So you want to restore habitat….but where do you start?? Part I: the “Big questions”



Several of our Landcares have identified biolinks as being an important focus for their future. Biolinks involve habitat creation in a strategic manner, to connect fragmented patched of habitat with new habitat “stepping stones”. Of course, that means successful biolinks projects require careful planning between our groups, including the strategic selection of sites and the development of methodical project plans to ensure long term success. These projects must also appeal to the wider community, particularly to landholders who live along key biolink paths.


In this article, I want to pose some questions that might stimulate thinking about what our local Landcare community would like to achieve next, and how best to start. I’ll use a new project running under the care of one of our Concongella Landcarers, Huib Ottow, as a case study. Huib has recently launched a plan for restoring a degraded bend of the Astons Scour creek. I visited his site in November and he gave me the grand tour of the site and project! I admired the methodical way he was approaching the project and thought it would make for a great case study, illustrating many of the steps I’d like to cover.


Huib Ottow, president of Concongella Landcare


The site of Huib’s habitat creation project at Aston’s Scour in Concongella


This shaped up to be a set of three articles over the next newsletters. We start with Part I: the “Big questions”, followed next time by Part II: Building the plan, and then Part III: On-the-ground work


Part I: The “Big questions”


Step 1: Consider your values (WHY)


Why do you want to begin a conservation project? I actually find this a surprisingly hard question sometimes!  If you are reading this article, you probably support the idea of environmental “conservation”. But what are we actually conserving? And why are there differences of opinion among people who consider themselves “conservationists?”

For example, you might meet a recreational fisherman and a pharmaceutical scientist, who both happily support the notion of conservation. If you dig deeper, you might find that a recreational fisherman is motivated because they value their ability to fish in the beautiful fishing spots with diverse types of fish on offer, while the pharmaceutical scientist values the ability to study chemicals found in rare plants that might lead to breakthroughs in modern medicines. You might also meet someone who supports conservation out of spiritual beliefs.  It certainly isn’t a stretch to say the fisherman, the scientist, and the spiritually motivated conservationist might not always agree on how to do conservation, or where is the best place to spend our time and/or resources. The fisherman might primarily be concerned with protecting local waterways through methods such as catch limits and waterway erosion and weed control. The pharmaceutical scientist might prioritise directing funding towards the highest biodiversity sites globally, such as tropical rainforests. The spiritual individual might prioritise the creation of site-specific reserves where human activity is minimised or restricted entirely.  Differences in personal values can still lead to plenty of disagreements among “conservationists”, as we try to reconcile our different values, perspectives, and goals. But at the end of the day, we are all here because we each value and want to conserve some part of the environment.


So what do you value, and WHY?  You might be motivated by a desire to protect iconic or endangered species. You might be concerned with preserving natural beauty. You might be motivated by spiritual or cultural reasons, or by the protection of the health and wellbeing of human communities. This is what forms your personal “environmental ethic”. We all have one, even if we have never really thought about it! Your “ethic” is just the system of principles that guides your actions – based on what you consider “right” and “wrong” and what you value in life.


Clearly asking WHY at the start can help you:

  • prioritise your actions (which is extremely important when time and resources are limited, as they often are when it comes to conservation!);
  • succinctly express your mission and attract similarly valued volunteers, who are most likely to find participation rewarding and continue to offer their support ;
  • recognise the validity of values different from your own to build a more diverse team;
  • communicate effectively with people of diverse interests to improve partnerships and secure necessary local support; and
  • avoid misunderstandings and disagreements arising from poor understanding of your teammates’ motivations that might cause slowdowns.


The WHY behind Huib’s habitat creation project at Aston’s Scour (paraphrasing his own words):


“Everything comes through our human frame of reference, we are humans after all. But we can still acknowledge that human frame, and choose when or when not to follow our human desires. But at the end of the day, everyone has some very personal reason, even for pursuing conservation. You are acknowledging that you want things to be different, so you choose to try and create some change. The best we can do is make sure we are well informed when considering what we want to change and how.


For me, it started with real love for the natural world, and wanting to understand the world around me. First learning names of different plants and animals, but not wanting to stop at just cataloguing – really understanding the relationships. As you start to appreciate the subtleties of the ecology of the Australian bush, you can’t help but start to notice where things are out of balance. You start to notice the invasion of weeds, and all the footprints of human use (and abuse) particularly since colonialism. This becomes very disheartening. You think, “Someone should do something!” The local council, or the parks service, but then you realise they don’t necessarily have the combination of resources/expertise/manpower to identify and act on all these issues. So you have two choices, continue to be bummed out or roll up your sleeves and do what you can where you can to create the change you want to see. You have to go out and find whatever information you need to do it.”


So consider your values, make sure your project will be fulfilling to you and likely to gain support where you need it, but, as Huib put it, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!”


So with that, let’s move on to the next two steps: WHERE and WHAT


Step 2: Identify a site (WHERE)*


*Feel free to swap the order of steps 2 and 3


After you have considered WHY you want to embark on your conservation project, you can ask WHERE will your project take place? You might already have a site in mind, but even then, consider why you were drawn to it.


What factors might be important when choosing a site? You might choose a site based on its ecological significance. These may include areas that are home to endangered species, important habitats for migratory birds, or areas that serve as critical linkages between larger conservation areas. You might also consider how this site ties in to the larger landscape (this is key if you’re goal is establishing biolinks for example!). You might choose a site based on the imminent nature of encroaching threats, such as a new housing development or the spread of a new noxious weed. You might have a personal connection to the location itself. Perhaps it is a natural space close to your home, or you have memories there as a child. It could hold a deep cultural or spiritual significance to you. It might have recreational value to you – such as your favourite walking or horse-riding track. Or it could have aesthetic value to you in that it contains your favourite flower or animal species.


You might also consider whether there is local interest in the site. A site that is also important to other local organisations, such as traditional owners, land trusts or conservation groups, can help to ensure that the restoration efforts are sustainable in the long-term. And similarly, it is always important to consider the feasibility of your preferred site. Some sites may be harder to restore than others, due to the complexity of the habitat and the presence of human activities or development, the availability of resources, the condition of the site, and the type of restoration required.


Huib chose as his site a patch of degraded streamside vegetation along a stretch of Astons Scour at Landsborough West.  It is characterized by the following ecological community types, two of which are endangered:


  • Creekline Grassy Woodland: ENDANGERED
  • Grassy Woodland: VULNERABLE
  • Alluvial Terraces Herb-rich Woodland: ENDANGERED


Huib moved relatively recently to his home in Landsborough West. He was quickly attracted to a degraded creek site just up the block, and ideas for a restoration project began to form. The site was near to his home and thus had personal value, as well as the ease of access and of regular monitoring that would come from a site so close to home.  This was a huge appeal right there. Huib still considered the larger landscape wide potential for the site – he was pleased that not only did the site represented endangered ecosystem types, but it also sat in a good location to become part of a larger project to link habitat patches – it sits about half way along a creek line connection between the Wimmera river and the Landsborough ranges.As such, he sees it as a natural starting point from which to eventually expand to a landscape-wide habitat linkage goal.


But at the end of the day, most of the site selection really came down to its closeness to home, and the potential Huib saw for improvement.


As Huib put it “Most everyone has something in their neighbourhood they could work on improving. It’s cliche, but “think globally, act locally” rings true for me. Not everyone has the resources and privilege to act globally, and most of us just only really extend our influence to our local community. But if everyone takes a small patch, then we will see changes on a wider landscape. That’s what landcare is all about! You get to act locally, and stay connected to a support group that keeps you inspired.”


After deciding to focus on this degraded creek line, Huib next considered the most feasible place to begin his project. He identified an approximately 4.88 ha area within the site which was still largely characterised by remnant indigenous grassy woodland vegetation and was not so heavily colonised by invasive species. This would form his core area, from which he would expand outwards.

The ‘not so degraded’ native grassland site along the creek which forms the core of Huib’s project


Now another interesting note about Huib’s site – the presence of endangered species in particular was not part of his original reasons in choosing the site. However, as you can read more about in Part II, Huib had an extremely happy coincidence that he discovered an endangered flax lily on the site during one of his site assessments! This gave him an extra dose of excitement and motivation and brings a new angle to the project, which he hopes will attract more attention and support from those who wish to help preserve endangered species. But we will cover this in our later Parts!



Step 3: Identify your goals (WHAT)*


*Feel free to swap the order of steps 2 and 3


Well, our goal is “conservation”, right? But what does that mean??  Now it is time to consider the WHAT.


WHAT are you actually working to “conserve”? The fisherman was working to conserve an abundance of tasty fish and the aesthetic beauty of their favourite fishing sites. The scientist was working to conserve species diversity within sites in faraway places that contain rare and unique species that may hold exciting pharmaceutical discoveries. And the spiritual individual was working to conserve sacred sites with spiritually significant animals.


Do you want to conserve ecosystem diversity (the variety of different ecosystem types in your local area)? Functional diversity (the variety of different roles that species can play)? Species diversity (the number of different types of species)? Are you mostly concerned with preventing extinctions and thus conserving threatened species? Or are you mostly concerned with conserving iconic species (that are widely recognised and are important to building public awareness and enthusiasm for conservation work)?


Creating large reserves out of a desire to conserve ecosystem or landscape scale diversity is a very different activity from establishing captive breeding programs out of a desire to conserve rare or endangered species. And that is not to say one is better than the other, but rather that they require very different uses of time and resources and create different types of change in the world.


Huib says his ‘unit of conservation’, or WHAT he wants to conserve, is native species diversity – or the number of different native species that make a site their home.


He goes on to expand on this definition. He believes this diversity must be ‘stable’ to count (i.e. the native species need to be self-perpetuating meaning their survival cannot rely on us controlling weeds forever). A stable diverse site has enough native species creating a rich seed bank so that the native species are able to keep filling any open niches before the weeds fill them. You could plant a hundred new native species, but if they never propagate and the site is quickly overrun by weeds again, diversity has not been much improved. 


He also mentions his goal for site diversity is to go beyond just the usual ‘survivor species’ which we are most used to finding in our lower quality remnant habitats i.e. the species that have been able to best tolerate grazing, or intense fires, and thus can dominate a ‘native remnant’ site. An example of this he mentions is gold dust wattle, which is very fire tolerant and after a fire can fill an entire grove with suckers from a single tree. It may look like a diverse stand, but it’s actually just the same individual over and over! Having ecological training is helpful to recognise sites that might look healthy and diverse on first glance, but actually show a low diversity.


Huib’s management plan for the site (which we will look at in more detail in Part II) sets its goal as “re-establishing a diverse ecological community.” The term “re-establish” implies there is some historic reference ecosystem that he is working towards. He defines his reference ecosystem as ecosystems that would have been found along ephemeral waterways in the upper Wimmera catchment under pre-colonial land management practices. Why pre-colonial? Huib acknowledges it is a subjective choice, but he feels this is as close as we get to a definition of “pristine” Australian  environments. While human presence has been an influence on Australian landscapes for tens of thousands of years, for Huib it came down to the apparent stability of landscapes and the extreme speed of ecological change that occurred after European arrival. Huib mentions that in his local area, you really only find native vegetation along roadsides, creeklines and a few small reserves.  Thus, one of his long-term goals for the site is to create another good quality refuge, another stepping stone for native flora and fauna to spread (as mentioned before, his site sits in a good potential biolink zone). 


With all this considered, the main goals for the site are as follows:


  1. Remove invasive weeds from the site and to prevent their re-infestation;
  2. Re-establish a diverse indigenous understory on the site through direct seeding and planting of a mix of locally collected and commercially sourced plants and seed.


And in the long term:


  1. Create a buffer-zone around the core area of remnant native vegetation against further infestation by invasive weed species on the site.
  2. Create a local seed bank from which plants can be propagated or recruited naturally into later revegetation efforts along Astons Scour or elsewhere in the local region.
  3. Stabilise stream banks and reduce or prevent further erosion.
  4. Improve the value of Astons Scour as a wildlife corridor between the Wimmera River and the Pyrenees Range
  5. Provide a test-bed and template for the restoration of ephemeral waterways in the upper Wimmera catchment.


We have now identified what is motivating us, where we’d like to focus our efforts and what we want to do. Now we can start to move on from those “big questions” and start looking at the logistics of planning our project. But we will save that for next time!