I’m now into another volunteering placement, this time in South West Rocks (which somewhat confusingly is in the northeast of New South Wales). While I’m here I’m doing many many things, largely revolving around one particular approach to conservation called “assisted – natural bush regeneration”. Now just in case, I will clarify now that the word ” bush” in Australia is used to mean “the bush”, which is equivalent to “wild area”. I’m not regenerating hedges (for the most part).
While I’m here I’m largely working with the South West Rocks Dunecare group (check out their website HERE), who are a (award winning) volunteer group who’s work covers 15 kilometres of the New South Wales coastline. If ever I wanted an example of an excellent volunteer group, this would be it. They demonstrate exactly how to run a local group in order to make a big difference in your local area. The group is made up of around 30 dedicated volunteers (not bad for a catchment of a few thousand people) ranging in age from mid twenties through to people in their seventies. Volunteering commitments tend to range from folks who go out once per month on a Sunday, to folks who go out every Wednesday morning, and a few who go out piecemeal (when the weather is good) through the week too! They also occasionally get folks like me who turn up for anything from a week to several months, and get stuck into as much as they (safely) can.
One of the really great things about the SWR Dunecare group is their high level of organisation and coordination. From within the ranks of the volunteers there are a bunch of individuals who really take volunteering to a new level. They interact extremely closely with the national parks staff so that they can support each other, and this unified approach really brings home the ecological bacon. Using Google earth (who needs GIS?) they have a detailed plan of their area of activities, split into manageable parcels of land. Onto this they log the current state of each parcel of land, any activities which are performed on a parcel of land, and they can cue up activities which should be performed, allowing a triage approach to the area. This also means that they now have historical records of everything which has been done for the past 20 years(!) in their area (by volunteers, national parks staff, and external contractors). This not only means that they can see the difference which their work is making, but it also means they can see what works and what doesn’t in different areas for different weeds. This is an absolutely amazing and valuable resource this is, and did I mention they’re doing the whole thing without being paid at all (except for the occasional cake)!? As a nice visual of the impact of a bit of volunteering, see the pictures below.
Fortunately the government out here realises what a valuable resource this is, and volunteer groups can apply for supportive funding, which pays for equipment (saws, herbicides etc) for the volunteers to use, and contractors who have skills and equipment beyond what the volunteers can provide (spraying areas which are overrun with weeds for example). This means that even when the problem is extensive, this combined arms approach can tackle even the worst affected areas in a well coordinated manner, which seems to be quite effective.
Assisted natural bush regeneration (ANBR) is a very interesting method of conservation which fits in very nicely with the principals of rewilding, a concept which I’m getting more and more interested in. The gist of ANBR is that you aim to remove the weeds from areas and allow the native plants to take over of their own accord. You’re basically just opening up the ground to tip the balance in favour of native species. Of course with native plants come native animals and fungi, and the whole system is able to return to its uninvaded state (we’ll leave discussion of whether that is its “natural state” for another time). Weeds in this case are defined as invasive species which are not naturally out competed by the native species. Generally these weed species occur on the edges of native forests where they can get plenty of light and nutrients, and shade out the native saplings etc. Once the forest’s canopy has closed over however, these weed species can’t get a foot (root) in, and therefore the system pretty much looks after itself. One major issue however, is the natural tendency for fire to spread through these areas. Though most of the mature trees survive these fires, they clear out the undergrowth (native ferns etc), and can leave space for the weeds to sneak in again.
ANBR doesn’t involve any planting, and therefore there’s no assumption about what the ecosystem “should be”. Indeed they tend to find that when they have done planting in the past, it doesn’t lead to faster regeneration, and tends to require a lot more looking after (kangaroos eat the saplings etc).
So that’s a bit of an intro to my current placement for you. I’ll probably do a bit more detailed look at some of the weeds etc in the near future (when I can get internet access), but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Until next time