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Private Land Is Better for Birds than Conservation Reserves

Private land can help protect Australia’s endangered bird populations as effectively as the nation’s best performing conservation reserves, according to a study published in Ecography.

Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and The Australian National University have found that unprotected areas are faring far better than old conservation reserves as sanctuaries for Australia’s woodland birds. This is because some private lands contain more flat and fertile habitats where woodland birds prosper, say Professor David Lindenmayer and Ms Laura Rayner of CEED and ANU.

“Our study focused on Canberra’s protected areas, many of which were established prior to 1995,” Rayner says. “We found that while these long-established reserves are effective in maintaining woody vegetation cover, they are less effective when it comes to protecting woodland bird populations.”

Rayner says that the older protected areas have fewer endangered birds as well as lower and declining species richness than private lands or reserves established after 1995. “This is because many of the older reserves were created for their scenic value instead of biodiversity. Most were established on hilltops or ridges near to the urban centre, so woodland birds are unlikely to thrive in these environments.”

On the other hand, private, non-reserved areas that have high quality woodlands have been extremely effective in keeping the endangered birds. “The endangered bird population in these areas is comparable with well-maintained newer reserves,” Rayner says. “These private lands are also further from the city compared to protected areas, and many private landowners are enthusiastic about ensuring homes for the native birds.”

Lindenmayer adds: “So as our cities grow, birds in the old reserves have even less chances of surviving due to disruptive noise or invasive land animals. If we want to protect and save Australia’s endangered native species, we really need to look towards conservation and restoration on private lands, and more national parks that are actually suitable for woodland birds.”

In a separate study published in Biological Conservation, CEED researchers have developed a model to restore habitat for native reptiles and beetles cost-effectively on private lands. “We focused on agricultural land in north-west and north-east Victoria that has been cleared and gradually degraded for the past 150 years,” says lead author Dr Sacha Jellinek of CEED and The University of Melbourne. “We found that it was most cost-effective to concentrate on revegetating cleared areas rather than restoring degraded remnant patches or previously replanted areas.

“In addition, we discovered that the type of restoration undertaken was very important. So for the same amount of money, you’re more likely to attract reptiles and beetles if you control weeds and add fallen timber, leaf litter and rocks in cleared lands, as well as plant trees and shrubs. The study shows this can increase beetle species richness by up to 23% and reptile species richness by up to 12%.”

The researchers also found that landowners who join Landcare groups or have off-farm incomes are more likely to undertake native revegetation. Jellinek says that it’s nevertheless important to encourage landowners who haven’t been involved in Landcare to restore biodiversity on their farms: “Many landholders are concerned that revegetation will attract pests and weeds or increase fire risk on their properties, so helping them to manage these risks may encourage them to revegetate and restore habitat for our native wildlife.”