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Making a good recovery

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Dr Jamie Pittock, Associate Professor of Environment and Society at ANU, is also a volunteer project coordinator with the community organisation Friends of Grasslands (FOG) and explains some of their success in the Australian Capital Territory. The Australian Capital Territory is an epicentre for the conservation of grassy ecosystems because, when the territory was created, the federal government compulsory acquired all the freehold land. There was less incentive for owners to make pasture improvements or apply fertilisers meaning that the grasslands are often in better condition.

There were also many sites set aside for all sorts of government purposes, like the site for the proposed national museum, that were never developed. These sites retain a great deal of plant diversity and many threatened species that have been eliminated elsewhere in NSW and Victoria. One type of ecosystem that FOG is conserving is the 23 hectares of lowland temperate grassland at Yarramundi Reach. Another is the 52 hectares of grassy woodlands at Stirling Park. In 2009 FOG entered into a partnership agreement with the National Capital Authority (NCA).

Above and Below: The Scrivener's Hut site before and after FOG restoration activities. (Images from FOG)    
This allowed FOG volunteers to enter those sites and do conservation work that required expert knowledge or a lot of labour, something that modern contractors don’t know how to do or can’t do cheaply. Since then some two thirds of Stirling Park has been cleared of woody weeds, making a change from a weed-infested understorey to open grassy woodlands.
The noticeable visual change over five years encourages volunteers to come back. Stirling Park is located near where people live. One negative aspect of that is that it attracts dumping of garden waste.

This is counteracted by the development of a whole community of local volunteers who constantly watch the site, reporting problems to police or government land managers. This has led to a more successful governance of this public space. Indeed, the site was originally proposed for a new residence for the Prime Minister and subdivisions for embassies but this inspired local residents to join with FOG volunteers and commit to restoring the site. It is harder to attract volunteers to the temperate grasslands site, partly because it is located away from where people live and partly because many people have a harder time relating to a grassland. More skill is needed to identify the weeds in native grasslands and herbicides are used, which many volunteers don’t like. FOG uses three different types of herbicides. Glyphosate, a broad spectrum herbicide, is daubed onto the stumps of woody weeds. It is used partly because it’s less toxic and partly because it’s cheaper.

Above right: endangered wildflower Button Wrinklewort (FOG)
striped legless lizard (Ian Smales)
Broad leaf weed sprays leave native grasses intact but kill invading herbs like St John’s wort. Woody weed-specific sprays are sometimes used to knock out plants like blackberry. Qualified sprayers supervise such sprays, ensuring volunteers are safe. The NCA's very experienced staffer in charge of land management reinstated patch burning to the sites.

While this was partly an urban fire risk reduction measure, FOG schedules weed control activities with weed removal a year prior to burning, which then helps eradicate weeds and seedlings that were missed. This tandem work enhances the value of each organisation's work. Approving patch burns in Canberra is a convoluted exercise. The bureaucracy is horrendous for the government staff involved. Leaflets must be sent to all neighbouring residences for some distance from the site and while it would be better for the ecology of the site to have more frequent burns, results are still fantastic.

Above right: Mouthless moth (Golden Sun Moth)(Canberra Airport Threatened species management plan 2010)
Below: St Johns wort flowers (K Blood)
A lot of native wildflowers that were crowded out by over mature grass tussocks have come back, a rewarding recovery. Maintaining the grasslands by burns also helps the fauna. The striped legless lizard and the earless dragon lizard, for instance, need the shelter of grass tussocks, rocks and cracks in the ground along with open areas for hunting. These animals were once widespread over the plains on the Monaro Tablelands but overgrazing by livestock and kangaroos, pasture improvement that has removed native grasses and weed invasion has seen their habitat shrink. Habitat also needs to be maintained for the golden sun (mouthless) moth.


A number of threatened plant species also occur in these habitats. Stirling Park is home to the second biggest remaining population of the wildflower button wrinklewort. Sadly, the beauty of native grasslands are often overlooked, perceived as wastelands or long grasses sheltering snakes. They miss the beauty of wildflowers like Dianella and bluebells which would be right at home in people’s gardens and city landscapes instead of weed plants like agapanthus. Hopefully over time people will come to appreciate them more. Just like the grasslands, they too should be making a good recovery.

Associate Professor Jamie Pittock was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images from sources cited. Summary text by Victor Barry, April 2015.

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