Private conservation protects Aussie species

By John Pickrell 20 October 2011
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Private reserves now protect many native species and are helping to increase population sizes and extend ranges.

DRIVE FOR 100KM WEST from Broken Hill, cross the border into South Australia, and you’ll find Boolcoomatta, a former sheep station splayed over 63,000ha of arid saltbush plains and open mulga woodlands. Deserted farm buildings, rusted shearing machinery, dusty clumps of wool and a faint whiff of livestock are but an echo of the millions of sheep that passed through here after settlers staked a claim to the land in the late 1850s.

But since 2006 this arid and starkly beautiful property, dominated by big skies and strong winds, has been farmed not for profit, but for nature. That was when private conservation group Bush Heritage added it to their growing inventory of reserves now covering nearly a million hectares of the Australian outback. “I often refer to ourselves as nature farmers,” says Emma Ashton, Boolcoomatta reserve manager, “because we live in much the same way as any farmer but without stock or crops.”

In the five years since Bush Heritage took over, Emma and her husband, fellow reserve manager Peter, have seen a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of resident wildlife. A whole mixture of bird populations have boomed over the last few years, including many shrub and ground-foraging species that can now be seen darting about between the saltbush on the plains.

Abundant wildlife

The abundance of white-winged fairy wrens has increased by 235 per cent, rufous fieldwrens are up 395 per cent and redthroats have increased by a remarkable 655 per cent. Other species such as the red-capped robin and orange chat have returned to Boolcoomatta (pronounced “bull-coo-matter”) after long absences.

Mammals are also benefitting. The nationally vulnerable dusky hopping mouse has been seen here for the first time – the furthest south the species has been recorded – and last year Peter spotted a yellow-footed rock wallaby on the property for the first time in more than 80 years.

The rains which returned here in 2009 have had an undoubted impact, but so has the removal of livestock; the control of feral goats, foxes and cats; careful fire management; and the reinstatement of natural watercourses. A similar story is playing out in other reserves across Australia, and it was here in Boolcoomatta that Bush Heritage this week released a report revealing the full impact their reserves are having in the battle to save our native wildlife.

Bush Heritage’s 33 reserves are now home to half of Australia’s native bird species, a third of land mammals and a quarter of plant, amphibian and reptile species. The Edgbaston reserve in Queensland has the world’s only remaining red-finned blue-eye, a critically endangered fish – and  four populations there have been increased to seven through translocation into neighbouring pools of springwater.

Bush Heritage now has 33 reserves found all across Australia (red) 
– most in key regions targeted because they are poorly represented in National Parks (green).

Conservation impacts

In June the western chestnut mouse was found on the Ethabuka reserve in the Simpson Desert, hundreds of kilometres further south than it was thought to be distributed. Others reserves have seen the return of endangered plants, including the robust greenhood orchid.

Private conservation charities such as Bush Heritage are “having important and very beneficial effects on the conservation of native wildlife, both directly through on-the-ground conservation management and indirectly through the educational value of their works,” says Professor Chris Dickman a terrestrial ecologist with the University of Sydney. Chris led the team that found the western chestnut mouse in a survey at Ethabuka earlier this year.

Part of the success seen over the last 20 years has been down to a careful selection of properties for acquisition, says report author and Bush Heritage’s science and monitoring manager Dr Jim Radford. 

“We’re not just after any old land. Over 60 per cent of the land in our reserves is what we would call poorly protected, meaning that less than 15 per cent of that type of vegetation habitat is already represented in the National Reserve System,” he says. “On the whole, we’ve been quite good at picking parts of the landscape that aren’t already in national parks. The park system will always be the foundation, but we are trying to complement that.” 

Critical complementary conservation role

“Bush Heritage and similar organisations like the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) play a critical role in complementing the work of government agencies in protecting in perpetuity large areas of land and the species, habitats and ecological processes that they contain,” Chris told Australian Geographic.

“These privately-owned conservation reserves also provide opportunities for collaborative research, conservation of threatened species and habitats, management of fire, pests, weeds and other environmental problems, and can be excellent sites to achieve restoration goals such as the return of locally-extinct native species,” he says.

The AWC does similar work over their 22 private reserves which cover 2.6 million hectares from the Mornington Sanctuary in the Kimberley to Piccaninny Plains in Cape York. According to Atticus Fleming, AWC chief executive, these reserves protect 90 per cent of the remaining population of bridled nail-tail wallabies (a species that was rediscovered in 1973 after being presumed extinct) and critically important populations of iconic animals such as bilbies, Gouldian finches and woylies. AWC also owns the  largest feral cat and fox-free area on mainland Australia.

According to the AWC feral cats are killing an estimated two million native animals a day in the top one-sixth of Australia alone. Both Bush Heritage and the AWC have been more active than national parks typically are in controlling feral predators on their properties – an activity that they claim is a prerequisite for protecting remaining populations of native species and later returning them to places where they are locally extinct.

Bearded dragons (Pogona sp.) are among the many species flourishing
at Boolcoomatta following the removal of livestock. (Credit: John Pickrell).

Worst mammal extinction record in the world

“Australia has the worst mammal extinction record in the world and many other indicators of our natural capital continue to decline,” say Atticus. “The task of saving our wildlife and habitats is too great for government alone. With the support of everyday Australians, Australian Wildlife Conservancy and other private conservation organisations have responded to this challenge and are now playing a vital role in defining a new model for conservation – a  model designed to halt and reverse the tide of extinctions.”

Because private conservation charities are unfettered by the bureaucracy of the national parks system, it means they can be more nimble on their feet, experiment and try different approaches. Bush Heritage reserve managers, for example, can make many decisions themselves as how to best manage their land without having to get everything rubber-stamped by management.

For these reasons, private conservation organisations are helping to fill gaps in the system, and are likely to become an increasingly important force for Australian conservation.

At least on the saltbush plains and rust-coloured rocky outcrops of Boolcoomatta it’s an approach that seems to be working. “It was here last year, in the rocky country, that reserve manager Peter Ashton spotted the first yellow-footed rock wallaby on Boolcoomatta since 1924,” says Jim gesturing towards the horizon. “We know there’s a population over the range there in Bimbowrie station, probably 15 to 20km away.”

“We’re hopeful that in time we’ll have a resident population here as they move across from that station. I think they’ll like what they find here with reduced competition from goats. And with fewer foxes, cats and rabbits, the conditions should be right for them to settle here once again.”