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There’s more to successful revegetation than ‘getting trees in the ground’

One of my most vivid and lasting memories as an ecologist dates back to 1997. I was in the office of the then Environment Minister. I was told by the Minister and his minders that “we already knew everything…

The point of planting trees is to create ecosystems; we need science to tell us which trees work. Cyron Ray Macey

One of my most vivid and lasting memories as an ecologist dates back to 1997. I was in the office of the then Environment Minister. I was told by the Minister and his minders that “we already knew everything we needed to know about restoring vegetation on farms” and “all we needed to do now was get the trees in the ground”.

Science was a dirty word then – much as it has now become in many areas of so-called environmental “debates” in Australia. Yet, after more a decade of detailed empirical science based on careful studies on hundreds of sites on hundreds of farms in south-eastern Australia, it is clear that back in 1997, there was in fact a lot that was important to learn about how to restore native vegetation and how to promote biodiversity conservation on farms.

Scientific research by The Australian National University and other universities, CSIRO, and organisations like Catchment Management Authorities, Greening Australia and Landcare, is helping to demonstrate why vegetation restoration is important on farms. It is identifying the features of good plantings for wildlife (such as native birds and reptiles), and how assemblages of animals differ between plantings, natural regrowth woodland, and old growth woodland.

For example, it is clear that when we manage a property by taking steps such as fencing and controlling grazing, it leads to readily quantifiable changes in vegetation structure and cover. These changes in vegetation result in marked changes in the type and number of birds in the area¹.

We can also determine which kinds of birds will benefit from these kinds of management interventions – small-bodied, non-seed-eating species¹ such as flame robins, redcapped robins and rufous whistlers.

This may sound trivial to some people, but it is remarkable how infrequently the effectiveness of management interventions has actually been documented – not only in Australia but in many other parts of the world. Documenting the impacts of management interventions is fundamentally important for determining what constitutes good management practice and what does not. Indeed, this kind of knowledge should underpin the effective expenditure of the billions of dollars of funds dedicated annually to environmental management in Australia!

Birds need regrowth vegetation too, not just old-growth forest. Ray Christy

Recent research in the temperate eucalypt woodland belt of south-eastern Australia has indicated the type of native vegetation growing on farms makes a big difference to the types of birds that will be found. The bird assemblages typically found in old growth woodland differ significantly from those found in plantings and those in areas of natural regrowth. Interestingly, birds of conservation concern are most likely to occur in plantings and regrowth rather than old growth.

This does not mean that old growth woodland has no conservation value. Far from it. Rather, it is critical for landholders to manage the range of vegetation on their farms to make sure there is habitat for a wide range of native species. This is especially important for the improved management of regrowth woodland which is often regarded as “sh*t” country by some landholders and targeted for clearing.

Yet other scientific work has helped uncover what makes a good planting for wildlife. Good plantings - those that support the highest diversity of native birds - will typically be:

  • block-shaped (not narrow strips)
  • in gullies or flat areas
  • next to other plantings or areas of native woodland
  • established around large old trees.

Plantings set up like this can provide valuable habitat for a range of bird species of conservation concern. Many of these species will breed successfully in these restored areas. Again, this kind of information is critical for guiding the effective expenditure of billions of dollars invested by Federal and State Governments as well as non-government organisations and farmers in on-farm conservation programs.

The key lesson from past myopia is that science (and particularly long-term ecological research) has a critical role to play in guiding effective natural resource management, including the effective restoration of native vegetation on farms. When we do the long-term work and establish good monitoring programs, we can actually demonstrate to taxpayers that their investments in repairing the environment have had some positive effects.

Good science and monitoring can uncover what needs to be done and how to do it, and quantify what is gained from particular investments (and how cost-effective those investments are). This is a key to gauging success not only for restoration programs on farms but in all environmental management.


  1. Lindenmayer, D.B., Wood, J. Montague-Drake, R., Michael, D., Crane, M., Okada, S., MacGregor, C., and Gibbons, P. (2012a) Is biodiversity management effective? Cross-sectional relationships between management, bird response and vegetation attributes in an Australian agri-environment scheme. (Biological Conservation)

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Murray Webster

    Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

    This is effective and valuable research, and good news that Professor Lindenmeyer has scientifically shown that regrowth provides essential habitat - although it is no surprise to farmers and foresters who have been managing regrowth now for many decades. I expect we will find the same general pattern in native forests, i.e. in order to maintain biodiversity we need to provide a range of forest growth-stages.
    Pine Creek State Forest South of Coffs Harbour has relatively large populations of Koalas. Large areas were clear-felled last century. Are the koalas there in spite of, or because of regrowth trees? If we stop all native forest logging and lose that knowledge, skilled labour and machinery, how are we going to maintain a range of growth-stages in native forest?
    Surely there is a way we can provide the economic benefits of harvesting our lovely native timbers AND maintain wildlife habitat.

    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Murray Webster

      "If we stop all native forest logging and lose that knowledge, skilled labour and machinery" - please foolio, you are living in a pranksters paradise - as if this knowledge is overly difficult or not written down anywhere or not practiced all over the damn world.

      your tag says that you are a "Forestry-Ecology Consultant" and yet you are asking questions like

      "Surely there is a way we can provide the economic benefits of harvesting our lovely native timbers AND maintain wildlife habitat."

      You dont know how this can be done? you have no ideas yourself? im sure you do otherwise you would be an unemployed consultant.

      Hit us with a little knowledge, Im sure you have an answer or at least a opinion on the question you posed

    2. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Hi Michael,

      The abundance of native forest ( as distinct from grassy woodlands which have been almost all cleared) that we have, that has been logged many times and is providing habitat for native plants and animals including endangered species, does in my opinion show that we can have both. Further, in order to maintain habitat we will have to go in and intervene with bulldozers, chainsaws and fires.

      But, in the media/politics turmoil all that seems to come through is saving the forests or protecting jobs.

      I have framed my comment this way to address the readership, and stimulate thought/discussion, rather than arrogantly hand-down opinion as fact from a higher place... Personally I didn't just start believing that native forest harvest could be beneficial to ecosystems and socio-economics; in fact quite the opposite. For me it was - and still is - a process that started with observations and questions.

      have a nice day

    3. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael, Davids article is in part about the complex interactions that need to be taken into account to get the best results and that these are being ignored, and he highlights the attitude of policy makers, so I thank you for your contribution that confirms this ignorance still exists and should be addressed.

      So here is an answer for you, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems did a study of our private native forest management (where we harvested for a commercial firewood business) and concluded that…

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    4. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Hi Murray Webster,

      The idea that we can have productive useful and Sustainable land is obvious and I diffenitely agree with you that we can still get production from the land in terms of wood and crops and at the same time provide natural habbitat for plants and animals....its the most obvious thing in the world.

      "a process that started with observations and questions" - Yes, obviously, I cant imagine any other way of arriving at the truth or gaining understanding on a subject.

    5. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Peter Davies

      You seem to be addresing points I never made....hence I mostly agree with what you wrote.

      The only difference I would like to make is that foresty management and sustainable forest management are different things. You seem to equate all forestry companies who are logging native woods as being conservative and sustainable practices....this isnt really true is it?

      Your response seems to be focused on name calling more than anything else

      you used the word ignorance 5 times, you also made a…

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    6. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Michael Shand

      A main thrust of environmental activist organisations is the complete banning of all logging in native forests. This is apparently supported by inner-city electorates in Sydney and Melbourne. The federal government is ready to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on removing logging from more Tasmania native forest, despite the fact that more than half the state is already reserved. I also know people who have built steel-framed houses instead of timber in order to save forests.

      Though you and I know that timber harvesting can be sustainable, - even beneficial to ecosystems if done properly - it seems that a lot of Australians do not agree or have not thought about it.

  2. Comment removed by moderator.

  3. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    Ah the Billion Tree Project!. We knew it all, with no monies to validate what we knew by definition. On making a comment in the office that perhaps it might be useful to put up project re screening herbicides so that we could spray strips along roadsides etc to allow for natural regeneration of what was left of the native vegetation. This was to remove the dominant annual introduced weeds - grasses,and wild radish etc to allow seeding of any native plants to establish and flourish. We did…

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    1. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to John Holmes

      I think the early farmers had huge problems combatting eucalypt regrowth to maintain pasture and cropping. I'd have to ask my 87 yr old farmer uncle what his father did out in the central west of NSW...

    2. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Thanks. Having grown up on a new land block in WA, I served my apprenticeship at picking mallee roots, pulling poison, and sucker bashing and fixing punctured tractor tires. One became quite proficient using fire from the individual little fire to kill on sucker to the big clearing burns in February. When are we clearing the next 200 acres? - now we need approvals, then if you did not clear, may lose block.

    3. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to Murray Webster

      It was called 'sucker bashing'. Got to be careful where you use those words these days. As John has written above, when you next ploughed, up came another crop of Mallee roots, which had to be picked. And so it went on...and on...and on