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From Little Things Big Things Grow

Members of the Big Scrub Landcare Group have planted the key structuring species to restore areas of rainforest on land that had been cleared for farming, adding about 300 ha of habitat. Courtesy of Big Scrub Landcare

Members of the Big Scrub Landcare Group have planted the key structuring species to restore areas of rainforest on land that had been cleared for farming, adding about 300 ha of habitat. Courtesy of Big Scrub Landcare

By Ian Lowe

About 100 million hectares of forest have been lost globally in the past 25 years, but one Landcare group has increased a patch of rainforest lost to farmland by 40% in 20 years.

Loss of biodiversity is a critical issue, both locally and globally. More than 20 years ago, the first independent national report on the state of the environment identified the seriousness of the problem. The warning has been echoed by four subsequent reports.

At the global level, the 2018 Living Planet Report estimated the population levels of more than 4000 species of vertebrates: fish, birds, amphibians, mammals and reptiles. It concluded that average populations are only about 40% of the 1970 levels.

One startling calculation compared the mass of mammals living in the wild with the mass of humans and domesticated animals. It estimated that only 4% of the mass of mammals living today comprises animals in natural surroundings, with humans now 36% of the total and our livestock the remaining 60%.

The main reason for the loss of biodiversity is the destruction of habitat. The 2017 follow-up to the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity estimated that about 100 million ha of forest have been lost in the past 25 years. We can’t do much about the depressing global situation, but two events late last year reminded me that good work is being done to maintain and restore natural areas in Australia.

The Big Scrub Rainforest Day is an annual celebration of the work being done to restore what was a huge area of lowland rainforest in north-eastern New South Wales. It covered about 75,000 ha in 1788. Logging originally concentrated on the prized red cedar, but then clearing for farms gradually removed almost all of the vegetation, reducing it to about 700 ha in scattered remnants of less than 5 ha.

Twenty years ago, the Big Scrub Landcare Group was formed. It concentrated initially on removing weeds and improving the ecological health of those remnants, but more recently it has succeeded in a much more ambitious undertaking. The hundreds of members have now also planted the key structuring species to restore areas of rainforest on land that had been cleared for farming, adding about 300 ha of precious habitat. I don’t know anywhere else in the world where the area of one important type of forest has been increased by 40% in the past 20 years.

I also attended a function to mark 20 years of the Land for Wildlife program in south-east Queensland. The scheme, run by local councils, supports private landholders to protect and restore natural areas such as bushland and creek corridors. More than 4000 property owners are now involved. Together they protect more than 60,000 ha, covering 108 of the 133 identified natural ecosystems in the region. The land owners are supported to identify the species on their land, develop management plans, remove weeds and plant appropriate native trees.

In the Gold Coast region alone, the 424 participants have planted more than 62,000 trees. The emphasis has now moved from planting new trees to managing the identified areas, removing pest species and ensuring the health of the overall ecosystem.

It was an inspiring reminder that thoughtful and committed people are doing good work, with the sum total of their individual efforts making a real difference at the regional level.


There is a common complaint that scientists and policy-makers don’t speak the same language. I am pleased to acknowledge an innovative program that is trying to bridge the gap. The Australian Science Policy Fellowship Program allows mid-career scientists to spend a year in government departments, working as policy officers. The scheme began last July and will run until mid-2021, with up to 20 1-year fellowships available each year. Applicants need a PhD in the sciences, with no more than 15 years of experience since gaining their qualification. The program is also open to engineers with a Masters degree and at least 3 years of professional experience.

Participants are not expected to be narrow subject-matter specialists, but to apply their research skills and experience to policy problems. Host departments are responsible for paying the fellows’ salaries and their costs of relocating to Canberra.

The Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has championed the scheme, which is administered by his office. It is an exciting development that deserves support.


Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.