Jess Lawton & Frances Howe
Connecting Country is a community organisation working to restore landscapes across the Mount Alexander region of central Victoria. This area largely comprises the Goldfields bioregion, and its box-ironbark forests and woodlands have a long history of land clearing for mining, timber harvesting and agriculture. The region retains about 35% of native vegetation cover, which has been degraded through inappropriate grazing, erosion, pest animals and weed invasion.
The region is home to species listed as threatened under Victorian and Commonwealth legislation, including the charismatic Brush- tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa) and extremely restricted Southern shepherd’s purse (Ballantinia antipoda), along with the threatened Victorian temperate woodland bird community.
The local community is highly engaged, demonstrating above average levels of volunteering and a strong interest in nature conservation. Many community members actively contribute to landscape restoration. Changing demographics in the region mean larger farms are often converted to lifestyle properties, with many landholders keen to manage their properties for wildlife.
Since beginning in 2007, Connecting Country has worked with over 200 landholders and community groups to rehabilitate 10,000 hectares of habitat. Our work is based on four key areas:
- Supporting Landcare through our Landcare Facilitator and around 30 local Landcare and Friends groups.
- Restoring landscapes through on-ground actions such as fencing existing habitat, revegetation, and weed and pest animal control.
- Engaging community through environmental education, workshops, information-sharing, social media and volunteer involvement.
- Monitoring biodiversity with a focus on woodland birds and arboreal mammals.
Collaborating with scientists
Connecting Country recognises that long-term monitoring is essential to identify whether restoration work is effective in improving biodiversity. Since 2010, we have monitored wildlife at approximately 200 sites across the Mount Alexander region, with a focus on woodland birds as indicators of habitat quality, and the Brush-tailed Phascogale as a flagship for conservation.
We welcome and actively seek input from scientists when establishing and reviewing our monitoring programs. This advice has helped us to stratify our site locations, establish an appropriate number of sites, and monitor sites regularly and consistently over the long term.
Our phascogale monitoring program involves nest boxes established at 100 survey sites, primarily on private land. Sites are stratified across five geographic subregions, to represent both large (> 50 ha) and small (< 50 ha) patches of forest, and gullies and slopes. We have surveyed these sites five times since 2010, and will survey them again in autumn 2021. Our woodland bird monitoring program was established with a similar approach to allow comparison of restoration sites with cleared and remnant vegetation sites.
Setting up monitoring programs with help from scientists has enabled data analysis and the ability to draw more meaningful conclusions about habitat use by species at our restoration sites. Our nest box data has been analysed as part of a PhD project. We have shared our data with researchers from La Trobe University, Federation University and the University of Melbourne, as well as public databases including the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas and Birdata.
Collaborating with community
Connecting Country’s monitoring programs were initially implemented by paid staff, but increasingly involve volunteers. Since 2018 we have moved to a new model where coordinated teams of skilled citizen scientists monitor woodland birds and nest boxes. Feedback from our funders indicates they prefer to invest in citizen science projects, and we find it increasingly difficult to find funding for in-house monitoring.
We work hard to keep data collection as consistent as possible with previous surveys. We take care to enlist volunteers who are skilled at identifying birds both by sight and from their calls, consistent with the skill levels of previous staff. We train volunteers in how to conduct surveys, liaise with landholders, navigate to sites, follow safety procedures, record data correctly and enter data into public databases.
The dedication of our volunteers is inspirational. However, there are challenges. We find that recruitment and training volunteers takes considerable time and is an ongoing process. We must keep our volunteers safe and healthy, provide regular reminders and follow up to volunteers, and answer their questions. When data is collected by many people, it must be checked carefully. It is essential for volunteer retention that volunteers feel appreciated, so we host thank-you events and take opportunities to celebrate our volunteers.
Volunteers report they enjoy monitoring, feel they are connecting with their natural environment, and value learning about scientific monitoring methods. Several volunteers have formed friendships with landholders and take opportunities to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for nature. We are incredibly grateful for the rich resource of skills and enthusiasm that our growing team of about 30 volunteers bring to our monitoring programs, and look forward to learning as much as we can from our data in the future.
For more information, contact Connecting Country here: email@example.com
This article was first published in the ESA Bulletin March 2021.