An uncertain future for south-east Australia’s woodland birds: are noisy miners the problem?
By Richard Beggs
PhD Candidate, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University, Canberra
Before 1788, as a result of millennia of indigenous fire management, much of the south east of Australia would have been covered in open grassy eucalypt woodland, with its associated communities of invertebrates, reptiles, mammals and birds. Two centuries of clearing for agriculture, however, whilst providing economic benefits, has meant a loss of 80% of woodland with proportionate declines in associated fauna. Habitat loss continues to be Australia’s number one threat to biodiversity.
On top of this, an additional threat to small woodland birds has been simmering away in the eastern Australian landscape, largely unrecognised until recent decades: an increase in the range and population of the hyperaggressive native honeyeater, the noisy miner. Native miners have been part of the cultural landscape that is Australia throughout the period of indigenous occupation. The landscape that now exists in much of the south east, however, – small fragments of woodland scattered across agricultural land - has provided the perfect habitat for this species. The noisy miner is happiest in small patches of woodland with limited understorey of shrubs (usually the case in woodlands grazed by stock). It has plenty of foraging opportunities in the flowering eucalypts, whose nectar and lerps (the protective, sugary shells secreted by parasitic psyllid insects on leaf surfaces) it consumes, whilst gleaning bark for other insects. It will also forage for insects on the open ground layer: although a honeyeater, 75% of its diet is made up of insects.
Many honeyeaters, such as wattlebirds, blue-faced honeyeaters and even the critically-endangered Regent honeyeater, will aggressively defend food resources seasonally in the form of flowering trees and shrubs. Noisy miners are different because they will permanently colonise whole areas of suitable woodland and aggressively exclude any bird smaller than them. They have been recorded chasing out over 60 species including thornbills, robins, flycatchers, whistlers and other honeyeaters. They will also have a go at some larger intruders, including birds, mammals, reptiles and ecologists! These smaller birds, many of them already in severe decline, are then pushed on to poorer habitats, such as upland Callitris woodland, where they breed less successfully and continue to decline.
IS CULLING THE ANSWER ? - The search for robust scientific evidence
Aggressive exclusion of small woodland birds from woodland remnants by noisy miners was declared a Key Threatening Process by the Commonwealth government in 2014. Since then many ecologists have been arguing the need for a cull (see the recent Radio National program). Culling is intuitively attractive but convincing empirical data that this will benefit small woodland birds are lacking. There is a great risk, therefore, that directing scarce conservation resources towards this one threatening process could be a futile endeavour or. It even could create perverse outcomes for target species such as increasing the density of other aggressive species
The aim of my PhD study, therefore, is to discover whether culling noisy miners from small woodland patches in a fragmented landscape will benefit small woodland birds. The study is being conducted on 8 pairs of woodland fragments distributed among farms between Junee and Gundagai. Two of these sites have been kindly provided by the Coes at Cooba East . All sites were monitored for bird activity last year and this year miners have been removed from 8 sites with 8 sites acting as controls.
Monitoring is based on frequent visits to sites before and after culling to see which birds are present, which birds are using the sites to forage in and how much harassment is happening. In addition, by monitoring artificial nests using automatic cameras, we hope to see if removing noisy miners leads to improved breeding outcomes, a necessary precondition for vulnerable birds to re-establish themselves in this landscape. Whilst noisy miners do indeed predate nests of small woodland birds, so do many other species, including butcherbirds, magpies, ravens, possums – and cows.
Endangered woodlands, endangered birds
Due to its preference for better soils, box gum grassy woodland of the type that would have covered the South West Slopes before agricultural clearing, has been particularly severely cleared. It is now listed as a Threatened Ecological Community. 85% of its original regional extent has gone whilst in eastern Australia as a whole, less than 0.1% of remaining fragments are intact. The South West Slopes region of NSW is home to at least 12 bird species of conservation concern including the brown treecreeper, diamond firetail, speckled warbler, grey-crowned babbler, eastern yellow robin, scarlet robin, hooded robin and southern whiteface – most of which have been seen on the more intact patches of grassy box gum woodland at Cooba East. 360ha of this area is already under a conservation covenant thanks to the Coes’ commitment to a sustainable future. Whether the species present in this area will colonise small fragments of woodland elsewhere on the farm as noisy miners are removed, remains to be seen. If we are to preserve these species into the future, we need a new approach to farming.
The future role of farming – production and protection
Traditionally the role of farms was simplyto produce food whilst providing a livelihood for farmers and their families. Meanwhile, a system of reserves was supposed to conserve important habitat. Given the very large proportion of Australia’s land surfacecovered by farming enterprises (up to 70% depending on the metric used – compared to just 0.01% for mining) , more recent demands from some sectors of society recognise that modern farmers have concomitant responsibilities to conserve biodiversity as well as produce food. In parts of the South West Slopes region of New South Wales, 97% of the woodland has gone and the reserve system is negligible. Most of the remaining woodland fragments are on private farms. In order for this potentially significant habitat to be managed in a way that conserves its biodiversity, we desperately need a new approach of cooperation between society and farmers.
Production and conservation need not work in opposition. Research has shown that a healthy environment is much more productive in the long run, with benefits for soil quality, nutrient cycling and hydrology. Only if a healthy environment is maintained can agriculture be truly sustainable. And to quote World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz’s obvious truism, that which is not sustainable will not be sustained! Unfortunately, political, social and productive timescales tend to operate in the shorter term. Inertia and the inherent costs in being a pioneer make it difficult for individuals and enterprises to shift to a longer term view without the support of the socio-economic system as a whole.
There are signs of a shift, however. The Commonwealth government’s Environmental Stewardship Program, in which Cooba East is taking part, has had considerable success in supporting farmers to enhance conservation values of their land whilst maintaining productive farms. David Lindenmayer and colleagues at ANU have been involved in monitoring outcomes and have described it as “a conservation program that works” (see their article in “The Conversation”)
What’s so special about biodiversity?
Simply put, the richer ecosystems are in species, the healthier and more stable they are - and the better they are at providing the ecosystem services that we take for granted such as clean air, clean water and stable, fertile soils. On top of this, as just one of many species occupying the biosphere, we need to recognise the intrinsic value of all the other species that share it with us and their right to continue to exist. Their existence has benefits for people, too: imagine an Australia without the dawn chorus, without woodlands and forests to look at and walk through. These natural spaces provide a spiritual counterweight to the urban pressures of production and competition, offering what the English poet Wordsworth called “tranquil restoration.”
There is increasing appreciation of the important role that birds play in ecosystem function and the consequent ecological impacts of declines in bird populations. Many smaller woodland birds play significant ecological roles such as in pollination and pest control. Fulfilment of these roles is impacted by the presence of noisy miners, however, which have been implicated in higher incidences of insect-related dieback. Given that more diverse ecosystems enjoy greater stability, enhancement of avian biodiversity can contribute to ecosystem resilience and, ultimately, sustainable agricultural and forestry production through provision of ecosystem services.
Coe&Co – Sustainability Story
Jim and Karen Coe moved from Suffolk, England to regional NSW, Australia, in 2001. We had enjoyed a fantastic 8 years together in the UK but decided Australia, was the best place to bring up our young family. We sold up and moved back to where Karen’s family were located in regional NSW, between Gundagai and Wagga. The plan was to buy a farm, with the intention of also establishing a vineyard.
Life quickly got busy! On February 25th 2002, our second child was born and later that day, we had a visit from the bank manager to sign the documents to purchase, “Cooba East Station”. In addition on this same day, Jim also commenced his university degree studying Viticulture and Wine Making at Charles Sturt University in Wagga.
The previous farming year at Cooba East Station, had been magnificent. The photos of the property were beautiful and the dams were all full. The decision was made to create a vineyard using dry land irrigation, based on the knowledge that Cooba Mountain(situated in the middle of the property), would be a great source of run off water for the creeks and dams located on the property. On the purchase of Cooba East Station, we were assured by the previous owner (ironically named Jim Coen), the water capacity of the main dam was 136 Mega Litres (ML). Not being able to ascertain the true capacity of a dam after a wet season, we took his word for it!
A great deal of cost and work then went into finding the perfect location for the vineyard. All things were considered including; topography, wind, access, soil type, orientation, etc. A well know viticulturalist, came out to the property to give the final nod on the choice of location. He made the comment, “This really is desperate dirt!” This comment was absorbed with some trepidation, but as any great viticulturalist will tell you, in order to produce great quality wine, the vines have to do it a little tough…little did we know what lay ahead!
To cut a long story short…we established our vineyard during the worst period of drought this region had ever seen. To make matters worse, as it turned out our 136megalitre dam was actually only a meagre 30megalitres (disappointing...!) We also experienced just about everything the Australian bush could throw at us including; Locust plagues, mouse plagues, horrendous frosts, spectacular dust storms that would inevitably bring with them an extraordinary amount of hairy panic (a nasty little tumble weed that gets everywhere, sticks to everything and is impossible to pick up). Finally, not to forget the 2006 Junee bushfire, where Jim found himself on the front line fighting this utterly destructive force of nature. The fire was a terrifying experience, the attempt to stop it by many of the local experienced farmers/fire fighters seemed feeble - it was just too powerful. Many people sadly lost a great deal, however in true bush spirit, they cleaned up and moved forward.
Things didn’t really change much for a number of years and Jim quickly learnt that in order to survive in the Australian bush, you had to work with the elements. Jim was lucky to have the benefit of previous generations in Karen’s family, providing practical wisdom on how to work in harmony with this sometimes, unforgiving land. Karen's father John Martin and his father Sam were very successful local farmers. Sam, who was also involved in pioneering the Australian bush at Weethalle, captured his life story in his book, "My Hand to the Plough", a spectacular example of sustainable living.
The greatest challenge, as with many Australian farms was lack of water. This is where desperation led to ingenious thinking. Jim knew the answer lay in the Cooba Creek, despite the fact that it had barely run since purchasing the property. He set about checking topography to analyse potential water flows. He took GPS measurements and checked land heights so he could set up a system throughout the property that would work naturally and allow the water to flow from place to place without requiring any mechanical assistance. Jim set about creating this sophisticated catchment system. Cooba East Station has a harvestable right of 138ML of water per annum. A catchment dam capable of holding 54ML of water was constructed on Cooba Creek, in order to harvest the water entitlement. Anything over the entitled amount, overflows back into the Cooba Creek and continues down stream. A system of contour banks was built, using the topography of the land to transfer the water from the creek catchment dam to the front vineyard dam. This incredible resourcefulness did unfortunately, come at a great financial cost!
At the same time, Jim was always looking at other approaches to compliment the water sustainability. For the past five years, he has been working to improve Grassy Woodlands and the area surrounding the vineyard (including placing a perpetual covenant on 360 hectares), to protect native flora and fauna and to create a unique, sustainable environment. The Australian National University (ANU) has been involved in monitoring sites within the covenanted area to measure biodiversity of flora and fauna. Each spring and autumn measurements are taken and recorded to evaluate the impact of different grazing regimes. On Cooba East Station we are also trialling complete stock exclusion, rotational grazing and grazing (6 months on, 6 months off).
Jim continued on his path to ensure the property was working in a sustainable manner.
This also includes proactively reducing the amount of chemical sprays applied to the vines. This was achieved using the unique topography of the vineyard, the nightly easterly breeze in combination with specifically pruned canopies, allows for greater airflow through the vines, preventing humid microclimates and therefore reducing the need for fungicides. In addition, our cattle are free to graze (at specific times of the year), the ground cover between the vines. This acts as a management tool to reduce the need for slashing the mid rows, assisting with weed control, fire safety and also adding (fertilising) nutrients back into the soil. (Hence the reason for our wine labels being named, Leaning Cow and Covenant).
Cooba East Station, has recently been awarded a farm innovation fund, to develop a solar generated power bank to run our extensive irrigation system. This solar bank will be mobile to allow the harvesting of the suns energy for use in both the summer and winter months. This is currently under construction.
Cooba East Station, has gradually been transformed from a fairly rough, dry property to a rugged beauty. We are gradually being recognised for our sustainable approach and we recently had a group of Architecture students from the University of NSW, conducting a study project with the aim to create the ultimate sustainable business and building on the property. The project was led by one of Australia’s most revered Architects, Glen Murcutt.
In 2015, Coe&Co Wines entered the local Wagga Wagga Business Chamber Awards, in the category for, “Excellence In Sustainability”. We won the local awards and then also went on to become the regional Winners for, “Excellence in Sustainability”.
Coe&Co Wines then went on to be the 2015 State finalists in the NSW Business Chamber Awards, for “Excellence In Sustainability”, held in Sydney. We were thrilled to have been recognised for our work and it is possible that we epitomise the word sustainability...by just surviving!
Another exciting initiative, Coe&Co Wines have just recently launched, is an app and website named, iGiftWine.
IGiftWine was created with the aim of providing a market for our wine and other wineries, to take our products directly to the customer. iGiftWine provides a fantastic gift option for both personal and corporate gifts. Our aim is to become the Interflora of wine!
Please visit our website: www.igiftwine.com.au
And Download our app: igiftwine
Please review the website and read about our company ethos and particularly about our desire to work with charities, to help to bring a little kindness to the lives of others. Karen has spent the past 22 years working as a physiotherapist and was keen to donate, particularly to children’s charities. A percentage of every sale through iGiftWine will be donated to charity.