The Regent Honeyeater Habitat Restoration Project is a landscape scale community effort to protect and restore all significant remnants of native woodland habitat in the agricultural district of the Lurg Hills, near Benalla, Victoria. While focus is placed on the Regent Honeyeater, many other declining birds and mammals also benefit from the restoration project.
Over 14 years of sustained effort, the project has involved 115 local landholders (approximately 95% of local farms) and about 17,000 volunteers. Together, they have protected relatively healthy remnants by fencing; restored depleted remnants by planting or direct seeding; and revegetated open areas that had been cleared for agriculture. Other restoration activities include mistletoe removal, environmental weeding, feral animal control, kangaroo reduction, nest box placement, and systematic monitoring of a range of threatened and declining woodland birds and hollow-dependent mammals.
Work sites are selected to produce maximum benefits for the target species. Two clear aims being to strategically link isolated remnants and to revegetate higher fertility sites preferred by many native animals. Achieving these goals on land that is also prized for farming requires working closely with farmers to gain their support and insights.
The Regent Honeyeater has not yet returned in numbers because the trees have not reached optimum flowering age, but a number of other threatened birds and mammals are already using this project's regenerated and reconstructed habitats.
Need for restoration
The Lurg Hills provide habitat at the southern outpost of the nationally endangered bird, Regent Honeyeater (Xanthomyza phrygia) whose habitat has been dramatically reduced and fragmented by extensive land clearing and grazing. This has also reduced and fragmented the habitats of a range of other declining woodland birds and hollow dependent mammals.
Aims and objectives
The broad aim of the Regent Honeyeater Project (RHP) is to protect and restore all significant remnants of Box/Ironbark and Box/Gum Grassy Woodland habitat in the Lurg hills - and to link them by revegetation. Strategic focus is placed on higher fertility sites while also forming links to drier upland habitats.
Ecological communities of the Lurg Hills
Geology and vegetation
The geology of the district is dominated by low sedimentary hills, with a granite intrusion to the south, erosion-resistant contact metamorphics surrounding the granite, and vast outwash plains stretching away to the north. There is accordingly a wide variety of soils and vegetation types, with staggered flowering and food available across much of the year. But the district is most significant as one of only three Mugga Ironbark habitats in Victoria - these winter-flowering Ironbarks provide a crucial nectar source at the very leanest time of year.
Common tree species of the Box/Ironbark and Box/Gum Grassy Woodland habitats include Mugga Ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon), Red Box (E. polyanthemos), White Box (E. albens), Grey Box (E. microcarpa), Long-leaf Box (E. goniocalyx), Yellow Box (E. melliodora), Blakelys Red Gum (E. blakelyi), River Red Gum (E. camaldulensis), and Red Stringybark (E. macrorhyncha). Shrubs include a range of Acacia spp., Bursaria spinosa, Dodonaea viscosa ssp angustissima, Calytrix tetragona, Kunzea parvifolia and Grevillea alpina, with groundcovers including a wide range of native forbs and grasses.
Threatened flora include Deane's Wattle (Acacia deanei ssp. paucijuga), DroopingWattle (A. difformis), Ploughshare Wattle (A.gunnii), Silver-leaf Tea Tree (Leptospermum multicaule), and a host of declining native peas including Slender Tick-trefoil (Desmodium varians), Western Golden-tip (Goodia medicaginea), Austral Trefoil (Lotus australis), Broughton's Pea (Swainsona procumbens) and Leafy Templetonia (Templetonia stenophylla).
A family of Squirrel Gliders at home in one of our 378 nest boxes
Grey-crowned Babblers at home in a planting site - photo courtesy Peter Adams
A diverse range of native fauna has persisted in the Lurg hills due to the significant number of regrowth bush areas that arose from a wildfire in 1952. Of particular note is the Brush-tailed Phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa) which requires a home range in the order of 100 hectares. Also notable is the Squirrel Glider, which is present in significant numbers, and increasing steadily due to a large scale nest box program.
The district also supports populations of several resident or migratory birds that are widely considered to be rare and declining. The impressive list includes Grey-crowned Babbler (Pomatostomus temporalis), Brown Treecreeper (Climacteris picumnus), Diamond Firetail (Stagonopleura guttata) Hooded Robin (Melanodryas cucullata), Red-capped Robin (Petroica goodenovii), Speckled Warbler (Chthonicola sagittatus), Painted Honeyeater (Grantiella picta), and Black-chinned Honeyeater (Melithreptus gularis), Painted Button-quail (Turnix varia), and Southern Whiteface (Aphelocephala leucopsis).
It is worth noting that all but the last two from this list have been observed in patches we revegetated from previously cleared land. (D. Ingwersen, Birds Australia, unpub. data 2008).
Project management and Stakeholders
The project was initiated in the early 1990s by the then Victorian Department of Conservation and Environment (DCE), but quickly became independent, to be managed by local Lurg Hills farmers It is now is managed through an incorporated body, Regent Honeyeater Project Inc., with approximately 95% of farms (115 farmers) being actively involved stakeholders.
The current Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) provides office space for the project and in recent years grants from the Australian Government's Natural Heritage Trust have been the main source of funding for the project officer. Other self-generated funds come from the 40-45,000 seedlings that are propagated and planted each year by project staff and volunteers. The Goulburn-Broken Catchment Management Authority fully supports our on-ground work, and accordingly provides revegetation grants after the sites are planted.
Students from 23 local schools help enormously with the propagation and planting, along with wider community volunteer groups like bushwalkers, cyclists, scouts, churches, bird observers, shooting clubs, 4WD clubs. In addition, valuable help is contributed by work schemes for unemployed, and 'Land Mate' crews from Corrections Victoria. Over the history of the project, there have been 11,850 students involved - as well as 5,760 adult volunteers, with many people returning year after year.
Among the Box-Ironbark forests and woodlands of Victoria, there are few if any undamaged reference sites to guide our work. The project therefore uses roadside linear remnants and the more intact bush areas as a guide to what might have grown on the specific topography of nearby work sites. The accumulated information from 14 years of such observation has enabled us to compile a comprehensive planting guide for the different topographies and soils of the whole district.
Volunteers planting extra trees and shrubs beside an old-growth tree line.
With the best advice available from biologists and our own insights from field observations, we work systematically on a number of integrated fronts. For example our work involves:
Fencing: Some 295 sites have been protected with a total of 190 km of fencing. This has included remnant vegetation as well as sites that were planted.
Plantings: We collect all our own seed and propagate 40-45,000 seedlings each year, including several threatened species and others that are seriously depleted in our region. Propagation and planting days are organised each year for 1500 students from more than 20 local schools, as well as hundreds of volunteers from universities, walking clubs, church groups, bird observers, scouts and environment groups.
Some 400 sites have been planted using over 385, 000 seedlings, and 27 sites have been direct seeded. Typically 30-40 species are planted at each site, with species selection based on overstorey indicators of the likely pre-existing plant associations. On the more micro level, we carefully match species to changing soils and moisture levels, as we proceed across various parts of each site. The rich planting mix increases the potential for species to shift dominance up or down slope, as the soil moisture changes in coming decades
Pruning severe mistletoe (Amyema spp.). Mistletoe pruning has been carried out on 10 heavily infested sites, supplemented by fencing, understorey establishment and nest box installation to improve the food webs that provide natural controls. Results have shown a dramatic return of tree vigour, much improved understorey density, and a significantly increased bird diversity in only 3 or 4 years.
Hot ecological burning is also carried out to regenerate senescent remnants, and has also been used on weedy sites as a valuable tool to reduce weed biomass prior to spraying and planting.
Ecological thinning of regrowth 'pole' forests has been carried out (under permit) on a 0.85 ha trial site. The objective is to reduce severe competition for moisture and nutrients and so enable better flowering and nectar production among the remaining trees.
Pest animal control. Predator reduction is carried out against the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), to protect wildlife using our sites. We have also arranged permits for farmers to cull Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) to reduce severe browsing of understorey in remnants and planted areas. Ongoing control is also carried out for hares and rabbits to protect the palatable nitrogen-fixing Peas, Wattles and Sheoaks.
Nest boxes. We have placed 378 nest boxes in strategic locations all across the district to provide much needed habitat, to provide invaluable opportunities for community education and involvement, and to facilitate a diverse range of research projects on our wildlife populations.
Maintenance. The farmers are required to continue weed control and to exclude livestock as part of the CMA agreement. Wherever seedling losses have been excessive for any reason, the project staff and volunteers install replacement plantings in the second year to ensure the high vegetation density required for our target species.
Nest box monitoring provides valuable research data on our Squirrel Gliders.
Informal monitoring is a constant process for project staff and landholders, who continually check the progress of restoration sites to anticipate and correct any problems. Photo-monitoring is also undertaken of every site to readily demonstrate the dramatic structural changes we are achieving.
Formal monitoring has also been undertaken each year during the past decade, documenting the distribution and population of Grey-crowned Babblers (by exhaustive survey) and Squirrel Gliders (by nest box monitoring). For the past 4 years, Birds Australia has arranged a systematic survey of over 150 sites to document the woodland birds that are using local remnant patches and planting sites.
A number of university research projects has also been carried out, on both the habitat inputs and the ecological responses. For example natural regeneration of understorey on planting sites, nest box occupancy rates in various vegetation types, DNA sampling from Squirrel Gliders using our nest boxes, Squirrel Glider behaviour in nesting dens during daylight hours, use of our planted corridors for wildlife dispersal. Most recently, we have embarked on a pilot project of ecological thinning in the over-dense regrowth bush blocks that dominate the Lurg landscape.
Over 14 years of sustained effort, the project has protected and restored almost 1060 ha of Box-Ironbark habitat, and planted more than 385,000 seedlings.
We have observed that ripping and spraying our planting sites often promotes natural regeneration, either from soil-stored seed or recent seed fall from parent plants nearby..The results have encouraged us to trial various site treatments to accelerate this process of natural recovery, including soil disturbance, weed spraying, and burning.
Habitat restoration and faunal outcomes
Use of habitats by fauna
The Regent Honeyeater has not returned in any great numbers as yet, as it is still only in low numbers at the national level and our plantings are still years away from their nectar production peak. Once the planted trees become reliable producers of nectar, however, we expect the likelihood of Regent Honeyeater use of the habitat to be higher.
The gap closure achieved within the district seems to have substantially benefited the Grey-crowned Babbler. These birds have been observed in 35-40 of our revegetated sites, usually within 5 or 6 years of planting. Many family groups are also moving through our planted corridors or via "stepping stone" planting sites, to join other family groups. This has critical genetic benefits for the species.
Declining woodland birds
The Birds Australia survey results for the three years 2005-2007, show an increasing incidence of species listed as threatened under Victoria's Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, 1988 (FFG Act, 1988). Data for the 60 revegetation sites alone, show a total of 116 species recorded during the 2005-7 period, including 12 species listed under the FFG Act, 1988. The only one of these species found nesting in the revegetation sites was Jacky Winter, found in 2008) (D. Ingwersen, Birds Australia, unpub. data 2008).
Data from the 378 boxes indicate that 70-80 % of boxes have been used by gliders at some stage, and the animals are observed in around 30% of boxes on any one spot-check.. Also significant is the considerable breeding success in the boxes. (Ray Thomas 2009, unpub. data)
Contact: Ray Thomas, Coordinator, Regent Honeyeater Project Inc, PO Box 124, Benalla, VIC 3672, Australia; Tel: +61 3 5761 1515; or email.
Davidson I. (1996) Box-Ironbark Remnants Project. Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Melbourne.
Environment and Conservation (NSW) (2004) Regent Honeyeater, Xanthomyza phrygia, Draft National and NSW Recovery Plan. NSW Department of Environment and Conservation, Hurstville.
Mann S. and Robinson D. (1992) Remnant Vegetation of the Lurg Hills Map Series. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Benalla.
Mann S. and Davidson I (1993) The Molyullah to Glenrowan District Regent Honey Project: Preliminary
Lacey N and Thomas R (2005, 2006.2007,2008) Grey-crowned Babbler Report for the Lurg Hills, Regent Honeyeater Project, in preparation.
Thomas R (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) Nest Box Monitoring Report for the Lurg Hills, Regent Honeyeater Project, in preparation.