Merri Creek: Managing an urban waterway for people and nature

Authors

  • Judy Bush,

  • Barb Miles,

  • Brian Bainbridge


Judy Bush is Conservation Coordinator, Barb Miles is Parkland Team Coordinator and Brian Bainbridge is Technical Officer with Merri Creek Management Committee (2 Lee St, East Brunswick, Vic. 3057, Australia. Tel. (+61) 39380 8199 Email: judy@mcmc.org.au, barb@mcmc.org.au and reveg@mcmc.org.au). This article brings together material from 14 years of management programs in Merri Creek.

Abstract

The restoration of Melbourne's Merri Creek demonstrates the potential for achieving environmental improvements through a process that integrates the technical, ecological and social aspects.

Merri Creek rises in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range near Wallan, and flows south through rural land, the rural−urban interface and the northern suburbs of Melbourne before joining the Yarra River at inner-city Clifton Hill. Although severely degraded in parts, patches of the original vegetation remain, and the creek and its adjoining lands still provide habitat for indigenous flora, fauna and ecological communities, including some that are rare or threatened. It provides important passive recreational parkland −‘breathing space’− for local ­residents, particularly in the densely populated urban reaches (Figs 1,2).

Figure 1.

Merri Creek flowing through steep basalt escarpment walls above pools and riffles at Galada Tamboore, Campbellfield and Thomastown. (Photo: Merri Creek Management Committee.)

Figure 2.

Urban and urban−rural fringe of Merri Creek's catchment. Merri Creek rises in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, flowing south to join the Yarra River in inner-city Melbourne. It is a habitat corridor of regional and State significance. For much of its length Merri Creek forms a municipal boundary. The shaded areas indicate areas of open space. Some of the smaller areas away from waterways may be small mown local council parks. Some of the larger areas towards the north of the catchment are areas of native grassland. The inset shows Merri Creek's location in relation to Port Phillip Bay and major waterways of the area.

The relationship between the biolog­ical and the cultural is pivotal to the Merri Creek story. In biological terms, Merri Creek is considered a habitat corridor of regional to State significance (McMahon & Schulz 1993). It contains escarpment shrubland and riparian communities, as well as remnants of the threatened Western Basalt Plains Native Grassland community, of which less than 0.1% remains (Craigie 1998; Muir 1999). It was important and productive land for the Wurundjeri willam, the area's traditional custodians. Since European settlement of Australia, agriculture has flourished in the catchment, its native grasslands easily converted to grazing land. Urban expansion quickly engulfed Merri Creek's lower reaches from the late 19th century. By the 1970s, local communities were moved to restrict further development in favour of promoting aesthetic and recreational values, water quality and ecological communities. The Merri Creek Management Committee was formed in 1989, beginning a 15-year program of cooperation and remediation in the management of the Merri Creek corridor. Insights have been gained into the potential for ecological rehabili­tation and for a more healthy ­relationship between people and their waterways.

Community triggers for improved management

In 1974, a major flood increased pressure for the creek to be barrel-drained. The creek valley was also threatened by a planned freeway, similar to the recently completed Tullamarine Freeway, and by proposed installation of high voltage overhead powerlines downstream of Brunswick (Brunswick−Richmond Powerline). In reaction, a number of community groups were established, dedicated to conserving the creek in its ‘natural’ form (Bishop 1975). These groups coalesced in 1977 to form the Merri Creek Coordinating Committee (MCCC). MCCC was established as an advisory group to encourage a coordinated approach to planning and restoration along Merri Creek. The initial effort of this advisory group (whose members also included local government) was to prevent the construction of the Merri Creek Freeway and associated development, and secure this area as open space for the northern suburbs (Radford 2002). The latter was seen as a compelling objective given the considerable lack of recre­ational space per head of population compared with other, better-endowed, areas of Melbourne.

Community groups were successful in halting some of the development plans. The freeway reservation within the creek valley downstream of the Western Ring Road was revoked. (However, they recently failed in their campaign to prevent construction of the northern portion of the freeway, although the planned route of the freeway was relocated further away from significant grasslands and the number of creek crossings was reduced.) Following a prolonged campaign to prevent the overhead powerlines being constructed, it was decided to locate the high voltage Brunswick−­Richmond Power­line underground. The eventual success of this campaign is still perceived as exemp­lifying the potential power of impassioned community groups, and of the validity of environmental and landscape values over engineering and tech­nical constraints.

Community groups also successfully campaigned to prevent a 6-metre high vertical wall being built beside Merri Creek in Northcote to protect adjacent housing from floods. Residents instead succeeded in persuading Melbourne Water's predecessor, Board of Works, to build an undulating earthen levy bank and retarding basin that today is part of the revegetated Merri Park.

Merri Creek Management Committee's formation

In 1989, MCCC was disbanded on the creation of the Merri Creek Management Committee (MCMC), an incorporated association with a paid staff, established to formalize a unique partnership between local councils and local community. On its creation, MCMC's members comprised the Cities of Broadmeadows, Brunswick, Coburg, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Northcote, Preston and Whittlesea, the Victorian Department of Conservation and Environment, Melbourne Water and the community group, Friends of Merri Creek. Since then, MCMC's members have reduced as a result of local government amalgamations. State agencies have withdrawn due to a stated lack of ability to resource the group, although there continues to be a close, and sometimes vigorous working relationship with these agencies. Current membership comprises the Cities of Darebin, Hume, Moreland, Whittlesea and Yarra, and Friends of Merri Creek. The rural Shire of Mitchell, which covers Merri Creek's headwaters and upper catchment, joined in 2003.

The mission statement, adopted in 1999, underpins MCMC's approach:

The Merri Creek Management Committee respects and honours the spirit of the land and its peoples, indigenous plants and animals, and works with the community to preserve, restore and promote the Merri Creek, its catchment and neighbouring region as a vital living system. (Merri Creek Management Committee 2002)

This mission has been borne out through a series of integrated programs, one of the first of which was the compil­ation of information on Merri Creek's flora, fauna, cultural heritage, geological and ­recreational values, and the statutory planning measures required to protect them. This culminated in the production of the ‘Merri Creek and Environs Strategy’ (Merri Creek and Environs Strategy Steering Committee 1999), which sets out the strategic priorities, objectives and actions for the conservation and restoration of Merri Creek. The Strategy lists enhancement of Merri Creek's habitat values to be of high priority.

A vigorous program of restoration along Merri Creek and its tributaries was commenced by MCMC in 1989 and is ongoing. Currently, a staff of 14 people is involved in restoration and revegetation works, strategic planning and community education. These include MCMC's on-ground Parkland Management Team (currently numbering seven employees), although additional staff are sometimes employed during busier planting seasons. MCMC receives direct funding from its member municipalities, and wins grants from State and Federal programs as well as philanthropic trusts and industry programs. MCMC also tenders for contracts, mainly from Local or State government agencies. MCMC works closely with other agencies (e.g. Parks Victoria and Melbourne Water) and municipal bushland teams, who also undertake revegetation and restoration works at sites along Merri Creek.

Community participation in restoration work has involved Friends of Merri Creek, schools, local residents, neighbourhood houses and other community groups. This has been vital to the success of restoration work, as well as the growing sense of ­custodianship and pride of Merri Creek.

Merri Creek's restoration works

Environmental restoration of urban waterways is constrained by pollution, small, narrow nature reserves (with correspondingly high ‘edge effects’), overlapping ­recreational needs (bicycle riding, dog walking, children's play space) and pressures from potentially conflicting uses, such as stormwater drainage and floodway function, powerlines and freeways.

These constraints have shaped specific ecological restoration aims. Generally, weedy landscapes are replaced with a ­simplified version of the original ecosystem that incorporates the structure, wildlife habitats and some of the ecological processes of the original ecological communities. Characteristically the restoration and management projects aim to involve and inspire local communities. This is ­consistent with the community origins of MCMC's restoration projects, and of optimizing the creative potential for community inter­action with the natural areas, for the benefit of both.

MCMC's restoration works in the corridor over the last 14 years have resulted in significant achievements in biodiversity conservation and enhancement of Merri Creek. There are over 70 sites on which MCMC works along Merri Creek between its confluence with the Yarra River and Craigieburn on the northern outskirts of Melbourne. Sites with remnant vegetation, with existing revegetation or with strong local community interest are prioritized. Typical works involve the control of high priority weeds in remnant areas and revegetation of other priority areas, with the ultimate aim being to revegetate the weedy ‘sea’ between the islands of rehabilitated indigenous vegetation. Revegetation also includes re-­establishment of keystone species as well as specific habitat or ­conservation-directed plantings.

Specific projects in both grassland and wetland sites are described in some detail below. Generally, control of priority weeds (Table 1) is focused on preventing increasing weed infestations by controlling isolated infestations and pushing back the boundary of weed fronts. The weed control within remnants has allowed regeneration of indigenous plant communities and been augmented by adjacent restor­ation plantings. These plantings ­(generally in highly degraded areas) are designed with the aim of facilitating ongoing weed control through a range of techniques. Species are selected from the appropriate ecological community and are planted into locations where their favoured micro­environmental conditions are present. Planting densities may be increased in weedy sites to quickly establish a competitive indigenous cover.

Table 1.  Priority weeds controlled in restoration and revegetation sites
Common nameScientific name
Grasses and sedges
 CouchCynodon dactylon
 Drain Flat-sedgeCyperus eragrostis
 Serrated TussockNassella trichotoma
 Chilean Needle GrassN. neesiana
 Texas Needle GrassN. leucotricha
 Cane Needle GrassN. hyalina
 Toowoomba Canary GrassPhalaris aquatica
 PaspalumPaspalum dilatatum
 KikuyaPennisetum clandestinum
Irises
 Cape TulipMoraea spp.
 Harlequin-flowerSparaxis bulbifera
Forbs and sub-shrubs
 Artichoke ThistleCynara cardunculus
 FennelFoeniculum vulgaris
 Oxalis (Soursob)Oxalis pes-caprae
 BlackberryRubus spp.
 Wandering CreeperTradescantia fluminensis
 Blue PeriwinkleVinca major
Shrubs
 HawthornCrategus monogyna
 African BoxthornLycium ferocissimum
 Sweet BriarRosa rubiginosa
 Gorse (Furze)Ulex europaeus
Trees
 Desert AshFraxinus angustifolia
 WillowsSalix spp.

These works have clearly improved habitat values for a number of faunal species. A number of species of birds (Box 1) that were not recorded in the 1993 fauna survey of Merri Creek (McMahon & Schulz 1993), have since been sighted in various locations, some utilizing habitat in revegetation plantings. Other species appear to have expanded their habitat, being sighted in areas from which they were previously absent.

Native grassland restoration

The grasslands of the Merri Creek catchment comprise at least seven distinct sites linked by Merri Creek and its tributaries (Bush & Faithfull 1997). These sites are remnants of Western Basalt Plains Native Grassland and have been recognized as habitat for numerous significant species of flora and fauna (Victoria Department of Conservation and Environment 1990). Each grassland has a unique assemblage of species that supports a variety of commun­ities and subcommunities: Plains Grassland dominated by Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), Tussock Grass (Poa labillardierei) and Wallaby Grasses (Austrodan­thonia spp.); Stony Knoll Grassland dominated by Wallaby Grasses, Spear Grasses (Austrostipa spp.) and Kangaroo Grass, with a high cover of rock; and Grassy Wetland with Swamp Wallaby Grasses (Amphibromus spp.), Mat Grass (Hemarthria uncinata), sedges and rushes (Frood 1992). The subcommunities are differentiated by site factors, particularly soil and moisture characteristics, microtopography and management history (Frood 1992).

Works by MCMC to restore three of Merri Creek's State-significant native grasslands (Cooper Street Grassland, Campbellfield; Central Creek Grassland, Reservoir and Jukes Road Grassland, Fawkner (Fig. 2)), have been carried out over the past 10 years. Works have focused on controlling priority weeds to foster natural regeneration, maintaining grassland structure and biodiversity by implementing mosaic burns (Fig. 3), re-establishing keystone species and species of conser­vation significance by revegetation, and actively engaging local communities in grassland conservation and management.

Figure 3.

Regular ecological management burns are necessary to maintain native grassland health, structure and biodiversity. Merri Creek Management Committee staff burning a patch of native grassland at Central Creek Grassland Reservoir. (Photo: Merri Creek Management Committee.)

The 25-ha Cooper Street Grassland is located on the west side of Merri Creek on the industrial northern outskirts of Melbourne and is listed on the Register of the National Estate. Central Creek Grassland Reservoir, a 9-ha grassland beside Central Creek, a tributary of Merri Creek, is surrounded by housing and main roads, but provides habitat to a number of significant species of flora and fauna including the nationally endangered Matted Flax Lily (Dianella amoena), State-significant Five-minute Grass (Tripogan loliiformis) and the regionally significant Little Whip Snake (Suta flagellum). Jukes Road Grassland, a 3-ha site located on the Merri Creek in suburban Fawkner, retains significant native grassland plants including a number of regionally significant wildflowers: Scented Hounds Tongue (Cynoglossum suaveolans), Bulbine Lily (Bulbine bulbosa), Yellowish Bluebell (Wahlenbergia luteola) and Golden Weather-glass (Hypoxis hygrometrica var villosisepala), as well as a large population of Matted Flax Lily. Natural rocky terraces slope from the plains towards the creek.

Weed control programs and associated revegetation

Areas of the grasslands with lower levels of weed invasion are among the first areas to be targeted for the control of priority weeds (Table 1). Scattered infestations in these areas require ongoing observation and treatment to maintain control. Restor­ation works across the grassland sites have achieved reduced weed and increased native cover (by natural regeneration, direct seeding and planting), although some weed species have been easier to control than others. For example, Serrated Tussock (Nassella trichotoma), Gorse (Ulex europaeus) and Sweet Briar (Rosa rubignosa) are all readily controlled. Chilean Needle Grass (Nassella neesiana) and some of the other stipoid weeds (Nassella spp.) are extremely tenacious and require methodical technique and careful timing of herbicide application (plants must have flowering heads to allow positive identification and be actively growing). Canary Grass (Phalaris aquatica) and Paspalum (Paspalum dilatatum), while easier to ­differentiate from native grasses, also frequently require more than one application of herbicide to achieve effective control. Fencing and community education have played vital roles in reducing illegal vehicle access, and the dumping of rubbish and garden waste. However, the perception of native grasslands as uninviting wastelands is an ongoing challenge to their protection. Through signage, walks and talks, brochures and opportunities for community involvement in aspects of the grasslands’ management, MCMC is attempting to address this challenge.

Planting and direct seeding is focused on replacing the weeds with keystone species such as Kangaroo Grass (Fig. 4) and Common Tussock Grass. Planting is also used to reintroduce or reinforce existing populations of rare or regionally restricted species, such as the nationally endangered Matted Flax Lily and Western Golden-tip (Goodia medicaginea), which is rare in Victoria. Planting rare and restricted species aims to establish secure populations in as close proximity as possible to the surviving remnant population. For example, plants propagated from seed collected from a small population of the endangered Tough Scurf-pea (Cullen tenax) in Glenroy, were planted at nearby Jukes Road Grassland and have established at this site, setting seed within 2 years of planting. As yet no seedlings have appeared, although following an ecological burn, some would be anticipated.

Figure 4.

Merri Creek Management Committee staff harvesting Kangaroo Grass from a private property for use in grassland restoration projects. The annual grass harvest is organized as a joint staff/Friends working bee, one of the regular events on the community activities calendar. (Photo: Merri Creek Management Committee.)

Planting is also focused on the weediest areas of the grasslands, using a different suite of techniques that ensure the plant­ing will not interfere with the environ­mental conditions or ongoing maintenance requirements for adjacent remnants. For example, a spoil pile at Central Creek Grass­land, dumped near the edge of the grassland before it was fenced, was covered with Canary Grass and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Following weed control, the area was planted with a low diversity, but high density, of grasses to allow continued over-spraying with broadleaf-specific herbicides for follow-up weed control.

Ecological burning

Native Grasslands dominated by Kangaroo Grass require regular ecological disturbances to maintain species diversity by opening gaps in the Kangaroo Grass ‘canopy’ for forbs and to prevent the senescence of Kangaroo Grass (McDougall 1989; Lunt 1994; Morgan 1994). Planned ecological burns and wildfires at the grasslands (Fig. 3) have maintained a healthy Kangaroo Grass cover, while creating gaps and stimulating many other species to regenerate and flower. Some species have increased in number in response to a regular 3-yearly burn regime, including Scented Hounds Tongue at Jukes Road Grassland, and Blue Grass-lily (Caesia ­calliantha), Pale Sundew (Drosera peltata ssp. peltata) and Slender Sun-orchid (Thely­mitra pauciflora) at Central Creek Grassland. It is important to state, however, that as burns may also result in dramatic increases in germination and flowering of exotic species (including particularly Gorse and Chilean Needle Grass) increased weed control follow up is always required to secure the success of native recovery.

Burns and their aftermath also play a role in faunal life cycles, and the ecological burns have created a mosaic of burnt and unburnt habitat for fauna (Fig. 5). The vulnerable Grassland (Small) Copper Butterfly (Lucia limbaria) at Central Creek Grassland, for example, is likely to have been promoted by ecological burns that create the open conditions that are favoured by its larval food plant, a native Oxalis (Oxalis perennans) (Braby 2000).

Figure 5.

At Jukes Road Grassland, the appearance of swarms of male Radar Beetles (Rhipicera sp.) attracted to female beetles perched on shrubs, has become an anticipated annual event in the last week of February and first week of March. (Photo: Merri Creek Management Committee.)

Ecological burns within the urban area require careful planning to minimize impacts on adjacent areas. Smoke during the burn and ash after the burn are major concerns for local residents. MCMC notifies neighbours prior to the burn, and slashes fire breaks behind houses to protect back fences and, importantly, increase the neighbours’ perception of safety. On a number of occasions, MCMC has scheduled the burns on a weekend to allow local residents to observe the burn and more fully understand the process and its role in ecological grassland function.

Riparian and wetland sites

Riparian and wetland sites have also been the focus for control of priority weeds and associated revegetation efforts, with strong involvement from the local community. Almost all of the original wetlands, swamps and billabongs of the Merri Creek have been filled or drained over the past 200 years. Many of the riparian areas at which MCMC works were very degraded and neglected, once considered by local Councils as ‘too hard’ to restore. Works at four of these sites are highlighted below.

Galada Tamboore, Campbellfield and Thomastown

Galada Tamboore (‘Creek Waterhole’ in the language of the Wurundjeri) is a striking scenic area of Merri Creek that spans escarpment, plains grassland and riparian communities (Fig. 1) and contains areas of archaeological and geological ­significance (Merri Creek and Environs Strategy Steering Committee 1999). It covers about 100 ha on both sides of the creek in Campbellfield and Thomastown, south of Barry Road. Melbourne Water, as land owners, are responsible for management of much of the area. MCMC has received grants to expand the restoration works at the site. Management actions are planned in consultation with the Galada Tamboore Working Party (of which MCMC is a member).

Weed control has been extensively undertaken, resulting in recovery of priority areas in both escarpment and riparian sites. On the steep escarpment shrubland sites, this has involved special­ized rope skills. Other works include ­augmenting existing remnant populations of Common Tussock Grass on riparian floodplains to increase habitat for fauna. This is particularly important for the Striated ­Fieldwren (Calamanthus fuliginosus), a regionally significant bird whose current habitat at nearby Lalor Golf Course and Whittlesea Public Gardens is insecure due to the construction of a freeway link. There has been no sign of the species at the new site yet, though other benefits such as improved landscape values have been achieved.

Queens Parade, Coburg North

Queens Parade, Coburg North is downstream from Galada Tamboore and has been subject to weed control and planting treatments since 2000. This work has focused on linking sites of remnant vegetation upstream and downstream of the site to expand habitat. Control of large infestations of Blackberry is staged over a number of years to maintain habitat for small birds. As Superb Blue-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) and other birds are observed using maturing plantings, further areas of Blackberry can now be treated.

Merri Park, Northcote

In 1999 MCMC constructed a wetland system at Merri Park, Northcote that captures stormwater formerly flowing directly into the creek. The wetland aims to recreate the previously drained habitat for some species of indigenous wetland flora and fauna. An existing levy bank and retarding basin that protects adjacent residential areas from flooding has been incorporated into the project. Over the past 14 years, the area has been intensively planted with indigenous species by MCMC and the local community, expanding habitat that has greatly increased the number of resident and visiting bird species.

The floor of the retarding basin provided a wonderful site in which to recreate an off-creek wetland system. MCMC worked closely with Darebin City Council, Melbourne Water and other specialists to design an ephemeral wetland that fulfils ecological, aesthetic and safety needs. The wetland system is a series of marshes and ponds. Seasonal wetting and drying drives the ecological cycling of the wetland and promotes a diverse and dynamic habitat. Since its creation, at least two species of frogs which are uncommon in the adjacent stretches of Merri Creek. For example Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes dumerili) and Common Froglet (Ranidella signifera) have been heard calling from the wetland. The secluded maturing woodland plantings of Merri Park provide refuge for a number of species, including a Western Warbler (Gerygone fusca), a drought ‘refugee’, that was observed feeding in the area in late October 2002. This species is regionally significant, with less than five sightings in northeast Melbourne in the past decade (Beardsell 1997).

Hall Reserve, Clifton Hill

In 1999, a second wetland was constructed just upstream of the junction of Merri Creek and Yarra River in Hall Reserve, Clifton Hill. Hall Reserve is an extensive area of inner-city open space incorporating riparian and escarpment habitats of regional and State signif­icance. It is a ‘gateway’ for fauna from the adjacent 233 ha Yarra Bend Park (about 100 ha of which is indigenous vegetation) and the Yarra River corridor. The wetland system converted a weed-infested spoon drain, which carried stormwater from the streets to Merri Creek, into a series of ponds. The steep site created some challenges for design of the three ephemeral pools linked by marshes. Plantings of shrubs, grasses and forbs link the wetland to mature revegetation and to the creek, enhancing habitat for lizards, small birds and frogs. In July 2003, several Mayfly larvae (family Baetidae) were found in the third pool (furthest from the stormwater inlet). This was an exciting discovery as the Mayfly family, being susceptible to pollution, is a useful indicator of the success of water quality treatment and habitat creation in the wetland. The only other recent sighting of Mayflies for Merri Creek is from the southern end of Craigieburn Grassland, about 15 km north of Hall Reserve (Melbourne Water, unpubl. data, 2000). The local Friends group, Friends of Quarries, Clifton Hill has embraced a custodial role for the wetland, regularly meeting on weekends to handweed around the wetland, amplifying the regular maintenance by MCMC.

Merri Creek's community involvement

The preceding section (and Box 2) has emphasized technical and biological outcomes consistent with the vision of Merri Creek as ‘a healthy living stream flowing through an attractive environ­ment which provides habitat for native animals and is valued by the community as a peaceful, passive open-space haven’ (Merri Creek and Environs Strategy Steering Committee 1999). However, this vision, shared by agencies, local government and community, is equally concerned with the use and appreciation of Merri Creek by the community.

Indeed, community concern and action was instrumental in the formation of MCMC and there has been a strong and growing involvement by community in the Merri Creek's protection and restor­ation. Merri Creek provides a meeting place for local communities, contributing to individuals’ and communities’ sense of belonging, both to place and to com­munity. This sense is likely to have been deepened by the community's active involvement in the conservation, restor­ation and management of the area, particularly as it has involved a struggle to protect areas from alternative uses (Carne 1994; Hough 1994).

Friends of Merri Creek (the community group, which formed at the same time as MCMC out of an amalgamation of com­munity groups in the catchment) is active in protecting the creek and steering com­munity involvement in the restoration works. The community, through Friends of Merri Creek, is involved in the plan­ning as well as the implementation of works. MCMC meets annually with the Friends to plan the year's activity calendar. The two groups aim to work closely to complement each others’ strengths. Community activities include plantings, weeding, litter removal, planning, mapping, bird-­watching, Kangaroo Grass seed harvesting, walks and plant identification (Fig. 6). The community activities have contributed to a raised awareness among local residents and park users of the conservation status of our waterway and wildlife corridor, as well as fostering a sense of custodianship and personal responsibility for the creek. ­Activities such as basket-making have expanded participants’ appreciation and understanding of the Aboriginal history of the area and Aboriginal people's associ­ation with the land, as well as broadening participants’ perception of the utility and intrinsic value of the plants around them.

Figure 6.

Community activities are not limited to planting days. Merri Creek Management Committee organized a bird watch at Galada Tamboore Campbellfield, attended by members of Friends of Merri Creek, and local residents, including a number of children who were riding their bicycles in the area, and joined the walk, borrowing binoculars to spot the birds. (Photo: Merri Creek Management Committee.)

MCMC seeks opportunities for a multicultural involvement in Merri Creek's ­restoration wherever possible. A recent example involved an Islamic women's group, based at a Coburg neighbourhood house near Merri Creek, who approached MCMC requesting a women-only planting day. The group specified that the activity was to be held on a weekday during school holidays so that women could bring their children and food was to be provided, including halal sausages and falafels for a BBQ. MCMC provided female staff to assist with the planting, and food for the picnic that followed. After the picnic, one of the Islamic women produced a small drum, and the activity ended in singing and dancing. The community activity transformed the ‘natural’ environment of Merri Creek to a dual natural and cultural space.

An ongoing partnership

The Merri Creek restoration project has sought an integration of technical, ecolog­ical and social aspects in the belief that the interactions between these three are crucial to landscape and community health.

The challenge for MCMC is to build and maintain trust and a shared vision for restoration with communities, local govern­ment and other agencies. This is an on­going process requiring a strong emphasis on communication. As it is neither an agency nor a community group but contains attributes and elements of both, MCMC treads a fine line between agency and community, aiming to provide a bridge between the two. We believe that it is in this role that MCMC, working with the management agencies and the broader community, has been able to achieve what it has to date.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to MCMC's funding bodies, particularly MCMC's member councils and the now discontinued Parks Victoria Agency Grants program, for providing funding for the projects mentioned in this article and the other restoration and revegetation projects underway along Merri Creek. Thanks to MCMC's Waterwatch Officer Jess Miller and other MCMC staff who provided assistance and ideas for this article. Also to members of Friends of Merri Creek who have volunteered so many hours towards Merri Creek's restoration, and to whom Merri Creek is so precious. Thanks to the two anonymous reviewers who provided constructive comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Box 2. Some lessons from on-ground works

In the absence of a formal quantitative monitoring process, MCMC has found that ongoing observations of successes and failures of works and of seasonal and longer-term climatic variations over a 14-year period have been critical in building an understanding of restoration processes. While much of our approach to the control of weed species, regeneration of native communities and replanting or seeding has been derived from lessons learnt in other restoration sites in Victoria and elsewhere, some of the expertise has been gained from our own failures or setbacks, from which valuable lessons have been learned.

Perhaps the most important of these lessons is that there must be flexibility in the implementation of projects, modifying original plans when called for by ongoing observations of site conditions. A number of other issues that have arisen as part of our works, and MCMC's responses to these, are described below.

1 Weed control in native grasslands can be extremely ‘fiddly’ because the foliage of weeds and native plants are interlaced. Ecological burns, while essential for ongoing grassland health, have also been deliberately used to prepare areas for carefully targeted application of herbicides. The resprouting plants are smaller in size, with discrete tussocks, allowing spot spraying that minimizes off-target damage. In addition, plants resprouting after fire are actively growing, increasing the effectiveness of the herbicide.

2 Progress with weed control in sites where natives and weeds are in close proximity can be frustratingly slow and detailed. We have achieved considerable advantage in terms of weed control efficiencies by planting swards of grasses (and limiting the planting of native forbs to small pockets) in areas previously infested with broad leaf weeds (such as Blackberry). This allows the use of broadleaf-specific herbicides for ongoing weed control.

3 Some of the earlier plantings that were dominated by Wattles are now senescing, with little regeneration due to a lack of appropriate disturbance or fire. MCMC now ensures that long-lived plants are incorporated into plantings. Short-lived colonizer species do not dominate plantings unless the ongoing management of these areas can incorporate a disturbance regime to ensure regeneration is fostered.

4 Woven black plastic weedmat was used extensively in revegetation projects along Merri Creek in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the weedmat probably contributed to good plant establishment in many areas, in riparian areas it becomes covered with silt and mud, and in other areas by leaf litter. The weedmat is designed to photo-degrade over time, but when covered, remains intact and in these situations it is necessary to remove the weedmat (a laborious process!) as it can effectively ringbark growing trees, and reduces regeneration possibilities. If the mat does degrade, in the short term the loose threads can become hazardous to animals such as lizards and birds. MCMC no longer uses any plastic weedmat. Removal of weedmat, and other establishment measures such as treeguards, must be factored into programs as part of our ‘pact with future workers’ (McDonald 2003).

5 A number of plantings have included failures of some species to establish, apparently due to inappropriate selection for the environmental conditions. MCMC continues to collect observational information on species’ environmental preferences, especially in remnant sites, and aims to plant according to observed limits. However, sometimes it is worth pushing the limits; for instance, plantings of the regionally significant Wingless Bluebush (Maireana enchylaenoides) have thrived in the most eroded parts of the cliffside planting site where little would have been expected to persist. Observation and noting of successes and failures is vital, as is scheduling follow-up planting to fill in any gaps caused by failures.

6 Some plantings have had to be removed due to their interference with utilities (e.g. trees and taller shrubs under high voltage transmission lines). This has been a painful lesson that has led to MCMC clarifying the requirements for plantings in the vicinity of utilities. In addition, MCMC has established and maintained communication channels with the utilities to facilitate an agreed program for dealing with inappropriate plantings.

7 MCMC's approach to community planting days has also evolved, due to a need to maximize survivorship of plants as well as ensuring the enjoyment of community participants. People are likely to plant poorly when rushed or when soil conditions are difficult. MCMC now puts lots of effort into preparing for planting days, usually digging most of the holes before the day, and laying out plants on the day into specific spots. MCMC provides direction and supervision to community ­participants.

8 MCMC broadens the focus of the activities offered at community planting days to incorporate other aspects including a habitat walk and talk, free BBQ, and display featuring site values and management history. The aim is to increase participants’ awareness, particularly of habitat values. MCMC has found that community participants are often more interested in a site's animals than its plants, although the presence of rare plants can trigger interest.

Ancillary