The Regent Honeyeater Habitat Restoration Project is a landscape-scale community effort to protect and restore all significant remnants of native woodland habitat in the agricultural district of the Lurg Hills, near Benalla, Victoria. Relying heavily on volunteer labour, the project conducts planting activities to revegetate old agricultural fields, enhance the understorey in existing stands of forest, and reconnect isolated forest fragments. While focus is placed on restoring and improving habitat for the Regent Honeyeater, a critically endangered bird species native to these Box-Ironbark forests, many other declining birds and mammals also benefit from the restoration effort. To date, the project has garnered the active support of more than 95% of local landowners and has successfully restored almost 1060 hectares.
164 Gardiner Rd, Lurg VIC 3673, Australia, -36.573441776783184, 146.13180437490234
Australia & New Zealand
Country or Territory:
Temperate Forest - Mixed
Area being restored:
more than 1000 hectares
Primary Causes of DegradationAgriculture & Livestock, Deforestation, Fragmentation
Clearing of the Box-Ironbark forests for agriculture has removed about 85% of the original habitat and left only small, isolated remnants of native plant communities that are often connected only by roadside or streamside vegetation. The areas most affected have typically been those on lower slopes and plains where greater fertility and moisture create more favorable conditions for farming, and yet, it is these same areas that support the greatest diversity and abundance of wildlife.
Subsequent to the initial wave of deforestation for agriculture, much of the remaining forest was cut for timber and firewood during the goldrush era of the 1850s to support the rapid population growth and development of industry. Furthermore, until the 1970s large, old trees were systematically ringbarked in some forests to create a “˜pole’ forest for timber production. This young, pole-forest structure is typical of the Box-Ironbark forest today.
The repercussions of deforestation on the region’s wildlife have become evident, as many species have declined in number and are now considered threatened. The threatened fauna include: the Regent Honeyeater, Grey-crowned Babbler, Bushstone Curlew, Squirrel Glider, Bushtailed Phascogale and Quoll. Many species of plants are also threatened, among them: Deane’s Wattle (Acacia deanei ssp. paucijuga), Drooping Wattle (A. difformis), Ploughshare Wattle (A.gunnii), Silver-leaf Tea Tree (Leptospermum multicaule), and a host of declining native peas including Slender Tick-trefoil (Desmodium varians), Western Golden-tip (Goodia medicaginea), Austral Trefoil (Lotus australis), Broughton’s Pea (Swainsona procumbens) and Leafy Templetonia (Templetonia stenophylla).
Reference Ecosystem Description
Among the Box-Ironbark forests and woodlands of Victoria, there are few if any undamaged reference sites to guide restoration work. The project therefore uses roadside linear remnants and the more intact bush areas as a guide to what might have grown on the specific topography of nearby work sites. The accumulated information from 14 years of such observation has enabled project staff to compile a comprehensive planting guide for the different topographies and soils of the whole district.
On the crests and upper slopes of ridges, soils are usually shallow (<10 cm) and stony. They are relatively low in fertility and do not hold water well. Such soils support open, sparse vegetation such as heathy dry forest and grassy dry forest with red stringybark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha) being the dominant species.
As the soils become deeper on the mid to lower slopes, the Box-Ironbark forest takes over. Common tree species of the Box-Ironbark and Box-Gum Grassy Woodland habitats include: Mugga Ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon), Red Box (E. polyanthemos), White Box (E. albens), Grey Box (E. microcarpa), Long-leaf Box (E. goniocalyx), Yellow Box (E. melliodora), Blakelys Red Gum (E. blakelyi), River Red Gum (E. camaldulensis), and Red Stringybark (E. macrorhyncha). Shrubs include a range of Acacia spp., Bursaria spinosa, Dodonaea viscosa ssp angustissima, Calytrix tetragona, Kunzea parvifolia and Grevillea alpina, with groundcovers including a wide range of native forbs and grasses.
Soils become more fertile and retain more water as the landscape flattens from undulating rises through to alluvial plains. Ecological communities such as low rises grassy woodlands, alluvial terraces herb-rich woodland and creekline grassy woodland are found in these areas. To the north of the Box-Ironbark region, the soils of the northern plains have deep profiles with good drainage, high infiltration rates and high permeability. They originally carried grassy woodlands, dominated by Grey Box (E. microcarpa), White Box (E. albens) and Buloke (Allocasuarina luehmannii).
Over 200 bird species have been recorded in the Box-Ironbark region, including waterbirds and other species that visit local wetlands or occur intermittently in Box-Ironbark forests. Over half the species recorded are considered regular visitors or year-round residents.
Nectar is a major food source in these forests, with different tree species producing nectar at different times of year. Some of the richest forest areas have different tree species flowering all year, allowing them to support resident populations of honeyeaters, including two species characteristic of Box-Ironbark forests–Fuscous Honeyeater (Lichenostomus fuscus) and Yellow-tufted Honeyeater (L. melanops)–as well as the endangered Regent Honeyeater (Xanthomyza Phrygia). When drought inhibits flowering, normally sedentary species may be compelled to disperse and seek food in new habitats. The ebb and flow of nectar-feeding birds to and from the region, and within it, contributes to the unique nature of these forests.
Other characteristic fauna of the Box-Ironbark forest includes: 12 species of frogs, including 3 species of Tree Frogs; 40 reptile species, including skinks, tortoises, geckoes and venomous snakes; and 44 species of mammals, including 13 species of bats, the Arboreal Squirrel Glider, Brush-tailed Phascogale and Yellow-footed Antechinus.
The broad aim of the Regent Honeyeater Project (RHP) is to protect and restore all significant remnants of Box-Ironbark and Box-Gum Grassy Woodland habitat in the Lurg Hills and to reconnect them through revegetation. Strategic focus is placed on higher fertility sites while also forming links to drier upland habitats.
The project does not have a monitoring plan.
Because over 18% of the remaining Box-Ironbark habitat in Victoria lies on private land, the support of private landowners is essential to ensuring its restoration and conservation. Consequently, this project has worked in close collaboration with local landowners in the Lurg Hills area and has garnered widespread support from farmers keen on protecting what remains of the forest. To date, 125 landowners have set aside land for the project and close to 400 sites have been protected. Moreover, local farmers actively participate in the decision making process vis-Á -vis the project management committee, and volunteers from the community play a vital role in the implementation and long-term monitoring of restoration activities.
Description of Project Activities:
The project works systematically on a number of integrated fronts using insights from past field observations and the best information available from biologists to guide activities. Work involves: - protecting remnants by fencing - removing woody weeds to improve the long-term viability of core habitats - enhancing understoreys to improve nesting and feeding opportunities for wildlife - enlarging remnants by add-on plantings - reconnecting patches either directly or through 'stepping stone' patches - building biolinks beyond the project area to ensure long-term genetic exchange --Fencing-- Some 295 sites have been protected from further disturbance due to livestock with a total of 190 km of fencing. This has included remnant vegetation as well as sites that were planted. --Planting-- With the help of volunteers, the project collects all its own seed and propagates 40-45,000 seedlings each year, including several threatened species and others that are seriously depleted in the region. Each year, propagation and planting days are organised for 1500 students from more than 20 local schools, as well as hundreds of volunteers from universities, walking clubs, church groups, bird observers, scouts and environment groups. Some 400 sites have been planted using over 385,000 seedlings, and 27 sites have been direct seeded. Anywhere from 30-40 species of trees, shrubs and ground cover are typically planted at each site, with species selection based on overstorey indicators of the likely pre-existing plant associations. On the more micro level, species are carefully matched to changing soils and moisture levels, as various parts of each site are analyzed. The rich planting mix increases the potential for species to shift dominance up or down slope, as the soil moisture changes in coming decades. The basic planting technique utilized has been developed over years of experience and has been shown to be extremely effective. A few weeks before a site is planted, the landholder or a local contractor ploughs a series of riplines: deep cuts a metre or so into the soil. Although the ripline closes straight up again, it loosens the soil and encourages the young seedlings to root rapidly and deeply. They only have a couple of months to be ready for the heat of summer, and if the roots are deep enough already, the tiny amount of moisture remaining in the subsoil will be enough to see them through. Once the riplines have been plowed, the site is sprayed with herbicide in order to reduce competition from weeds and imported pasture grasses. This step doesn't eliminate weeds altogether, but it sets them back a month or two and gives the seedlings a chance to get established and compete on more even terms. Over the next couple of years, other weeds will colonise the disturbed ground, but over time the newly planted natives will shade them out. Ripping and spraying the planting sites has been shown to be effective in promoting natural regeneration in many cases, either from soil-stored seed or recent seed fall from parent plants nearby, and various site treatments (e.g. soil disturbance, spraying, burning) are being tested to accelerate this process. On most sites at about this time, the landholder or a contractor will erect a fence to exclude livestock and set the stage for revegetation. Before the main labour of planting actually begins, the layout team assesses the site to determine what mix of trees and shrubs would best approximate a natural plant community and how they should be positioned. Spacing is an important consideration, as the planting needs to be dense enough to achieve good cover, but not so dense as to waste good tubestock or hinder the development of the smaller and slower-growing species. The layout team also takes special care to put species with particular needs in places where they will grow well. Even on a small site, there is usually a lot of variation between different areas; for example, species like Red Box that thrive on a dry and stony rise will soon drown if planted in the heavy, wet clay near the bottom of the slope where Blakley's Red Gum and the Prickly Tea-tree are at home. When it's time to begin plating, the top few inches of soil are first removed with a mattock and shovel over an area of about two-thirds of a square metre around each seedling. This is done to eliminate unwanted weeds because although herbicide has been applied, the top layer of the soil is still full of weed seeds. The native plant species are adapted to barren soils and can thrive without this topsoil, while nonnative species will find it more difficult to become re-established. Finally, once the seedling has been planted, a milk-carton treeguard is fitted around it. The guard helps conserve moisture and protects the seedling from herbivory by rabbits, hares, and kangaroos. The guard has to be anchored firmly, as kangaroos and cockatoos can easily pull out treeguards if they are not weighted down. Clean, weed-free soil left by the planting team is used to cover the treeguard all around to about one-third of its depth and provide added durability. Over the next few years, the treeguard not only discourages hungry herbivores, it also protects the seedling from the elements and functions like a tiny humidicrib, collecting dew and retaining moisture in the soil for hot summer days. Because it is made of cardboard, it will gradually decompose, and by the time the young tree is three or four years old and growing strongly, the guard has completely rotted away. Once the seedlings have been successfully planted, they are left on their own to become established. As part of the CMA agreement, the farmers are required to continue weed control and to exclude livestock. In cases where seedling losses are excessive for any reason, the project staff and volunteers install replacement plantings in the second year to ensure the high vegetation density required for target species. --Pruning mistletoe (Amyema spp.)-- Mistletoe infestations are a clear sign that natural checks and balances are no longer working. Ten heavily invested sites have been pruned by project participants, and in an effort to enhance natural biological controls, supplemental measures have been undertaken at these sites such as fencing, understorey establishment and nest box installation to attract Common Brush-tailed and Ring-tailed possums. These possums prefer mistletoe over tough eucalyptus leaves, but there are often no tree hollows to provide them with the necessary shelter. Thus, it is hoped that by installing nest boxes in heavily infested bush blocks, the possums will take up residence and help bring the mistletoe back into balance. --Forest thinning-- Ecological thinning of regrowth 'pole' forests has been carried out (under permit) on one 0.85-ha trial site. The objective is to reduce severe competition for moisture and nutrients and thus enable better flowering and nectar production among the remaining trees. --Pest animal control-- Predator reduction is carried out against the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) in order to protect wildlife using the restored sites. Permits have also been arranged for farmers to cull Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) in order to reduce severe browsing of understorey vegetation in remnants and planted areas. Ongoing controls are also carried out for hares and rabbits in the interest of protecting the palatable, nitrogen-fixing peas, wattles and sheoaks. --Nest boxes-- More than 378 nest boxes have been placed in strategic locations all across the district to provide much needed habitat for important species as well as opportunities for community education and involvement--chiefly through the annual monitoring program. There is an extreme shortage of natural tree hollows due to the heavy clearance of old trees and the immaturity of regrowth forests. Nest boxes therefore provide much needed shelter and breeding sites for such critical species as Sugar Gliders, Squirrel Gliders and Brush-tailed Phascogales. These nest boxes are monitored biannually by volunteers, to record and analyse habitat preferences, seasonal movements and breeding success of target species.
Ecological Outcomes Achieved
Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:
Since its inception in the early 1990s, the project has protected and restored almost 1060 ha of Box-Ironbark habitat, and planted more than 385,000 seedlings. Plantings have shown exceptional survival rates (over 90%), even in dry conditions, and the structural development of the replanted sites is progressing well, despite many years of below-average rainfall. The project has achieved the rapid closure of numerous high priority gaps in the local habitat network, and is currently connecting the Lurg Hills project area to other major regional habitats nearby. The oldest tree plantings are now more than 12 yrs old and up to 6 m high, with more and more starting to come "on stream" in terms of producing flowers and nectar. The first Ironbarks flowered in 2006, and some Eucalypts have even been found flowering as young as 8 years in the more fertile sites. Sites with serious dieback are slowly returning to health through understorey plantings of shrubs and ground covers, and understorey species have been observed regenerating quickly from natural seed fall, especially in sites with native grasses. Trials of mistletoe pruning, enrichment planting, and fencing around degraded remnants have shown that stressed trees return to full vigour in 2 or 3 years, and produce copious flowers that are of benefit to Regent Honeyeaters and other important species. The gap closure achieved within the district seems to have substantially benefited the Grey-crowned Babbler, as these birds have been observed in 35-40 of the revegetated sites, usually within 5 or 6 years of planting. Many family groups are also moving through the planted corridors, or via "stepping stone" planting sites, to join other family groups, a development with critical genetic benefits for the species. In addition to the Grey-crowned Babbler, the following birds, all widely considered to be rare and declining, have been observed on previously deforested sites revegetated by the project: Brown Treecreeper (Climacteris picumnus), Diamond Firetail (Stagonopleura guttata) Hooded Robin (Melanodryas cucullata), Red-capped Robin (Petroica goodenovii), Speckled Warbler (Chthonicola sagittatus), Painted Honeyeater (Grantiella picta), and Black-chinned Honeyeater (Melithreptus gularis) (D. Ingwersen, Birds Australia, unpub. data 2008).
Factors limiting recovery of the ecosystem:
The Regent Honeyeater has not returned in any great numbers as of yet, as it is still only represented by a very small population at the national level and the revegetated sites are years away from their nectar production peak. Once the planted trees become reliable producers of nectar, however, the likelihood of Regent Honeyeater use of the habitat is expected to rise.
Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved
Economic vitality and local livelihoods:
The re-establishment of a healthy, balanced ecosystem promises to benefit local farmers by providing ecosystem services, such as salinity mitigation, erosion control and biological controls for a number of pest problems. An understorey of Silver Wattle, Golden Wattle or Late Black Wattle, for example, attracts Glider Possums in search of the sugary wattle sap. These gliders then feed on Christmas beetles--sometimes eating their own body weight in a single night--and help prevent infestations that would otherwise kill valuable old trees. Understorey shrubs also provide nesting habitat for many different bird species. Studies have shown that birds can take up to 60% of the available insects in a healthy woodland; therefore, attracting birds is another effective way to help counter insect infestations that lead to forest dieback. Nectar-rich shrubs like Sweet Bursaria, tea-trees, rice flowers and everlasting daisies attract a range of parasitic wasps and flies that prey on insect pests such as Cockchafer Grubs and Christmas Beetle larvae that destroy the roots of pastures. Mistletoe infestation has been another problem arising out of ecosystem degradation and imbalance. The natural control agents for mistletoe include certain butterfly larvae and possums--both of which eat the leaves--and a host of birds that eat mistletoe fruit without spreading seeds around the trees. Without a shrubby understorey, there is no habitat for these beneficial animals, and the control mechanism breaks down. Thus, mistletoe proliferates, and the parasitic load eventually kills the trees.
Key Lessons Learned
The Regent Honeyeater Project is one of the most active volunteer conservation projects in Australia. It has engaged a whole farming community in restoring remnant Box-Ironbark habitat for the endangered species still living in the district, and attracted ongoing support from a wide cross section of the community to help farmers with the on-the-ground works.
Informal monitoring is conducted on an ongoing basis by project staff and landholders, who continually check the progress of restoration sites to anticipate and correct any problems. As part of this process, photo-monitoring has been undertaken at every site to readily demonstrate the dramatic structural changes that are being achieved.
Formal monitoring has also been undertaken each year over the past decade to document the distribution and population of Grey-crowned Babblers (by exhaustive survey) and Squirrel Gliders (by nest box monitoring). Furthermore, Birds Australia has been active in arranging systematic surveys of over 150 sites to document the woodland birds that are using local remnant patches and planting sites.
Sources and Amounts of Funding
In recent years, significant government funding for on-the-ground works has come from the Natural Heritage Trust Envirofund, Second Generation Landcare, and the local Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority. Other sources of funding include: the Norman Wettenhall Foundation, Miller Foundation and Bundaberg Rum Bush Fund. Self-generated funds come from the 40-45,000 seedlings that are propagated and planted each year by project staff and volunteers.
In terms of in-kind support, students from 23 local schools help enormously with the propagation and planting activities, along with community volunteer groups like bushwalkers, cyclists, scouts, churches, bird observers, shooting clubs, 4WD clubs. In addition, valuable help is contributed by work schemes for the unemployed and ‘Land Mate’ crews from Corrections Victoria. Over the history of the project, there have been 11,850 students involved and 5,760 adult volunteers, with many people returning year after year.
Ray Thomas, Coordinator
Regent Honeyeater Project Inc
PO Box 124, Benalla, VIC 3672, Australia
Tel: +61 3 5761 1515