Australia has experienced the highest rate of mammal extinctions of any continent, and since European settlement, 92% of box-gum grassy woodland has been cleared (over 5 million hectares), making it one of the most critically endangered ecological communities in Australia. Not only has this reduced biodiversity, but has also compromised many important ecological processes that affect ecosystem structure, composition and function unique to the Australian landscape.
Long-term ecological research is globally recognised as critical for understanding environmental change and to inform conservation decision-making. However, in Australia there has been a lack of these studies, with few running more than 25 years and even less of those replicating plots from different experimental treatments.
In 2004, the Mulligans Flat-Goorooyarroo (MFGO) Woodland Experiment (www.mfgowoodlandexperiment.org.au/) was established to understand ways of restoring temperate woodlands to increase biodiversity and to support land managers in their work to conserve woodlands. The experiment is underpinned by a rigorous experimental frame work and is located in two nature reserves that cover the largest and most intact example of this critically endangered box-gum grassy woodland in the ACT and possibly south-eastern Australia.
Associate Professor Adrian Manning (ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, ARC Future Fellow) leads an international research team that has consisted of over 20 researchers and field staff. The MFGO Woodland Experiment results from a unique partnership between The Australian National University (ANU), the ACT Government, CSIRO and the James Hutton Institute, Scotland. “This partnership provides a unique opportunity for researchers to work together, and towards a whole-ecosystem understanding of box-gum grassy woodland”, Adrian says.
A set of key ecosystem treatments such as the addition of logs, prescribed burning and the exclusion of kangaroos and feral predators have been chosen to investigate how to reverse the decline in biodiversity of these woodlands.
In 2009 the ACT Government funded an 11.5km cat, fox and rabbit-proof fenced reserve known as the Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary and is the largest of its kind in SE Australia. This sanctuary provides a valuable opportunity to experimentally reintroduce locally extinct species, observe effects of the experimental management in the absence of feral predators and understand the effects of the reintroduction of lost ecosystem engineers. There have been four threatened species reintroductions into the sanctuary thus far, two of which have been led by the ANU. A number of long term monitoring sites have also been established to monitor birds, small mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and vegetation assemblages in response to treatments carried out within the reserves.
Over the last decade we have started to gain invaluable insight into the structure, function and restoration process of the critically endangered box-gum grassy woodland ecosystem.
The MFGO Woodland Experiment has just completed its ninth year of bird surveys. Early results, from over 3000 surveys indicate that shrub cover, woody debris, grazing control and urban proximity all play important roles in shaping woodland bird assemblages.
High level kangaroo grazing can have negative effect on insect diversity. Reducing the density of kangaroos to 0.5 animals/ha with exclusion fences promotes an increase in grass biomass and plant habitat structure and in more dense woodland this can be particularly beneficial to small skinks such as the three-toed skink.
A total of 15 reptile species have been detected during surveys and research has found that adding logs resulted in significant increases in reptile abundance. “By adding logs provides a way to short cut the 100-200 year restoration barrier for reptiles within woodlands”.
The addition of logs can also help reduce the negative effects associated with kangaroo overgrazing in box-gum grassy woodlands and benefit small woodland bird species. Small mammal assemblages were monitored through footprint tunnels with the common dunnart, possum and house mouse the most common species identified. However, due to increased interference from brush-tailed possums the MFGO experiment team have developed an innovative excluder to aid in small mammal monitoring that will hopefully be helpful to other projects around Australia where interference by non-target species.
Since their reintroduction from Tasmania in 2012, the Eastern Bettong population has thrived within the cat and fox-free Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary. Long term, trap monitoring sites have now been established within the sanctuary to implement a long term capture-mark-recapture study to accurately inform land managers and other stakeholders of population trends and population health over time. This is critical to ensure this confined population is managed sustainably to facilitate box-gum grassy woodland restoration.
The MFGO woodland experiment has recently been awarded a third Australian Research Council Linkage Grant which will enable us to experimentally re-build the native mammal community of a critically-endangered woodland ecosystem by reintroducing a further three mammal species from different trophic levels; a herbivore (Eastern Chestnut Mouse), an insectivore (Yellow-footed Antechinus) and a carnivore (Eastern Quoll).
A decade since inception, the MFGO Woodland Experiment is well underway to being Australia’s first long-term ecological experiment underpinned by a rigorous experimental framework that have practical implications for land managers.
www.mfgowoodlandexperiment.org.au = the three "Rs" Research Restoration Results
Manning, A.D, Wood, J.T., Cunningham, R.B., McIntyre, S., Shorthouse, DJ., Gordon, I.J. and Lindenmayer, D.B. (2011) Integrating research and restoration: the establishment of a long-term woodland experiment in south-eastern Australia. Australian Zoologist 35(3) 633-648.
Manning, A.D., Cunningham, R.B., and Lindenmayer, D.B. (2013) Bringing forward the benefits of coarse woody debris in ecosystem recovery under different levels of grazing and vegetation density. Biological Conservation 157, 204-214.
Barton, P.S., Manning, A.D., Gibb, H., Wood, J.T., Lindenmayer, D.B. and Cunningham, S.A. (2011) Experimental reduction of native vertebrate grazing and addition of logs benefits beetle diversity at multiple scales. Journal of Applied Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2011.01994.x