The (bush) revival gospel

By Karen McGhee 29 June 2009
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A gloved army, largely volunteer, is helping Australian bushland to regrow to its natural glory.

Paul Malligan trudges waist-deep through a sea of dense green leaves in Wyrrabalong National Park, on the NSW Central Coast, and contemplates an afternoon plunge in the nearby Pacific Ocean. It should be an idyllic workplace for a lover of the Aussie bush. But this is a troubled paradise.

“Not all green is good,” says Paul in casual understatement as he surveys the footy-field-sized patch of waxy foliage stretching around him. It’s unquestionably verdant but rather homogeneous, its varying hues of khaki, emerald and olive barely discernible. Instead, in a scene replicated along more than a third of the NSW coastline, this plant community, protected for its biodiversity, is being choked by a South African native plant – bitou bush.

Promoted in Australia until the early 1970s as a dune stabiliser, bitou is now one of the continent’s worst weeds. It overgrows, smothers and excludes native plant species wherever it takes hold. It’s an ecological vandal just as surely as the rabbit or cane toad. Paul’s environment management company has been contracted by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to eradicate the weed from Wyrrabalong and help create a landscape that encourages the return of locally indigenous flora. It’s a 21st-century, large-scale, commercial approach to what’s traditionally been seen as a grassroots environmental practice – bush regeneration.

Now a worldwide movement, bush ‘regen’ was started in Sydney during the 1960s by sisters Joan and Eileen Bradley. They developed, applied and documented a method based on simple ecological principles to reinvigorate native life in parks and woodland around the harbourside suburb of Mosman. The sisters shunned the use of herbicides, pulled weeds by hand and advocated the gentle coaxing of the bush to mount its own natural recovery, driven by seeds lying dormant in soil and leaf litter or carried by wind or animals.

Many community-based volunteer bush and landcare groups across the country still adhere strictly to the Bradley Method but many more apply modified versions. Strict Bradleyists, as they’re known, continue to frown on the use of herbicides. But these plant-killing chemicals are now used widely, albeit with caution, for weed control in modern bush regen.

“I don’t think bush regeneration is ever as simple as just applying one method,” says John Thorp, National Weeds Management Facilitator. He’s seen volunteer groups lose interest because they’ve been pulling up weeds for years without achieving much. “If your site is virtually a weed monoculture you’ve often got little choice other than to spray with herbicide.”

There are still inexplicable elements of bush regen that, like horse-whispering, rely on practitioners’ ecological intuition and connection to their land. But the science of bush regeneration has come a long way in the past 40 years. Tools and techniques that the Bradleys could never have imagined are now available.

There’s also now a greater sense of urgency about bush regen. It’s developed from the realisation that sites in need of rehabilitation don’t indefinitely retain the capacity for self-recovery. This has driven the rise of pragmatism in the movement, which would have undoubtedly made the Bradleys cringe. In short, the pragmatic approach is ‘whatever works’ – as long as it supports and doesn’t harm indigenous ecosystems – and includes herbicide use.

“You need to ask, as a land manager, what you need to do to intervene in an ecosystem to restore its ecological functions,” explains ecologist Peter Dixon, a two-decade veteran of bush regen and a former long-time president of the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators. “That might mean the use of fire or herbicides or planting or revegetation.”

Whatever approach they adopt, community bush regen groups now represent tens of thousands of volunteers. This green army has been growing steadily since the movement began and is stronger than ever, although its demographics appear to have shifted. More young people are studying bush regen, so the movement is no longer a stronghold of the over-50s.

“Probably 15–20 per cent of our [bush regen] students are university graduates in conservation and environmental management areas looking to get hands-on skills,” says Frank Gasparre, head teacher of environmental management at Ryde TAFE, Sydney, one of the first vocational training providers to offer a course in bush regen. “We still get the volunteers…and retirees who want to contribute something to the community. But we also get more kids now straight out of school and people looking to make a career change.”

This shift in the make-up of students now pursuing formal training in bush regen is also a sign of its increasing professionalism. Bush regen is no longer just a movement. It’s an industry. Little more than 10 years ago, for example, professional bush regenerators such as Paul Malligan were thin on the ground. Now there are companies contracted to carry out bush regen work in all States. Many councils have at least one bush regenerator on staff; some have teams.

Last year the Gold Coast City Council, which oversees planning and development in one of Australia’s most rapidly growing urban areas, appointed its first natural areas restoration officer, Jen Ford. Much of Jen’s role involves bush regen, although she prefers to use the term “restoration” because her work has a wider focus than that which “bush regeneration” traditionally implies.

“My role is more about rescuing and rehabilitating whole ecosystems and they can be anything from wetlands to rainforest or habitats along the banks of rivers,” she explains.

Jen, who’s been working in and teaching bush regen for the past 12 years, is now responsible for the rehabilitation of 15,000 ha – of local parks, reserves, buffer zones and vegetation corridors – in south-eastern Queensland. Her sites range in form and size from a few suburban hectares of dry eucalypt woodland to a 1400 ha wetland reserve. She has a full-time staff of four and is about to add another three full-time bush regenerators to her team. Last year her weed budget alone was $500,000.

Jen says that she expects some sites, most notably vegetation lining the banks along parts of the Nerang River, will take at least 20 years of work before they are stable enough to be left alone with minimal monitoring and maintenance. By any measure, Jen’s challenges are daunting but she says that every local government area in Australia faces similar expectations to rescue and rehabilitate natural ecosystems.

“Personally, I do get overwhelmed sometimes by the size of this problem [nationally], but I’m an optimist,” she says. “I know what’s involved in repairing these areas and it’s a lot of labour and a lot of money. I sometimes question if we’re going to be able to…resurrect all these areas.

“But you’d be amazed at what’s being achieved. I’m continually heartened by the recovery I see – native plants coming back, fauna moving in again and the complexity of forests and other native ecosystems being restored.”

Source: Australian Geographic Jul- Sep 2007