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Revegetation and rehydration projects are in the works to build resilience into Nardoo Hills' landscapes, Dja Dja Wurrung Country, Vic.
Revegetation and rehydration projects are in the works to build resilience into Nardoo Hills' landscapes, Dja Dja Wurrung Country, Vic.

Conservation for a changing world

Investing in research and partnerships that expand our understanding of the changing world and improve our capacity to look after it.

Published 25 Aug 2023

Mapping our future

In January 2014, something unprecedented occurred on Dja Dja Wurrung Country in north-central Victoria: temperatures soared to over 40ºC and stayed there for five consecutive days. A month later, it happened again. The woodlands might have recovered from the heatwaves, but that year, the usual autumn rains never arrived to rehydrate the stressed trees. This caused the death of around 100 hectares of Grey Box and Yellow Box eucalypts on Bush Heritage’s Nardoo Hills Reserve.

“Until then, climate change had seemed like something that would affect us far into the future,” says Dr Kate Fitzherbert OAM, Former Bush Heritage Science Manager.

"The tree deaths at Nardoo were a wake-up call – they led us to start thinking laterally about how we could prevent something like that from happening again."

This event sparked the ‘Climate Futures’ project. It is a long-term analysis of how the climate is likely to change in Bush Heritage’s 19 priority landscapes, how those changes will impact vegetation communities, and the implications for native plants and animals.

Dr Kate Fitzherbert OAM, Former Bush Heritage Science Manager. By Bee Stephens

Kate and her team worked with CSIRO to analyse their data on predicted temperature ranges, rainfall patterns, fire seasons, wind speeds and even cyclonic conditions.

These projections were combined with models that show predicted shifts in vegetation communities over time to map a picture of what our reserves may look like by 2050.

For some regions, the picture isn’t pretty. The Lesueur-Eneabba landscape north of Perth is predicted to experience a 95% vegetation changeover. Meaning, only 5% of the vegetation currently found in the region will likely still be there in 2050.

“One of the things that became obvious through the project was that ‘business as usual’ was not going to cut it when it came to some of these massive changes that are forecast to occur,”
Kate says.

She resolved to take the project one step further by mapping the impacts of climatic and vegetation shifts on each priority landscape’s conservation targets – the ecological and cultural features within those regions that are priorities for protection.

Elsewhere, Climate Futures allows planners to discuss ideas that are far more interventionist than traditional conservation would usually entertain. “We’re doing the homework now, to give us options to implement should the conditions call for it in the future,” Kate says. 

Now stewarded by Bush Heritage’s Science Project Manager Sophie Hall-Aspland, Climate Futures involves students and emerging conservationists from our ‘Seeding the Future’ program. With more hands on deck, the project continues to expand our knowledge about predicted changes in vital landscapes across the continent.

Call of the woodlands

Bush Heritage ecologists Dr Daniella Teixeira and Dr Courtney Melton are combining conservation with audio technology to investigate the potential of ecoacoustics, the study of ecological soundscapes, to better monitor bird communities found in woodland habitat on our reserves.

One in five of Australia’s woodland bird species are classified as threatened, but ecoacoustics could enhance conservation efforts. Sound recorders are being set up across a number of reserves to record woodland birds’ calls from dawn to dusk. The technology provides Daniella and Courtney information on which species are at a site, and their activity within a 24-hour period. This information then allows the team to monitor soundscape variation and detect early signals of ecosystem decline.

A loss of complexity in a soundscape is concerning, but there are also bird calls that Daniella and Courtney keep close tabs on.

“If we hear an increase in the calls of aggressive species, such as Noisy Miners, then that could tell us that the bird community is unhealthy,” says Daniella.

Noisy Miners, though native, are hyper-competitive and can threaten other woodland bird species’ access to resources. “We don’t want to see a homogenous bird community. We want diversity.”

For Daniella and Courtney, a diverse soundscape is an indication of a healthier ecosystem.

Funded by Chris and Gina Grubb and the Paul Hackett Memorial Scholarship for Bird Research, this project will develop acoustic monitoring methods to be potentially rolled out across other landscapes.

Listen to the Big Sky Country podcast episode ‘Call me by your birdsong’ to learn more about Daniella and Courtney’s work.

Listen to the Big Sky Country podcast episode ‘Call me by your birdsong’ to learn more about Daniella and Courtney’s work.

From the ground up

Healthy soils are the foundation upon which all terrestrial life is built. They decompose organic matter, regulate water levels, nourish plants and can harbour tens of thousands of species of microorganisms per gram.

Conversely, unhealthy soils make ecosystems more vulnerable to drought, invasive species and desertification. Monitoring soil health can give land managers forewarning of any issues or changes in ecosystems, such as those associated with a changing climate.

Soil monitors could help trigger early management responses to changes in landscape health. By Matthew Taylor

But regular, long-term soil monitoring is a rare practice. It’s difficult, time-consuming and expensive to monitor soil properties across large landscapes.

For the past two years, Bush Heritage has been working with tech company Freaklabs and Monash University, on an exciting PhD project, to compare off-the-shelf sensors against lab methodologies and develop a remote soil monitoring system that will allow land managers to monitor soil health in real-time and at a low cost. 

The system, dubbed ‘BaseLiner Soil’, will measure soil moisture, CO2, pH, salinity and temperature. Depending on available communications infrastructure, the data are then remotely uploaded to a database, using 3G, 4G, NB-IoT or satellite, making it immediately available, to check the soil’s condition.

The technology is currently being trialled at Bush Heritage’s Nardoo Hills Reserve, Dja Dja Wurrung Country in north-central Victoria, and will be refined, making it ready for other reserves over the coming year.

“Monitoring the soil health characteristics of many locations in real-time will allow us to monitor for early warning signs of stressed ecosystems during extreme weather events,”
says Justin McCann, Bush Heritage Conservation Data Analyst.

Tracking ecosystem change

In 2022, a partnership emerged between Bush Heritage and University of New South Wales' Centre for Ecosystem Science, funded by the Ian Potter Foundation, to use a functional approach for tracking change within ecosystems and identifying trigger points for management action. 

This work builds on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's global classification system for Earth’s ecosystems, which defines common functions and processes for each type of ecosystem. 

This functional approach allows us to better understand the drivers and how they impact ecosystems. These drivers determine our biodiversity. As Australia is set to continue experiencing future shifts in temperature, precipitation and ground water – this approach allows the identification of causes of thriving or decline and to define best management strategies.

Understanding early changes means we can use them as warning signs and guides to restoration. Wherever possible, this allows us to act preemptively to protect our ecosystems and their biodiversity. 

“We are increasing our attention to these less tangible indicators, in part, to understand the impacts of change on the species and communities within the ecosystem type – if species are going to change, move or decline, then we come back to: what do we need to do?” says Dr Rebecca Spindler, Bush Heritage’s Executive Manager for Science & Conservation. 

With the partnership in place, preparations and planning are now being made so the program can begin at Bush Heritage's Naree Station Reserve, Budjiti Country, New South Wales, and the Fitz-Stirling reserves, Koreng Noongar Country, Western Australia. If successful, the approach will be applied across all Bush Heritage reserves in the years to come.

A Coolibah swamp provides key waterbird breeding habitat at Naree Station Reserve, Budjiti Country, NSW. By Leonie Corrick

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