Under Threat in Australia, Grassland Birds?

While groups like the Wilderness Society run advertisements suggesting that in western Queensland and New South Wales broadscale tree clearing is a major environmental threat, many local landholders argue the problem is quite different. They claim that trees are replacing once open grassland over vast areas and that these ‘invasive woody weeds’ are the real environmental issue.

Yesterday, On Line Opinion published an article by Gillian Hogendyk* entitled ‘An Alternative Perspective on Tree Clearing’ providing some support for the landholder’s position.

Gillian writes:

“Early settlement caused massive changes to the ecology of the region. Grasslands were overgrazed, fires were put out, native shrubs and trees began to invade grasslands as early as 1870, rabbits invaded, drought struck, and wool prices collapsed.

By 1901 the Western Division of NSW was in an economic and ecological crisis, and a Royal Commission was called to try and formulate some solutions. Today landholders claim they are still battling the invading scrub, and that recently introduced native vegetation regulations are making their job almost impossible…

“So how is all this affecting the bird life of the region? In 2000 intensive biodiversity surveys were carried out by “West 2000” at a number of sites in the Cobar, Wanaaring, and Ivanhoe localities…

“Two examples of threatened species that were found to prefer less woody shrub cover were the Pink Cockatoo and Hooded Robin…

“Landholders of the Cobar Peneplain claim that 80 per cent of the threatened species of the region are dependent on grasslands and open woodland habitat. They claim that while many fauna species use the dense shrublands and trees for roosting and nesting, they are almost always seen feeding in the grasslands and croplands nearby. Their claims are supported by the known habitat requirements of the threatened birds recorded from the Cobar region. The majority of species listed rely on open woodlands and different types of grasslands as feeding habitat.

Of interest in this debate are the nationwide findings on woodland bird populations reported in The State of Australia’s Birds 2005: Woodlands and Birds, a Birds Australia publication. This document compared the reporting rates of the two nationwide atlases carried out by Birds Australia in 1977-81 and 1998-2002…

“Surprisingly, despite the “doom and gloom” text, the reporting rate of the majority of woodland-grassland birds had actually remained unchanged or increased over the 20- year period (for all woodland-grassland species: 48 per cent increased, 38 per cent did not change, and 13 per cent decreased). However the results were very different for grassland-dependent and ground-feeding woodland-grassland birds. These species showed much higher rates of decline over the 20-year period than the species that feed in the canopy layer.”

Read the full article here: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=5265

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* Gillian is a Director and founding members of the Australian Environment Foundation and so am I.

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5 Responses to Under Threat in Australia, Grassland Birds?

  1. Robert December 15, 2006 at 3:22 pm #

    It was clearing/farming that caused the problem in the 1st place. I don’t think marginal land should be cleared or farmed. I don’t know about QLD, but in NSW Cobar is a hot and dry place where you’d have to be desperate to want to run a rural enterprise. I happen to have had experience with one of the woody weeds the author refers to in the Mudgee area of NSW: Sifton Bush. It readily invades cleared land having poor soil – the reason being that you can’t establish persistent and competitive pasture on bad soil. This never happens where the soil structure and fertility is better. Around Mudgee the poorer country used to be Ironbark forest, which was stripped for sleepers. This country should be returned to Ironbark forest, one of the most useful timbers, but few are willing to wait 50+ years it takes to grow a good sized tree.

  2. Helen Mahar December 18, 2006 at 10:57 am #

    Robert doesn’t seem to have any solutions for the plight of predominatly plains dependant birds who are losing habitat via the woody weeds problem.

    Mosaic landscapes do support greater biodiversity, and higher stocking rates for graziers. In the Cobar area there would be landowners who have succeeded in maintaining a mosaic landcape, and who have worked out sustainable grazing regimes and stocking rates. These are the people who should be the leading advisers on goverment policy and regulations for their areas, instead of fighting rearguard actions against centralised regulations which trump local knowledge.

    (I would define a sustainable stocking rate, for my area, as the number that could be carried up to and through the first year of a drought – without destocking.)

  3. Davey Gam Esq. December 19, 2006 at 11:29 am #

    De spring is sprung,
    De grass is riz,
    I wonder where dem boidies is?
    Dem boids is on de wing,
    But dat’s absoid,
    I always tort de wing wuz on de boid.
    (Apologies to both Ogden Nash and Omar Khayyam)

  4. Helen Mahar December 19, 2006 at 11:40 am #

    De spring is sprung,
    De grass not riz,
    I wonder where dem boidies is?

  5. Davey Gam Esq. December 20, 2006 at 12:24 pm #

    We’ve lorst de fire,
    Dat grass requires,
    De boids need grass,
    Quel eco-farce…

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