluate their data and use it to inform land management, but Bush Heritage allows staff time to review our impact. If you don’t have that time to reflect, you just keep going ahead with actions you sense are the best, but you don’t have the quantitative information to support your theories.”
Burrin Burrin, one of the most intact of all our reserves and which historically needed little intervention, has entered a new stage of management since the fire.
“Our management actions for Burrin Burrin changed after the fire because the structure of the forest and the species within it changed,” says Renee. “Our monitoring approach helps us to track the efficacy of our management and the needs of the reserve.”
After the fires, our adaptive management approach helped identify and implement the strategic actions required to support the reserve’s natural resilience and recovery. Management included controlling feral pigs, which are known to flourish after fires; monitoring for surviving wildlife and installing feed stations; deepening our engagement with neighbours on shared goals; increasing the frequency of vegetation surveys to monitor potential weed invasions; and assessing for erosion.
“It didn’t take us long to realise that nature was doing more than we ever could,” says Phil. “The ecological monitoring done after the fires was important and gave us the confidence not to intervene too heavily.”
Fire management in the changed landscape became a priority. “The vegetation grew back densely after the fire,” says Renee. “This presents a much more fire-prone landscape because there’s now a comprehensive mid-story where fire can carry quickly. Ensuring appropriate fire regimes in the future will be important for the continued recovery of the reserve.”
Clair Dougherty, Bush Heritage’s National Conservation Planning Manager, supports on-ground staff to measure the impact of their management strategies. This includes evaluating our work’s progress in protecting a reserve’s targets – the things we wish to conserve and improve in a landscape – and managing the threats to those targets.
“In addition, we also like to evaluate some aspects of the reserves annually, especially if we’re measuring outcomes like feral species populations, which are known to increase post-fires,” says Clair. “We don’t want to get to the five-year point and realise we probably should have adapted four years ago.”
At Burrin Burrin the survey results are positive, reflecting the team’s good management and the resilience of an intact landscape. “Burrin Burrin is going really well,” says Renee. “It’s a credit to the reserve’s condition before the fires, its recovery and the favourable wet years since.”
Clair agrees, “We have significant species that use Burrin Burrin, like Powerful Owls and Gang Gang Cockatoos. We want to see these species still using the property as a steppingstone, or maybe even moving back in. We want to see the trees getting a healthy canopy layer. And we're seeing that – the trees are recovering.”
Clair also points out the need for Bush Heritage to be accountable. “Donors’ dollars are very precious to us. We need to show our generous supporters that their contributions have made a real impact. Adaptive management helps us show that our strategies are working.”
When Phil steps on Burrin Burrin today, he experiences nature’s strength. “There is resilience in the landscape and it’s nice to have science to prove this. These are natural processes. We will recover and this will be a functioning, highly variable forest again.”