Treading carefully in natural resource management

Attendees at the 2018 NRM Officer Muster

This article based on presentations from the 2018 NRM Officer Muster. 

Driven to create a better world, most people working in natural resource management (NRM) are passionate about protecting and improving all parts of our environment.

But achieving strong environmental outcomes isn’t always easy…  The problem is, the environment is so big!

There is so much to conserve over such vast areas, and so much to learn about target species or resources and how they behave under different conditions. And with each step towards recovery, an array of weeds and feral animals are ready to send projects backwards.

In such a challenging work environment, how can NRM officers achieve outcomes that convince the broader community, particularly farmers, that NRM is a worthwhile investment?

This was the focus of the South West Catchments Council’s (SWCC) recent NRM Officer Muster at Perup Nature’s Guesthouse, south of Boyup Brook.

Edith Cowan University Researcher Dr Shaun Molloy set the tone of the NRM Officer Muster, presenting preliminary findings from the Brining Them Back project which looked at the effectiveness of restoration programs in the southern wheatbelt.

Effective Habitat Restoration

Dr Molloy’s work demonstrates that while many species of conservation interest are using revegetated areas, animals which are particularly vulnerable to fox and cat predation, such as bandicoots and woylies, appear to be missing.

If foxes and cats are present, Dr Molloy believes that revegetation, no matter how high the quality, will not by itself be enough to successfully recover predated species.

“Successful conservation projects require identifying all limiting factors and acting on all of those factors,” Dr Molloy said.

But restoration can be cleverly designed to hinder predation.

SWCC Biodiversity Project Manager Stephen Newby said restoration could be designed to provide hiding places for animals at risk of predation.

He believed species like bandicoots and bettongs would benefit from plantings that included prickly acacias, hakeas and grevilleas, or dense stands of rushes and sedges.

“I try to avoid putting dense ground-covering shrubs in areas of friable soils where rabbits can establish warrens, not only to reduce rabbits, but also because foxes use rabbit warrens as dens,” Mr Newbey said.

Likewise, while putting rocks into restored areas can be beneficial, putting them in piles can create more homes for rabbits and foxes.

Nevertheless, with predation thought to have caused a severe reduction in populations of many threatened mammals, a control program is an essential component for any habitat restoration program targeting critical weight range mammals (35g – 5.5kg).

Knowing weeds, pests and capacity for control

The management of weeds and vertebrate pests needs to be carefully considered, according to Department of Primary Industries and Resource Development (DPIRD) Biosecurity officer Jason Dearle.

When he was asked how NRM officers could effectively deal with weeds and pests, Mr Dearle suggested they needed to target an area and ‘hammer it’.

“DPIRD has managed the only known outbreak of ragwort in WA since 1976 in Walpole,” Mr Dearle said. “It covered 7.5 hectares.”

“We are now about three years away from saying we have eradicated it. If we hadn’t hammered it, you could be guaranteed there would be ragwort all over Walpole and further.”

Mr Dearle’s message was to know your capabilities for weed control (and for site rehabilitation if required), pick an area that is manageable, know where the weed is going to move most readily, and work back from there.

“The earlier in the invasion process that you get it, whether a plant or animal, the cheaper and more effective you will be,” Mr Dearle said.

The process is the same for pests like foxes and pigs. Spreading resources too thinly over large areas can do more harm than good.

Instead, Mr Dearle suggested targeting a specific area that could be saturated with control measures, especially at critical times such as during breeding.

Intimate knowledge of targeted weeds and pests and using a multi-pronged approach to their management is crucial. It’s the same for the species you want to conserve.

But this important NRM knowledge is sometimes incomplete and unclear.  Dr Molloy said these knowledge gaps could lead to incorrect assumptions that eventually become entrenched.

So, there should be room for new theories, supported by past literature or new scientific monitoring, that challenge what we do, rather than NRM officers just doing what they’ve always done.

This is the case with a new project idea discussed by Blackwood Basin Group Chair Dr Per Christensen.

Species-specific revegetation

It is generally assumed that cockatoos are mostly limited by the number of tree hollows available in forests.

But after seeing no signs that cockatoos were using nesting boxes around Greenbushes, Dr Christensen was beginning to think that in forested regions, adequate food sources may be just as limiting.

And it just so happens that one of their food sources is in decline.

“Cockatoos have been observed foraging on pine cones since the 1940’s,” Dr Christensen said. “Pines provide a food source over summer when cockatoos are recovering from breeding.”

“But pine plantations in WA are on the decline, which could impact on our cockatoos, two of which are listed as endangered and the other vulnerable.”

The future of WA’s softwood industry was recently the subject of a public statement by the South West Agroforestry Network (SWAN), who said it was ‘on the road to ruin’.

It has been suggested that between 20,000 and 45,000 hectares of new plantation is needed to avoid having to import pine.

Dr Christensen pointed out that imports would potentially come from third world countries where cut forests are typically not replanted and are instead converted to other land-uses, resulting in the extinction of many species.

Both Dr Christensen and SWAN are advocating that part of the shortfall in production could be made up from small plantations on farms (e.g. 10 hectares or less), with SWAN willing to help farmers develop the skills necessary.

Small plantings would be acceptable for harvesting by the timber industry if there were enough of them. Other food sources such as marri and spotted gum could also be incorporated into plantations.

Dual purpose pine plantations designed for cockatoos are unlikely to benefit small mammals, a point made by Dr Molloy who said restoring habitat for one species won’t necessarily improve conditions for others.

And planting pines might not be every NRM officer’s cup of tea. But Dr Molloy also said restoring habitat for one species could have better outcomes than a broad-brush approach.

Species-specific revegetation means that habitat restoration could be more flexible and cater to landholder’s diverse aspirations.

Developing fit-for-farmer restoration designs

Mr Newbey’s shelterbelts / wildlife corridors on an Ongerup farm he previously owned

One potential loss that farmers could address with revegetation is the damage to crops from wind erosion and sandblasting.

Establishing shelterbelts can reduce wind speeds for distances up to 30 times the height of trees used, and also help reduce stock losses from extreme weather events.

Mr Newbey, who used to farm at Ongerup, said that 20-metre-wide revegetated corridors aligned north-south across a farm every 250m would significantly reduce the impact of wind.

This strategy, which he has personally applied using local species that can regenerate after fire, is to plant a single line of trees in the middle of the corridor, border these each side with tall to medium shrubs, and then plant smaller shrubs along each edge.

This design limits the extent that roots can reach into cropping areas and reduces the risk of wind-tunneling beneath trees. The low proportion of trees in the belt reduces their capacity to outcompete shrubs that can provide protection for small mammals.

A 10 per cent increase in production from this strategy would offset the loss of land.  Achieving this return is more likely to occur on farms most vulnerable to sandblasting or stock losses.

Others with less of a wind problem may be interested other benefits such as lowering water tables, reducing losses from waterlogging or water erosion, improving pasture production or increasing pollinators or insect predators.

One size doesn’t fit all situations, so NRM officers need to be flexible in their approach and understand individual farmer needs.

But understanding what farmers need is only one step towards persuading them to adopt a new practice. Achieving adoption requires a good understanding of the art of extension.

The Art of Extension

Extension is the art of influencing change in farmers. Traditionally, extension has followed research and development phases for a product or practice, with extension aimed at facilitating adoption.

According to Western Dairy’s Rob La Grange, who spoke at the NRM Officer Muster about his extension experience in the dairy industry, successful extension is founded on relationships.

“It’s important to gain the trust of the people you are trying to influence,” Mr La Grange said. “One of the key characteristics of good extension is honesty and admitting to any shortcomings.”

Patience is another virtue required because the ‘art’ of extension is to chip away rather than smash with an oversized hammer.

“There are many reasons why people resist change, such as the social fear of doing something that your peers don’t believe in (social norms),” Mr La Grange said.  “So, it’s a slow process that uses small steps, not big jumps.”

The extension process for most NRM officers involves hosting field days. This is where they can build contact lists and distribute information to those in the early stages of adoption, where they build knowledge and assess the relative advantage and compatibility of a change compared to the status quo.

Field days are also an opportunity to provide “recipes” for farmers ready to give the practice a try, by detailing how a practice can be implemented with actionable first steps.

One strategy NRM officers could employ is to identify people at field days who are interested in taking the first step, perhaps through confidential feedback forms, and ask if they are happy to be contacted sometime after the event for follow-up support.

“Follow up and reinforcement is critical to the learning process and provides the opportunity to solve issues that arise with implementation,” Mr La Grange said. “There will always need to be some modification to fit a particular situation.”

By building a relationship with these farmers, NRM officers get to better understand implementation issues and build case studies to distribute to others.

Publication of case studies and social media makes the trend in practice change more visible to other potential adoptees.

The farmers themselves also become the agents for change through social diffusion when they discuss the practice in their networks.

This is particularly powerful if the farmers are part of big networks or are locally respected. Ideally, in the long-run the change becomes a social norm.

Of course, not everybody will be receptive!

Australian dairy industry research suggests that at any one time, about one third of farmers will not be interested in any type of change.

Mr La Grange sees no point in trying to persuade farmers who, for the time being at least, are either settled in their ways, interested in other things or winding down.

The NRM Officer Muster was supported by South West Catchments Council’s Regional Landcare Facilitator Program, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

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