“Darker male giraffes have been found to be more solitary and less social than their lighter-coloured counterparts, according to new research from The University of Queensland… “ UQ News Articlefeaturing Dr Madelaine Castles. Read more on this study here (DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2019.08.003)
“New research has found that habitat loss is a major concern for hundreds of Australian bird species, and south eastern Australia has been the worst affected…” UQ News Articlefeaturing Dr Jeremy Simmonds. Read more on this study here (DOI: 10.1111/cobi.13331)
“Deforestation in Colombia has been linked to armed conflict and forests’ proximity to coca crops, the plant from which cocaine is derived…” UQ News Articlefeaturing PhD student Pablo Negret. Read more on this study here (DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.07.021)
“Tree climbing lions star in a new National Geographic documentary filmed by a University of Queensland PhD candidate…” UQ News Articlefeaturing PhD student Aleksander Braczkowski. See more here (natgeotv)
“An endangered Queensland bird is at risk of extinction because environmental legislation is failing to protect its habitat, according to a University of Queensland-led study…” UQ News Articlefeaturing Dr April Reside. Read more on this study here (DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2019.01.005)
This group, led by Martine Maron and James Watson, and supported by Maron Lab members Jeremy Simmonds and Laura Sonter, aims to examine how compensatory approaches like offsets can be harnessed to deliver the best outcomes for biodiversity and people in different parts of the world.
In recognition of the differing in-country contexts in which compensatory policies are implemented, the group, comprising stakeholders from private industry, non-government organisations and academia, will examine which approaches—ranging along a spectrum from the funding of protected areas to net gain of biodiversity—are most suitable in particular circumstances.
Compensatory conservation is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ tool—different approaches will be more or less appropriate for different places. Over the next 12 months, this working group will develop the guidance on what is likely to work best, and where.
One of the recent policy changes made in Queensland and New South Wales has been the introduction of self-assessable codes that allow landholders to clear native vegetation without a permit. These codes are meant to allow small amounts of “low-risk” clearing, so that landholders save time and money and government can focus on regulating activities that have bigger potential impacts on the environment.
Thinning involves the selective removal of native trees and shrubs, and is widely used in the grazing industry to improve pasture quality. It has been argued that thinning returns the environment back to its “natural state” and provides better habitat for native wildlife. However, the science supporting this practice is not as clear-cut as it seems.
Vegetation “thickening” is part of a natural, dynamic ecological cycle. Australia’s climate is highly variable, so vegetation tends to grow more in wetter years and then dies off during drought years. These natural cycles of thickening and thinning can span 50 years or more. In most areas of inland eastern Australia, there is little evidence for ongoing vegetation thickening since pastoral settlement.
Thinning of vegetation using tractors, blades and other machinery interrupts this natural cycle, which can make post-drought recovery of native vegetation more difficult. Loss of tree and shrub cover puts native wildlife at much greater risk from introduced predators like cats, and aggressive, “despotic” native birds. Thinning reduces the diversity of wildlife by favouring a few highly dominant species that prefer open vegetation, and reduces the availability of old trees with hollows.
Many native birds and animals can only survive in vegetation that hasn’t been cleared for at least 30 years. So although vegetation of course grows back after clearing, for native wildlife it’s a matter of quality, not just quantity.
Land clearing by stealth?
Thinning codes in Queensland and New South Wales allow landholders to clear vegetation that has thickened beyond its “natural state”. Yet there is little agreement on what the “natural state” is for many native vegetation communities.
It may be that the actual amount of vegetation cleared under thinning codes is less than the notifications suggest. But we will only know for sure when the next report on land clearing is released, and by then it will be too late.
Getting the balance right
Vegetation policy needs to strike a balance between protecting the environment and enabling landholders to manage their businesses efficiently and sustainably. While self-regulation makes sense for some small-scale activities, the current thinning codes allow large areas of vegetation to be removed from high-risk areas without government oversight.
Thinning codes should only allow vegetation to be cleared in areas that are not mapped as habitat for threatened species or ecosystems, and not to an extent where only scattered trees are left standing in a landscape. Stronger regulation is still needed to reduce the rate of land clearing, which in Queensland is now the highest in a decade.
Protecting native vegetation on private land reduces soil erosion and soil salinity, improves water quality, regulates climate, and allows Australia’s unique plants and animals to survive. Landholders who preserve native vegetation alongside farming provide essential services to the Australian community, and should be rewarded. We need long-term incentives to allow landholders to profit from protecting vegetation instead of clearing it.
The Scientific Exploration Society provides high profile Awards for projects that will leave a lasting legacy and benefit in the field in which a winners’ expedition takes place, but also inspire a wider audience to the issues being addressed through film, photography and the pure passion of the recipient.
It’s no secret that human development frequently comes at a cost to other creatures. As our urban footprint expands, native habitat contracts. To compensate for this, most Australian governments require developers to invest in biodiversity offsetting, where habitat is created or protected elsewhere to counterbalance the impact of construction.
That’s why we spent four years monitoring the program designed to offset the environmental losses caused by widening the Hume Highway between Holbrook and Coolac, New South Wales. Our research has found it was completely ineffective.
Trading trees for boxes
The roadworks required the removal of large, old, hollow-bearing trees, which are critical nesting sites for many animals, including several threatened species. To compensate for these losses, the developer was required to install one nest box for every hollow that was lost – roughly 600 nest boxes were installed.
Many of the boxes were specifically designed for three threatened species: the squirrel glider, the superb parrot and the brown treecreeper. We monitored the offset for four years to see whether local wildlife used the nest boxes.
We found that the nest boxes were rarely used, with just seven records of the squirrel glider, two of the brown treecreeper, and none of the superb parrot. We often saw all three species in large old tree hollows in the area around the boxes we monitored.
Even more worryingly, almost 10% of the boxes collapsed, were stolen or otherwise rendered ineffective just four years after being installed. Perversely, we found that invasive species such as feral bees and black rats frequently occupied the nest boxes.
The offset clearly failed to deliver the environmental outcomes that were promised. Indeed, researchers have been concerned for some time now that offsetting can be misused and abused.
What can be done?
It’s worth noting that research supports using nest boxes as a habitat replacement. However, they may never be effective for species such as the superb parrot. It’s not quite clear why some animals use nest boxes and others don’t, but earlier monitoring projects in the same area found superb parrots consistently avoid them.
Still, concrete steps can – and should – be taken to improve similar offset programs.
First, the one-to-one ratio of nest boxes to tree hollows was inadequate; far more nest boxes needed to be installed to replace the natural hollows that were lost.
Second, nest boxes clearly cannot compensate for the many other key ecological values of large old trees (such as carbon storage, flowering pulses or foraging habitat). This suggests that more effort is needed at the beginning of a development proposal to avoid damaging environmental assets that are extremely difficult to replace – such as large old trees.There also was no requirement to regularly replace nest boxes as they degrade. It can take a hundred years or more for trees to develop natural hollows suitable for nesting wildlife. To truly offset their removal, thousands of boxes may be required over many decades.
Third, where it is simply impossible to protect key features of the environment during infrastructure development, more holistic strategies should be considered. For example, in the case of the woodlands around the Hume Highway, encouraging natural regeneration can help replace old trees.
Tree planting on farms can also make a significant contribution to biodiversity – and some of these may eventually become hollow-bearing trees. A combination of planting new trees and maintaining adequate artificial hollows while those trees mature might be a better approach.
Being accountable for failure
When an offset program fails, it’s unlikely anyone will be asked to rectify the situation. This is because developers are only required to initiate an offset, and are not responsible for their long-term outcomes.
In the case of the Hume Highway development, the conditions of approval specified that nest boxes were to be installed, but not that they be effective.
Despite the ecological failure of the offset (and over A$200,000 invested), the developer has met these legal obligations.
The poor results of the Hume Highway offset program are sobering. However, organisations like Roads and Maritime Services are to be commended for ensuring that monitoring was completed and for making the data available for public scrutiny – many agencies do not even do that.
Indeed, through monitoring and evaluation we can often learn more from failures than successes. There are salutary lessons here, critical to ensuring mistakes are not repeated.