Flora and Fauna Survey and Research

Graeme Suckling (bio)

In the early 1970s the FCV initiated critically important flora and fauna survey work. This was a response to concerns about the potential for loss of biodiversity due to clearing native forests to establish pine plantations. This article describes a young forestry graduates' experiences in flora and fauna survey, and associated research work, for the FCV.

See also FCV Bulletin 24

New Era

A New Era Begins

I graduated from the Victorian School of Forestry in 1968 and was posted to work with the Research Branch in Melbourne. My responsibilities mainly involved measurement of various field trials, particularly growth trials established by John Jack as part of his MSc research into woody weeds in young Pinus radiata plantations.

After completing a year in the Research Branch and successfully completing a chemistry refresher course I commenced study leave to attend the University of Melbourne during 1970 and 1971.

Towards the end of my second year at the University I spoke with respected FCV researcher, Brian Gibson, about areas of work he believed would be of significant relevance over the short to medium term. Brian identified wildlife and forestry economics as two critically important areas.

Armed with this information I met with Dr Fred Craig to advise him of my keen interest in wildlife research, and to request that I be considered if any opportunities for such work were to arise. But when I finished my university studies the Commission advised me I was to be posted to the Maffra District, and I promptly made all the arrangements to relocate to Briagolong. My wife and I had moved into our new accommodation and just finished unpacking when I received a telephone call from Dr Craig.

Fred was calling to advise of a new position being established in Myrtleford to undertake wildlife surveys in pine plantations, and offered me the role of coordinator, with specific responsibility for mammal research. Although I was disappointed to be leaving my first District role even before it had started, I was excited by the prospect of a new challenge in an area I had been keenly interested in since my childhood. So across the Alps and off to Myrtleford it was.

The FCV had initiated the program of biological surveys in plantations of P. radiata in North Eastern Victoria because of mounting pressure through persistent allegations that pine plantations were “biological deserts”. A detailed analysis of the biodiversity conservation arguments, as well as the economic arguments, was published during 1973 (“The Fight for the Forests”, written by Richard and Valerie Routley). While this work appeared after our survey work had commenced, the publication provided a framework against which we were able to check the design of our study, analyse our results and ultimately present our findings.

The initial survey work could be said to be a relatively low budget project aimed at documenting the species of native mammals, birds, plants and insects which were able to adapt to life in pine plantations. The work was overseen by Dr Fred Craig of the Research Branch and a small team, with me as coordinator, was based in Myrtleford.

I was supported by a competent and enthusiastic young amateur naturalist from the Otway Ranges, Leon Stephens, who was employed as the project’s Technical Assistant. Eli Backen, a forester with extensive knowledge of Victoria’s bird species, was also employed full-time on the project and was also based in Myrtleford. Eli conducted extensive ornithological survey work, as well as some detailed research, the latter unfortunately never being published because of his untimely death.

Detailed entomological work was conducted by Fred Neumann and John “Basher” Harris, who were based in Melbourne and travelled to northeast Victoria for a series of regular seasonal surveys. These surveys produced extensive data on the species of invertebrates in the project’s study areas which represented native forest (Long Corner Creek); young (less than ten years old first rotation) P.radiata plantations (Running Creek); approximately 20 year old first rotation P.radiata plantations (Slaughteryard Creek); and mature (greater than 35 year first rotation) P.radiata plantations in the Ovens Valley.

Various FCV personnel assisted with the design and interpretation of the surveys during the life of the project, which extended from late 1971 to late 1975. In particular, Arnis Heislers, who had accumulated extensive knowledge of mammal research through detailed studies of the effects of fire on mammals, was a valuable resource for the mammal survey work.

The early mammal work encountered a significant problem, in the form of a visit from a local Fisheries and Wildlife Officer to interview me about illegal trapping of wildlife. Apparently the trapping permit had been applied for and was supposed to be issued soon, but had not come through by the time we started to get some local media about the project.

Fisheries and Wildlife was opposed to the project, believing they should have been funded by the FCV to undertake the work. This was all sorted out at higher levels and did not cause further problems, although the relationship between our survey team and some Fisheries and Wildlife personnel remained frosty for several years.

Another problem we encountered was the 1974 floods, which came unexpectedly while our mammal traps were set in the Long Corner Creek native forest study area. I was living in a rented house at Whorouly in the Ovens Valley at that time and one morning I was greeted by extensive flooding with our house being surrounded by water for as far as one could see.

Fortunately I had taken Don Thomson’s short wheel base Toyota home, but it was still a harrowing adventure getting to Long Corner Creek via back routes, necessitated because various bridge approaches on the main roads had been washed away. I made it by negotiating steep slippery tracks in a plantation and fording floodwaters which must have been over a metre deep and extended for many hundreds of metres. It was a bit reckless and certainly dangerous, but to have left the traps set and unchecked for an extended period would have risked the lives of our study animals and jeopardised our results.

For many field staff in the FCV at that time, the surveys may have been considered to have been a waste of time and money. This was because their observations of various native mammals (such as grey kangaroos, swamp wallabies and common wombats) regularly found in relatively large numbers in at least some plantations, appeared to make a lie of the “biological desert” tag.

But the published results of the ground-breaking biological surveys confirmed the diversity of mammal, bird and invertebrate species in all the radiata pine study areas was substantially simplified when compared with the native forest study area.

Although very young plantations were found to contain good populations of some native mammals, such as brown antechinus, bush rats, swamp wallabies and wombats, this appeared to be a result of the relatively dense native vegetation which had regenerated on the site and continued to grow until overshadowed by the pines by the time plantations were 15 to 20 years old.

The absence of a tall canopy of eucalypts, as well as the absence of the abundant tree hollows found in native forests, meant that habitat for most possums and gliding mammals did not occur in any of the radiata pine study areas. However, some of these arboreal mammals were found in corridors of riparian vegetation where these had been left uncleared along watercourses.

Many bird species were also missing from the P.radiata study areas, and once again, age of the plantation was an important factor in determining the suitability of habitat for various species. For example, the more open areas in the mature pine plantations in the Ovens Valley allowed some native understorey plants to thrive, particularly in creek gullies and along roadsides.

Interestingly, unpublished work conducted by Eli Backen in these older plantations, which involved mapping and monitoring of individual nests of species such as Blue wrens and White browed scrub wrens, showed there were very high rates of mortality of both eggs and/or young birds. The mortality was found to be the result of predation by resident Pied Currawongs, which were thought to have been able to readily locate the nests by observing the behaviour of the breeding birds in the relatively open environment of a mature pine plantation.

It was clear from the survey work that plantations of radiata pine were not “biological deserts”. But it was also clear that conversion of large areas of native eucalypt forests to pine plantations in North Eastern Victoria was having a measureable impact on the biodiversity of the region.

For me there were two significant conclusions arising from this survey work conducted at an early stage of my career:

  •  if the FCV was to achieve credibility for its work on vertebrate fauna in pine plantations (or indeed any other studies of the impacts of forestry operations on vertebrates), the studies needed to be conducted by appropriately qualified people. This meant that if I was to continue to be involved in this work I needed to invest in some appropriate post-graduate training in a relevant discipline.
  •  because the surveys had clearly demonstrated the value of remnant native vegetation, such as along riparian zones and on slopes too steep to clear, for providing habitat for species which would otherwise have disappeared from the study region, further research was required to identify the optimum size and configuration of retained areas within managed forests (relevant to both native areas and plantations)

Selected References:

1. Suckling, GC (1978). A Hair Sampling Tube for the detection of small mammals in trees. Aust Wildl. Res. 5(2: 249 – 252.
2. Suckling, GC. (1984). Population ecology of the sugar glider, Petaurus breviceps, in a system of fragmented habitats. Aust Wildl. Res. 11: 49 – 75.
3. Suckling, G.C. (1982). Value of reserved habitat for mammal conservation in plantations. Aust Forestry 45: 19 – 27.