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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 20(1) June - August 2011, p 3-4

Significant Plant conservation on Bush Heritage reserves – the meaning of new discovery

Paul Foreman
Bush Heritage, Queensland, pforeman@bushheritage.org.au

The Bush Heritage business model, founded on a big idea simply encapsulated in the phrase: “we don’t beat around the bush, we buy it back (and keep it)”, is today - 20 years after our birth in Tasmania’s Liffey Valley – as strong as ever. The fact that we commit to keeping our reserves sets us apart from most other private conservation organisations and is central to our long-term, ecosystem-driven approach to plant (and indeed biodiversity) conservation. Because of the long-term nature of our business, we go to great pains to ensure we acquire the ‘right’ properties. While aesthetic and marketing appeal obviously help to ‘sell’ our investments to supporters and the public at large, the foundation of our decision-making is good science and sound ecological principles. Our land assessment strategy (BioPrEP - Mackey et al. 2010) highlights our system-based approach by focusing on ecosystem resilience and population viability, especially of unique and threatened species and ecological communities. With the long term objective to “protect, restore and rehabilitate land systems and associated ecological processes, along with their evolved characteristic species, assemblages and habitats”, our rationale is that it is better to secure and restore relatively healthy systems rather than those that are more degraded and damaged. This is not just a more cost effective strategy, but also likely to be more successful ecologically over the long-term. While it is early days for our long-term ecological report card, one feature is already apparent: the more we look, the more we find in terms of significant species and ecological communities. Nowhere is this more evident than with threatened plants. Below are a few recent examples of discovery stories and how we are starting the long-term process of recovery through indirect and direct management.

Edgbaston (Qld): – This 8,100 ha property, 140 km north-east of Longreach, was acquired in 2008 to protect the extraordinary biota of its Great Artesian Basin mound springs –especially its endemic and critically endangered fish (Red-fin Blue-eye; see www.bushheritage.org.au, and Fairfax et al. 2007). But the story of the property’s endemic flora is just as fascinating, if much less well known. Only last year, a botanical survey turned up three more potentially undescribed plant taxa, bringing the list of new, potentially new, or recently described plant species to 15, and there is still scope for further discoveries (Table 1). Our approach to protecting most of these species (as well as the equally lengthy list of endemic fauna) is to gradually restore the property’s 50-or-so natural springs through stock exclusion, feral pig control and weed control (e.g. Para Grass Urochloa mutica, formerly Brachiaria mutica) But as with the Red-fin Blue-eye, we are also considering more drastic intervention (such as translocations) for a couple of the Pipeworts (Eriocaulon spp.) because they are effectively only present on one tiny spring each (Davies et al. 2007).

Nardoo Hills (Vic): – Located 210 kms north-west of Melbourne in the wheat-sheep belt of south-east Australia, the 817 ha Nardoo Hills Reserve has also seen a number of significant new finds in recent years - most notably two Victorian endemic terrestrial orchids. Northern Golden Moths (Diuris protena) was first described in 2006 (Jones and Clements 2006), and Robust Greenhood (Pterostylis valida) was thought extinct for 70 years until rediscovered at this site last year. Although the Grassy Box Woodland (dominated by Eucalyptus melliodora and E. microcarpa) reserve has a history of pastoralism, it remains ecologically healthy because it has never been cultivated and is contiguous with an extensive area of largely protected, interconnected public bushland around the nearby township of Wedderburn. Under Bush Heritage’s stewardship, which involves excluding stock and controlling rabbits and key weeds such as Patersons Curse (Echium plantagineum), the orchids have been able to flourish. A further dimension of the Bush Heritage approach, is illustrated by our collaboration with the local team of orchid conservation staff at the Bendigo office of DSE (Department of Sustainability and Environment). Detailed population monitoring and further searching has documented numerous patches of orchids across the property that, subject to further study, should represent viable long term populations. The discovery of these species caused considerable excitement, but as at Edgbaston, there is still scope for further discoveries.

Boolcoomatta (SA): – A 63,000 ha former sheep station 100 kms west of Broken Hill and just inside the SA border, has also been the stage for a number of important botanical discoveries since the property was acquired and restructured into a conservation reserve in 2006. Slender Bell-fruit (Codonocarpus pyramidalis) was first recorded by our Reserve Managers in 2009 in the Mulga (Acacia aneura) shrublands of the reserve’s eastern rocky hills. Its natural range extends (as scattered patches) throughout the Flinders/Olary ranges, so there has been an expectation it would turn up at Boolcoomatta.

Further into the western half of the reserve, on the flat saltbush plains of the Broken Hill complex, thick patches of an unusual acacia on thin sand dunes stand out in a sea of low chenopod shrubs. This is Acacia carneorum, which is restricted to a narrow band along the NSW─SA border and is called Purplewood because of its striking purple heartwood. Although we have always known this species was present on the reserve, it has only been in recent years, in the absence of stock and with the establishment of rabbit and macropod exclosures, that we have started to gauge the impact of each on Purplewood’s natural recruitment, especially through suckering. And it is only just in time. The vast majority of the remaining patches are dominated by very old senescing plants. Maintaining low total grazing pressure for extended periods, and in particular knocking out rabbits anywhere near these dunes, is the key to recovering this species.

Also on these vast open plains, Boolcoomatta supports one of SA’s few populations of the nationally threatened Red Swainson-pea (Swainsona murrayana) – a species whose stronghold is far to the south-east in the grasslands of the Riverina. Surveys over recent years – following extraordinary rainfall – has demonstrated not only that this species is abundant and widespread on the property, but also that it is restricted to a landsystem/ecological community that was previously unrecognized in the region – a form of ‘banded vegetation’ comprising ‘gilgai’ depressions dominated by ephemeral forbs and grasses, alternating with almost barren run-off zones.

There is clearly a role for direct conservation management to halt the decline and extinction of some critically endangered species, but the Bush Heritage approach of targeting significant but ecologically healthy landscapes aims to see whole ecosystems of plants and animals protected and able to flourish - both the species we know about and those we don’t (at least not yet)!

Bush Heritage is funded by public donations and it is only through the support of the Australian community that properties such as those described above can be purchased and protected in perpetuity.

References

Mackey B., Gilmore S., Pringle H., Foreman P., van Bommel L., Berry S., and Haseler M. (2010). BioPrEP – a regional, process-based approach for assessment of land with high conservation value for Bush Heritage Australia. Ecological Management and Restoration, 11: 51-60.

R. Fairfax, R. Fensham, R. Wager, S. Brooks, A. Webb and P. Unmack (2007). Recovery of the red-finned blue-eye: an endangered fish from springs of the Great Artesian Basin. Wildlife Research 34: 156-166.

Davies R.J-P., Craigie A.I., Mackay D.A., Whalen M.A., Cheong J. P-E.and Leach G.J. (2007). Resolution of the taxonomy of Eriocaulon (Eriocaulaceae) taxa endemic to Australian mound springs, using morphometrics and AFLP markers. Australian Systematic Botany 20: 428-447.

Jones, D. L. and Clements, M. A. (2006).Australian Orchid ResearchVolume 5: New Taxa of Australian Orchidaceae. Australian Orchid Foundation.

Table 1: 15 new (or potentially new) or recently described plant species found at Edgbaston Reserve, central Queensland.

Status

Species

Notes

Undes

Atriplex spp. (Edgbaston)

Endemic to Edgbaston

Undes

Calocephalus spp. (Edgbaston)

Endemic to Edgbaston region

Undes

Chloris ssp. (Edgbaston)

Endemic to Edgbaston

Undes

Dissocarpus spp. (Edgbaston)

Endemic to Dongmabulla and Edgbaston

Ee*

Eriocaulon aloefolium R.J.Davies

Endemic to Edgbaston

Ee*

Eriocaulon giganticum R.J.Davies

Endemic to Edgbaston

Ee

Eryngium fontanum A.E.Holland & E.J.Thomps.

Endemic to Dongmabulla and Edgbaston

Undes

Gunniopsis sp. (Edgbaston R.J.Fensham 5094)

Endemic to Edgbaston

Undes

Isotoma sp. (Myross R.J.Fensham 3883)

Endemic to Edgbaston region

E

Myriophyllum artesium Halford & Fensham

Endemic to GAB springs

Undes

Peplidium sp. (Edgbaston R.J.Fensham 3341)

Endemic to Edgbaston

Undes

Sclerolaena sp. 01 (Edgbaston)

Endemic to Edgbaston

Undes

Sclerolaena sp. 02 (Edgbaston)

Endemic to Edgbaston

E

Sporobolus pamelae B.K.Simon

Endemic to GAB springs

R

Sporobolus partimpatens R.Mills ex B.K.Simon

Endemic to Dongmabulla and Edgbaston


E – Endangered Nationally - Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (Comm)
e – endangered in Qld - Nature Conservation Act
r – rare in Qld - Nature Conservation Act
* = provisional conservation status only
Undec – new species yet to be formally described or named

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