Reflections on the Restore Regenerate Revegetate Conference

Day 1

The conference was started with a welcome drink (with generous amounts of drink). There was a good vibe with everyone smiling at each other as they passed. Unsurprisingly a lot of people knew each other, but newbies like me could easily introduce ourselves to someone and get into a conversation. I was in heaven! Everywhere I turned there was a conversation about restoration in one of its many forms. I wanted to join every conversation I heard snippets of as I passed!

As we were nibbling on the canapés and drinking our generous amounts of alcohol, we participated in environmental street theatre performed by local high school drama students. We were guided around the central courtyard and stopped to admire short vignettes addressing various issues our environment and society are facing. There were other artistic and musical displays and performances during the conference, which I think created a more congenial and inclusive atmosphere.

Day 2

The day opened with excerpts of God’s Drawing Board by Ralph Steadman and Elena Kats-Chernin performed by local musicians and accompanied by a dance film. I adored the music and of course loved the theme of environmental degradation and then renewal.

Kicking off the plenary presentations was Thomas Jones from the USDA Agricultural Research Service Utah with an overview of recent advances in restoration theory and practice. Some of the things that I came away with:

  • The developing understanding of plant-soil feedbacks and the influence of initial colonising species and soil inoculations to influence the trajectory of a newly revegetated community;
  • genetics use in assisting evolution (the area in which he works) to help better restoration outcomes;
  • The recent developments in plant provenance for restoration;
  • The benefits of using “islands” of restored or remnant vegetation when project resources are limited, as they can provide microenvironments better for species establishment, connectivity and a seed source for further revegetation;
  • The promise of functional traits in restoration (which excited me as this is what my PhD is on) and
  • the ever more prominent concern for fauna, particularly insects with the loss of bees and monarch butterflies.

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The second plenary for the morning was by University of New England’s Caroline Gross talking about Pollination services and restoration. This was the beginning of what was to become a theme for me on Day 2….fauna. I had never really given much thought to fauna, but Caroline’s talk was one of many today that has convinced me to incorporate them into my studies. Ultimately her message was that pollinators should be considered in restoration projects, including during the plant species selection process. For example, choosing species that flower for long periods and contain a lot of nectar can encourage healthy insect populations. She was encouraging us to consider the dynamic nature of pollinator-plant relationships. For example, some pollinating insects will feed on one plant, but live on another, so both plants need to be present to support the insect population. Some plant species will have better pollination rates if other plant species that flower earlier in the season and attract the same pollinators are present nearby. Finally, and more depressingly, she demonstrated the importance of understanding pollinator-plant relationships with the example of the Bitou bush. The Bitou seed beetle was introduced to eat the bitou bush seeds in an attempt to control their booming population. What they hadn’t considered was that they are also pollinators for the bitou bush, and their role as pollinator did more to build up the strength of the bitou bush population than their role as seed predator did to reduce the population.

The first session I attended was the Invasive Species and Agri-ecosystem Restoration. I learnt something new straight away: ‘agri-ecosystems’ are those systems influenced by agriculture currently or in the past. The main take-homes for me were: don’t concentrate on the invasive species, concentrate on their impacts (Peter Fleming from NSW DPI and UNE); new studies suggest that there are between 2.1-6.3 million feral cats roaming Australia (Frances Zewe from UNE); and getting to Maquarie Island can be a b***h, but there have been some incredible results in native plant rehabilitation with the removal of rabbits and invasive plant species (Brian Sindel from UNE).

agri-ecosystems: those systems influenced by agriculture currently or in the past

For the rest of the day I ran between sessions in the 34 degree heat. I learnt that:

  • nest boxes have significantly greater fluctuations in temperatures compared to tree hollows and the highs are so high that they can lead to embryo death, meaning nest boxes are not a 1 for 1 trade for tree hollows (Phil Conacher from Conacher Consulting);
  • Figs not only attract birds that eat their yummy fruit, but attract a large number of insectivorous birds. They come for the tiny wasps that pollinate the fig flowers, and the bird numbers peak when the young wasps hatch inside the fruit and emerge into the big bad world (David Mackay from UNE);
  • And that at a Western Sydney restoration site mulching woody weeds growing in forests and woodlands and distributing that mulch over the site reduces other invasive weed establishment, and resulted in a 90% reduction of exotic cover (David Brennan from Eco Logical Australia).

Another theme emerging today was that it is relatively easy to remove 80% of an invasive species; it is the last 20% that is hard. That last 20% requires us to really step up and take a more dynamic approach than we are currently using. We should use “integrated technologies” and incorporate more than one species because they interact.

In the evening there was a poster session with posters on a range of projects, from using lasers to map vegetation structure to seeding versus planting to the Slopes2Summit Bushlinks project. We all enjoyed a BBQ and some music while sitting at long tables set up in the courtyard. The night ended with several servings of chocolate mousse and the launch of Dazed by Dieback comic book by Dr David Curtis.

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Day 3

I really enjoyed the mornings’ plenary talks. First was Andrew Campbell from the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research, who gave us an enjoyable history of trees on farms. He started with the 1950s during which there were some improvements in the productive landscape with the adoption of clover to fix nitrogen, myxo reducing rabbit numbers and high wool prices. By the 80s the value of farm trees was starting to be recognised, there were calls to reduce land clearing and a rise in community environment groups. Unfortunately there was also large-scale land clearing and tree plantings were not established with conservation outcomes in mind. Campbell quoted others who called the approach “landscape decorating” and “garnish”. During the 90s Landcare was becoming more established, and lots of other conservation organisations and community groups were starting. There was also a small amount of high quality research into the environmental and production benefit of farm trees. From 2000 to 2015 there were very large and expensive national programs being implemented, and there were loads of policies and plans being set up in response to the drought. In addition, private land conservation was really taking off. Campbell sees the following as challenges we are currently facing: the need to scale up farm tree planting, creating an industry around seed production and revegetation, and the development of products from native flora. He called for more investment in the form of finances, time and skills, and greater research and extension.

Campbell quoted others who called the approach “landscape decorating” and “garnish”.

Campbell addresses the major idea that I came away with today: the fact that we have not yet learnt to live in Australia. We do not use the native plant resources, and we don’t tailor farming methods to the Australian conditions. We are always trying to squeeze Australia into a European mould. He quoted a farmer: “If we had discovered and colonised England, do you think we’d have grazed it with Kangaroos?”

“If we had discovered and colonised England, do you think we’d have grazed it with Kangaroos?”

The second plenary was given by David Norton from the University of Christchurch in New Zealand. He spoke about scaling up restoration in New Zealand by managing remnant vegetation and restoring vegetation on private land. This would significantly increase the area of native vegetation and dramatically increase the connectivity of already protected vegetation managed by the Department Of Conservation. I found it very interesting that thanks to New Zealand’s mesic environment the focus there is on removing livestock and feral animals which allows the native vegetation to naturally regenerate. The gorse bush (that so disturbed me when I was in the South Island on my honeymoon last year) is left because they have found if grazing is removed, the native forest will eventually outcompete the gorse.

After morning tea I attended the broad-acre revegetation strategies and techniques symposium.  A common message in this symposium reflected that of Andrew Campbell’s: we need to build market demand for native species to be able to carry out large-scale projects. To do this David Freudenberger from the Australian National University recommended internalising the cost of food production to create a funding source and establishing offset programs and payments for carbon-sequestration.

After morning tea I attended Sustainable revegetation in a changing world: planning and design issues. In this session were talks on the impact of planting arrangement on species reproduction, choosing species in preparation for climate change, and how to make cross-property restoration work.

During the lunch break I went on a tour of the N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium with the Curator Dr Ian Telford and Directory Jeremy Bruhl. They showed us herbarium specimens from all around the world of everlasting daisies brought together at the herbarium for a study their taxonomy. Ian explained that many of the everlasting daisies in front of us had been identified as the same species, but their morphology, physiology and distributions suggest otherwise. I had spent time in herbariums before, but hadn’t ever really thought about the challenges facing those working in them recording our natural environment and assisting others with their identification. The N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium really has an incredible set up producing important and influential work, especially considering that they run on no money and rely on volunteers of varying skills and experience to run the place and carry out research.

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I had initially planned to go to the next instalment of the Sustainable revegetation in a changing world: planning and design issues symposium….but I decided to go to soils and restoration because there was air conditioning in that room. I do not regret that decision. Not only because I finally got a chance to cool down, but because I learnt a huge amount about soils; things that I will be integrating into my own PhD projects. Brian Wilson from UNE gave a nice overview of restoration and soil, and Stuart MacDonald from UTas gave a great presentation of work he was doing for his PhD comparing soil composition in cropped land, restored vegetation and remnant vegetation. He found that the soil of restored pastures was not significantly different from that on pasture land, and was not quickly transforming to soil seen in remnant vegetation.

Day 4

The day started with rallying call from Paul Gibson-Roy from Greening Australia and University of Western Sydney. In his plenary speech he argued that we can dramatically increase our restoration (of grasslands in particular) by believing that we can, gaining access to land and the creation of markets for restoration and native seeds. We can draw from the American experience where farming bills encouraged farmers to plant native grasses, and other legislation to encourage the planting of native grasses and forbs along roadsides. The result is the creation of a market that has driven the industrial scale production of native grass seeds. They even produce mixes of seed for different purposes, such as deer mixes, butterfly mixes and erosion mixes.

Kristin Williams from CSIRO was the next plenary speaker and presented on how to restore with climate change in mind. She argued that to prepare our native environment for climate change we should:

  • restore in a way that optimises ecological processes (like nutrient cycling, connectivity and reducing salinity);
  • maximise the evolutionary character of Australia, such as deal with exotics so that there are resources for natives maintaining process that have led to the evolution of our native fauna and flora, such as fire and low soil nutrient levels;
  • maintain the unique regional character of our plant and animals at a smaller scale, for example by revegetation with plants from nearer by than further away;
  • And minimise species loss nationally by actions such as conserving communities that are currently under represented in the reserve system.

Something that came out of both Paul and Kristin’s talks was the need to use the legislative process to facilitate all these changes. Getting legislation to change will require us to get off our behinds and take action.

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Some flowers from the urban restoration sites.

Field trip time! I put my name down for the Rivercare and Urban Bushland Restoration Excursion. We set off in two buses and were taken to Snow Gums Bushland Reserve which has been the focus of a local restoration group since 1975. An attendee asked what the fire regime for the reserve was. Kate Boyd immediately responded: “arson”. A nice example of some of the challenges facing urban restoration projects.  From there we went to Armidale Arboretum and had a wander around the 1.5 ha (mostly) native grassland. After a lunch at the Armidale Tree Group nursery, we wandered along Dumaresq Creek and heard stories about its rehabilitation.

An attendee asked what the fire regime for the reserve was. Kate Boyd immediately responded: “arson”.

Day 5

I’ll admit that by this point I was buzzing with ideas for my PhD and was not paying as much attention to the plenaries as usual. I was scribbling graphs and lists in my notebook instead. But the day started with a Skype call with the very charming Joel Brown with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service in New Mexico. He spoke about better tools and models for rangeland restoration. He was followed by a recorded presentation from Kingsley Dixon from Curtin Uni in Perth on restoration in Australia and a little about the SERA National Standards in anticipation of Tein McDonald’s talk later in the day. It was wonderful to be able to have Joel and Kingsley join us from their respective parts of the world. And thanks to the wonders of technology the audience was able to ask questions of both speakers.

After morning tea I went to the Connectivity for biodiversity conservation in fragmented landscapes symposium. Veronica Doerr from CSIRO asked the question: do we have the right science to making ecosystem connectivity work? She argued that there are two major knowledge gaps when it comes to creating connectivity across landscapes for native flora and fauna. Firstly, how much vegetation is needed to ensure that a species survives in a matrix of rural or urban land? Secondly, what kind of connectivity will allow species to move across landscapes? She also demonstrated just how difficult it can be to make this work at the human end. She showed that to just create a corridor across a relatively short stretch of land would require 100 landowners to give the project the thumbs up. We need to examine the social and economic mechanisms that will allow us to achieve scale.

Michael Drielsma from OEH talked about the term ecological integrity; what it is, its use in legislation, and its role in conservation. Andrew Baker from NPWS talked about some of the restoration work being done on their land. Sebastian Burgess talked about connectivity in the Midlands of Tasmania, and some of the exciting work being done down there. I then popped over to the Restoration and Indigenous NRM session. I was super impressed with the Aboriginal Riverkeeper project being run by Vanessa Cavanagh at Eco Logical Australia. This project employs and trains a small group of Aboriginal people in natural resource management and cultural practices in the Georges River area.

After lunch we came together again for the two last pleneries. The tireless Tein McDonald, spoke about the history of restoration in Australia and the new Standards developed by SERA and adopted by SER International. We ended on a high and humorous note with great Richard Hobbs from the University of Western Australia. Whilst acknowledging the need to carefully consider our priorities as we continue to conserve our native species and ecosystem process, he encouraged us all to keep our heads up.

Unfortunately I had to rush off to get my flight before the student prizes and final remarks. But the good vibe continued at the airport where a bunch of delegates sat around (exhausted) discussing what they learnt and their future plans.

Conclusions

I was truly inspired by the people and stories at the Restore, Regenerate, Revegetate Conference, and grateful to all the people who imparted their wisdom (and didn’t rip apart my PhD project). The main message I came away with was that we need to live in Australia in a way that embraces our natural heritage. There are gains for our economy in integrating our natural and productive landscapes. There are markets for native seed stock and native plant products to be developed. And finally, we will be able to cope with climate change better if we conserve and prepare our natural environment.

Restore Regenerate Revegetate: A Conference on Restoring Ecological Processes, Ecosystems and Landscapes in a Changing World was organised and held by the University of New England in February 2017 with the help of the Northern Tablelands Local Land Services, North West Local Land Services and Brigalow-Nandewar Biolinks Steering Committee.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Restore Regenerate Revegetate Conference

  1. Hi Charlotte,

    What a great blog! I’m interested in this idea that there are gains to our economy by integrating our natural and productive landscapes. Did you hear suggestions on how this could change? Were there suggestions that we farm native fauna and flora? Or is it more around having an ecology that is less agri-ecology? Interested in your thoughts 🙂

    Cheers
    Ciara

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi!

      I’m afraid I’m not an expert. Here are some links on the benefits of native plant and animal species for productive landscapes:

      http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/vegetation/importance.htm
      http://agwhitepaper.agriculture.gov.au/GP%20Submissions%20for%20publication/GP284%20WWF_Part%205.pdf
      http://foodandagpolicy.org/positions/increase-agricultural-productivity-conserving-and-enhancing-soil-water-and-habitat

      I suspect the argument is that by integrating our native plants and animals with our productive landscape we can increase agricultural yield and decrease the costs of dealing with environmental degradation (e.g. loss of productive land to salinity or soil degradation, money spent on repairing waterways and dealing with erosion). The above links talk about how conservation of native vegetation in particular can help mitigate these costs. How do we do we integrate our natural and productive systems? One of the major ways is to conserve and restore native vegetation and fauna communities on productive land. This is something that needs action on an international scale, all the way down to individual landholders. I’m reading this book at the moment. It is a good account of how to implement conservation and restoration on private farming land. https://www.mup.com.au/items/119773

      The other aspect to gains to the economy (and this links to the farming of native species question) is that new industries could be created using native species that are better for our natural environment than the industries that use exotic species, and also earns money on national and international markets. We already have cut flower/foliage markets and essential oil production. But there are some other opportunities, like using native grass species to feed livestock (http://agriculture.vic.gov.au/agriculture/farm-management/native-vegetation/a-guide-to-native-pasture-management). As I mentioned in the post, in the U.S. restoration of native grasslands is encouraged by legislation (at least for the time being….who knows what could happen now!), so there is a native seed production industry. And of course, industries like the more controversial kangaroo farming.

      I think it is about integrating ecology into our agricultural landscapes, specifically native ecology! And of course, it isn’t just about having species on the ground, but about maintain and restoring ecosystem processes.

      As I say, I am no expert! But these are my initial thoughts on the matter 🙂

      Like

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