Travelling stock reserves: refuges for stock and biodiversity?

Authors

  • Ian Davidson,

  • Allan Scammell,

  • Peter O'Shannassy,

  • Michael Mullins,

  • Shaun Learmonth


  • Ian Davidson is a principle consultant for Regeneration Solutions (4 Thomas St, Glenrowan, Victoria 3675, Australia. Tel. (+61)-3 5766 2759. Email: Davidson@netc.net.au) and has long played a major role in the biodiversity surveys of the TSRs and subsequent ‘Linear Reserves’ project referred to in this article. Allan Scammell (Ranger, Hume RLPB), Peter O'Shannassy (Ranger, Murray RLPB), Michael Mullins and Shaun Learmonth (both Rangers from the Riverina RLPB) all play key on-ground roles in implementing strategic grazing to improve biodiversity in TSRs.

  • Box 1. What are travelling stock reserves – and who owns and manages them in NSW?

    Over 160 years ago, a network of Crown Land areas in NSW was set aside to walk stock between properties and to markets. These corridors comprise two distinct components: the usually wider and at least partially fenced travelling stock reserves (referred to in this article as TSRs); and, more linear travelling stock routes (usually along roadsides). As such, the combined TSR system provides corridors useful to stock as well as corridors for biodiversity conservation (e.g. Breckwoldt 1990; Dennis 1992).

    The management of these areas is vested in local Rural Lands Protection Boards (RLPBs). The TSR network, covering 600 000 hectares (NSW RLPB 2001), is in effect a chain of reserved land acting as refugia for many plant and animal species, wildlife corridors, seed orchards for revegetation activities, and often contain remnant vegetation from a number of the most threatened ecosystems in NSW.

    Permits are required from RLPBs for walking or grazing stock in TSRs, establishing apiary sites, and for use by recreational and sporting groups. Authorized uses of TSRs include walking, running, horse riding, picnicking, fishing, swimming, and pedal cycling.

    Rural Lands Protection Boards

    There are 48 RLPBs in NSW, each of which is a statutory body, fully funded by ratepayer contributions, established to implement the Rural Lands Protection Act 1998 and the Stock Diseases Act 1923. The primary aim of the RLPBs is to protect rural lands through the management of TSRs, animal health, pest animal and insect control, stock movement, stock identification, and natural disaster relief. Landholders in each RLPB area nominate and elect the eight directors (local landholders) to be their representatives for a 4-year period. Directors meet regularly with RLPB staff to review management policies and discuss operational requirements.

    While the management of TSRs and reserves is only part of the Boards’ responsibilities, RLPBs are to develop a TSR Management plan for all TSRs under their care, control and management. The content of these plans must include: the management of travelling stock reserves for the benefit of travelling stock; the adoption of appropriate stocking practices; the conservation of wildlife and their habitats; and, the protection of reserves against the diminution of water quality.

  • Box 4. Travelling stock reserves’ Rangers tell their own story about improving the condition of grassy understoreys

    Valuing the native species:

    Allan Scammell, ranger with the Hume Board based in Albury, is responsible for about 4000 hectares of TSR land, and is highly motivated to manage these areas and to regenerate native vegetation:

    I could see that land in the TSRs had unique and different ecosystems to the surrounding farmland, even though it took me a little while to recognize the value of it. Going back 20 years or so I initially thought that these lands were degraded, but I was thinking in terms of their capacity to grow clover and these “nice grasses” like they grow next door. And then over time I have come to appreciate that native grasses have their own value.

    Allan points to differences in the native grass species growing in different reserves.

    We've got Redleg Grass and a lot of Plains Grass, a Stipa, and wallaby grasses. But then on the ones more to the east we've got Microlaena, which can provide really excellent grazing opportunities if it gets going through the summer. It actually likes to be grazed; while Kangaroo Grass, which is on some of the reserves, doesn't stand the grazing quite so well. Then there's the Flax lilies and Glycine is a legume we commonly find.

    Peter O'Shannassy, ranger for the Murray Board, considers his most important species are Redleg Grass, Curly Windmill Grass and Wallaby Grass:

    Redleg has quite a tough butt and it's a good grazing grass at certain times, but you can only take it so far and the stock won't eat it because that butt becomes quite unpalateable later in the season after frost.

    Michael Mullins has spent his entire life in the Deniliquin area and has worked for the last 20 years as a Ranger for the Riverina Board. He is aware that one of the main concerns in TSRs is that much of the native understorey has been depleted:

    There's still some there, and the TSRs certainly have a lot more understorey than private land, but not as good as you would like. The regeneration that takes place naturally is more the dominant species such as Black Box and Grey Box and there are some shrubby areas. Quite a lot of areas have perennial natives grasses such as White Top and Windmill Grass, but many areas, such as around watering points, are dominated by annuals such as Wild Oats, Barley Grass and Annual Rye Grass.

    Shaun Learmonth, born and bred on the Mallee and now also working for the Riverina Board, is aware of the importance of the natives in the pasture.

    A lot of your copperburrs, different Stipas, a small amount of Whitetop, Curly Windmill Grass, stuff we call Cannonball which is another type of Copperburr – work with your saltbushes that come on each year. I've heard stories that the country going from Conargo and Wanganella to the north had a lot of Bluebush and Old Man Saltbush and Ruby Saltbush that has been virtually wiped out for some reason. I'm not sure what caused the change.

    Improving the perennial sward

    The penny dropped for Allan Scammell when he started to notice that some reserves weren't very productive through the winter period but after a couple of wet summers about 10 or 12 years ago they were green all summer.

    That allowed us to run a lot of stock on the native grass those summers. So I thought that stuff's got real value. And we started to realize that it was all about timing the grazing to reduce exotic annual grasses that are winter growing, and protect the native perennials which are summer growing.

    When you’re in the old cycle of “graze versus bare”, the ground is bared in summer and the first thing that gets a go on with the first rain in Autumn is all your weed species, and they’ll end up being dominant. The exotic annuals basically all strike from seed in the autumn and then they dominate through the winter, get a growth spurt in spring time and set seed, and then their cycle ends. So the trick is to time your grazing, graze them heavily in early spring so they don't become too dominant through the mid to late spring. And we try and stop as much seed set as we can. By that time it's warm enough for the native perennials to start firing up and then they’ll take over. Then if you can maintain a good sward of your native perennial tussocks during summer, you tend not to get nearly so many weed problems the next year. Even if there's no summer rain there's usually enough carry-over soil moisture from the rain in winter–spring to trigger the perennial natives and they’ll seed very quickly. So the idea is that if you've got a really lean season like that, you don't overgraze them so you get some good seed set. Don't bare it out in summer – just in spring, to stop the exotic annuals seeding and dominating. Then over the years you’ll get a shift toward natives.

    Alan continues:

    For the very best sites, basically what we've tried to do is just have them closed up. A couple of them have been on really fertile flood plain and we've had to give them a crash graze. But most of them – especially on the western side – are more of a drier climate and we've left them closed up pretty much. And we’re just watching what happens there. We’re finding that if you've got a fair base of native grass like your wallaby and spear grasses, the natives will eventually crowd the weeds out. I suppose the only thing you've got to be a bit cautious of is that the spear grasses, or even Kangaroo Grass, don't become totally dominant, preventing some of the lilies and other things that might be there to come through. So once it's more established – I'd say after 4, 5 years, it's probably time to start giving it a seasonal graze, open it up.

    Peter O'Shannassy explains further the theory and practice of high impact grazing early in the spring.

    In spring, animals will target that sweet green grass but the impact on the natives won't be too bad because most of them tend to grow later in the season than the annual grasses. This gives you a window of opportunity to have an impact on the annuals that you don't really have anywhere else in the season.

    Another refinement is to first halt the grazing earlier to wait for the shorter term natives to get established a little bit. This protects any native annuals or short-term grasses like some of the wallaby grasses whose flowering and seeding occurs at a similar time to those annual weed grasses. Then you can reintroduce the grazing just prior to the seed set of the Barley Grass and the ryes. In that window of opportunity when you take the cattle off the first time, most of your forbs will flower and you’ll get your little saltbushes and your little yellow burr daisies flowering. You start to get better biodiversity by doing that.

    The thing is, if you really push stock, they’ll eat everything, and sheep are the worst. They’ll eat right to the ground and will even pull roots out. But if you can halt it when you've either got natives developing or during summer when the perennials have still got that good butt left, that adds greatly to your next season's production. If we can leave a bit of that dry matter on the grasses at the end of summer, it can shelter any new seedlings for next spring and it also retains moisture. So that's what you've got to try and retain at the end of your summer grazing, at least enough ground cover to shelter that soil.

    Michael Mullins. While a long-term ranger, Michael has only been managing the perennial sward for the last 3–4 years, the drought years, and so is yet to see progress from his grazing manipulations. But he likes to look at it in terms of the question of whether you apply set stocking or a more controlled grazing system.

    The difficult thing about set stocking is that the animals will eat all the things that they like, shifting the composition of the pasture to the less palateable species over time. But if they’re going through on a front and there's a bit mob of them, they eat everything – and then there's a rest period and the plants have a chance to seed. Now we are trying to apply that process even more intentionally by even closer timing of our grazings if we can. We don't really want the reserves to be subject to annual leases, having stock in their all year. You've got to be careful about grazing your natives when they’re actively growing and are about to seed. You would try not to graze them then. Most of our natives are summer growing. We can get good summer storms here. We haven't had it yet, but what I'm looking out for is having an area of native grass that is about to seed so we can try and protect it, even if we use only half the reserve, or only one side of the road one year.

    Shaun Learmonth, similarly restricted by drought conditions, is also looking forward to testing his view that:

    It comes down to managing the competition for resources between the annuals and perennials; knowing what pieces of your stock route are more annual and what are more perennial and when stock are moving through. If you've got an annual piece (especially on your sandhills, annuals like your Crowsfoot if you've had a good year) you'd let ‘em crash graze that during winter and spring and hopefully you’ll get them moving over the top of your perennial dry stuff that hasn't sprouted yet.

    Getting stock when you need them

    Peter O'Shannassy points out, however, that the most difficult part of the process is having the stock there when you need them.

    Because these are travelling stock, we don't just snap our fingers and they turn up. We actually have to go out and find them sometimes. If it's a good season, you’ll have annual grasses coming out your ears and you've got no way of controlling them because the landowners have all got their own grass. So you end up having to go out and beg, borrow and steal some cows from somewhere to get them on the reserve. Especially if you are in the middle of a 3 or 4-year plan to do this targeted grazing on a specific reserve and you've already invested a lot of time and effort.

    It's the last couple of years that have been the most difficult, since stock numbers have crashed across the State, in fact right across Australia, and also since the general switch to cropping. I find it far more difficult to find a mob of cattle when I need them to do a job. We’re alright, but it's going to be a short season and people will be very cautious about restocking. With the price people are paying for their stock, they are also not too keen on having them wander around the road.

    But at those times when its dry everywhere and you have too much stock, you won't do too much damage if you keep the stock moving, it's as simple as that. Native grasses and forbs will handle a graze as long as they are not decimated. You’ll have areas that you have to sacrifice, where they camp and around water points. But it's amazing, some of those areas become your best forblands. When they really get hammered like that, you can turn a grassland into a forbland quite easily, just by continually overgrazing. Lots of daisies. Another thing that will come up quite thick if it is in the area is Swainsona. If you've overgrazed a perennial pasture and there was some Swansonia there before, you’ll find that even though you've wrecked most of the perennial grasses and they've gone, Swansonia and other forbs will come up really thick, expecially on that heavier clay country. And another one is the small native Glycine that will come up.

    Michael Mullins points out that in a drought, the farmers either get rid of their stock or put them on the road,

    Actually, very few put them on the road. And in this last drought, they drastically cut their stock numbers, some by possibly two-thirds. So then when you get a good season, no-one's got stock to put out on the road because stock numbers are right down. Because of the winter rain, the Barley Grass this year is particularly bad. We've brought the numbers of stock up now but it's already too late. It's already seeded. So you don't want to encourage too many people coming in or it’ll get eaten out. We've had to actually close the stock route, which has never been done before.

    It's the seasons that rule. The management might have a fair part to do with it but the seasons is the thing that you have no control over – and that has the most dramatic effect than anything. Last year there was a lot of Patterson's Curse and Rye Grass and not a lot of Wallaby Grass, so the Wallaby Grass didn't really get a chance to seed down as well as it has in other years. This year there's not much Pattersons Curse but lots of Barley Grass. It's just a matter of when the rain event is and when the species germinates. The seed will still be waiting there for the right season. That's why some years you get a lot of wildflowers but other years you won't. The seed’ll still be there. You can't manage the seasons. If you get wet summer but dry other times, it’ll favour your natives. But this year it was the other way round and favoured the weeds. It is interesting but it makes you pull your hair out too in these areas to the west where rainfall is more unpredictable. You've got to take it as it comes really.

  • Box 5. Changes to the travelling stock reserves since management improvements

    Most of the rangers who have carried out selective grazing for a decade or so in many reserves are reporting that treatments are improving in condition.

    Peter O'Shannassy reports that, although formal monitoring has only to date been carried out on the higher quality reserves, all the reserves treated in the Murray Board area have shown an improvement, especially in terms of native species richness and cover. Peter suggests that some of his ‘medium’ reserves have now shifted to ‘high’ due to his strategy of targeting five reserves out of the 40 or so rated as medium and working on those for a few years, keeping the already higher condition ones in good condition by allowing grazing for only very short periods of time or excluding it entirely for the vulnerable times of year.

    All reserves showed improvement in richness, cover and tree health in 5 years, quite marked improvement on some of them. The only one that didn't improve at all in tree health is believed by the ranger never to have had trees on it and was a natural grassland originally.

    I copped a lot of complaints for the first few years that I was here. People were convinced, because the reserve was bare, that I'd overgrazed it. What they didn't realize was that it was bare because I'd taken all the annuals out and the natives just hadn't recovered yet. But those same reserves that would have been classed as low conservation areas 10 years ago, most of them are high now. I've made mistakes on reserves. I've overgrazed them at the wrong time and it's taken a long time for them to recover, but after 10 years of targetted grazing things have improved. We've fluked a few good years in there where it has worked out perfectly and all of a sudden you've got a 50% reduction in your annual weed and a better then 50% increase in your natives. Droughts, in some cases have worked in our favour where the stock numbers have been available, but it can be as simple as that, as simple as getting it right in one season.

    This is why it is important to take new rangers into the field and explain why you've made the decision you've made. Quite often it will appear ridiculous to them that you’ll say “No, leave them here and flog it right out”. They’ll look at you like you've lost the plot because it doesn't seem like the right thing to do and you might get a lot of complaints for doing that. But you will achieve what you want to achieve. And if they don't see those decisions made, then it's very difficult for them to be game enough to go out and do it themselves. There's no way you can write down exactly when to do something, considering the high amount of variation.

    Allan Scammell is continually surprised by the recovery occurring on some of the Hume board reserves,

    even those that have really been grazed hard over a number of years. Now we’re starting to change the management, it's quite amazing what is starting to come back very, very quickly. A lot of the lilies, they come back pretty quickly; Chocolate Lily, Vanilla Lily and Onion Orchid are probably the main ones that I see (Fig. 5). Today I saw an area of fern I hadn't seen before – then there are the everlasting daisies and the burr daisies. On sites where we’re getting some of the White Box regeneration, we are finding little saltbushes, orchids and things that you would not imagine could have survived considering the use the sites have had over the time. I think lack of cultivation is the secret. If the land has never been cultivated, I think there's a good chance of getting it back, but once it's cultivated, its chances are much reduced.

    • image(5)

    [ [Orchid in grassland – to be inserted in Box 5] Leek Orchid (Prasophyllum sp.) at Bundure travelling stock reserve (TSR), an extensive grassland near Jerilderie. Rangers report a distinct increase in Lilies and daisies in TSRs subjected to strategic grazing, even in plant communities where low levels of protective cover are a natural feature. (Photo, Ian Davidson.) ]

    Michael Mullins from the Riverina board cites the annual forbs as being the plant group that is probably the most resilient, without intervention, along with the wallaby grasses and some of the stipas.

    But we have not had any good seasons, due to drought, since I began this approach here. Also, I know that some species such as the saltbushes are hard to get back in, probably because there's no seed source there to bring them back. So seed sources can be a probem. To counter this, we’re looking at trialling how to improve some of our isolated patches of Kangaroo Grass, north of Moama. We’re considering scalping weedy areas and placing seed bearing Kangaroo Grass hay on them.

Abstract

Travelling stock reserves (TSRs) in New South Wales contain some of the healthiest examples of remnant vegetation left in some rural areas – leading to an emerging biodiversity management role for Rural Lands Protection Boards. Ian Davidson tells the story, with the help of four on-ground managers.

Introduction

The importance of travelling stock reserves

Travelling stock reserves (TSRs) – and the routes that link them – were developed in New South Wales some 160 years ago to allow graziers to move stock along certain roadsides, camping them overnight in these small crown land portions especially reserved for that purpose (Box 1, Fig. 1). Since the 1950s and the advent of modern transport, however, there are now better, faster and, arguably, more efficient means of transporting stock than droving them along roads. As a result, grazing pressure in many TSRs has eased from historical levels (McKnight 1977) and the potential now exists to manage these sites for biodiversity conservation as well as for grazing purposes.

Figure 1.

Historically, travelling stock reserves (TSRs) and the routes that link them were designed to move stock between properties and to link properties to markets (explaining why TSRs tend to be located every ‘6–8 miles’– the approximate distance stock could travel in one day; McKnight 1977). Today, TSRs have an additional role, the conservation of ecological communities. As part of their duties, TSR rangers now monitor native sward condition and apply controlled grazing, such as shown here at Bells TSR in December 2004. (Photo, Allan Scammell).

In many regions of NSW, over 90% of the landscape has been cleared and substantially cultivated for agriculture (Benson 1999). As a result, remaining native vegetation is scarce, fragmented or severely degraded – except, due to their lower frequency utilization, in TSRs; which now contain some of the most important remnants of native vegetation communities in their regions (Webster 1997; 1999a; 1999b; 2000a; 2000b).

The importance of TSRs as refugia for remnant vegetation and biodiversity conservation was identified first in the 1970s (McKnight 1977; Hibberd & Soutberg 1991), with a recent study undertaken on the environmental values of Central Western TSRs in the mid-1990s (Nowland 1997). In particular, TSRs often represent the best examples of high quality grasslands and woodlands in NSW; ranging from the grassy open forests of the coastal plains to primary grasslands and woodlands of the ands, slopes and further west. The temperate grasslands of the Monaro that occur within TSRs, for example, are among the most species rich of this community type (Eddy 2000) and TSRs also form an important stronghold for conservation of the once widespread but now endangered Box-Gum Woodland ecological community (i.e. Eucalyptus melliodora, E. albens, E. blakelyi associations) and their component (often threatened) fauna species.

In southern NSW, the geographical layout of the combined reserve/route system is such that reserves on the eastern ‘high country’ are linked to reserves on the western slopes and plains by wide roadside areas, often following the valley floor along creeks and rivers (NSW RLPB 2001). Some of the highland TSRs contain significant subalpine grasslands (Eddy 2000), whilst others contain significant riparian woodland or foothill forest communities. On the lower slopes, the dominant vegetation in most TSRs is grassy woodland, except TSRs located along riparian areas such as the Murray River or Billabong Creek, which support River Red Gum forest (Webster 1997; 1999a; 1999b; 2000a; 2000b).

The current dilemma for Rural Land Protection Board (RLPB) managers is that TSRs were originally intended for grazing purposes, however, they often contain remnant vegetation which is often in far better condition than anything else in the surrounding landscape, particularly in terms of the intact ground flora. The tension between the two needs, therefore, creates new challenges – as well as opportunities – for management.

Biodiversity assessment of travelling stock reserves in southern NSW

In recognition of the observed biodiversity values of TSRs, a major project was carried out in southern NSW between 1997 and 2000, surveying the biodiversity values and threats in TSRs (greater than 5 ha) in six RLPBs in southern NSW: Hume, Murray, Riverina, Wagga Wagga, Gundagai and Narrandera (Fig. 2; Webster 1997; 1999a; 1999b; 2000a; 2000b; 2001a; 2001b). The assessments ranked the TSRs on the basis of five categories: high, medium-high, medium, medium-low, and low (Box 2). Ranking was based on a set of environmental attributes including: the condition of the ground flora (e.g. richness and cover of native species as well as the weed status), the structural diversity of the vegetation, the age structure of the tree cover, the abundance of fallen timber, and the identification of any special features (e.g. rocky outcrop, wetland etc.).

Figure 2.

In six Rural Land Protection Boards (Hume, Murray, Riverina, Wagga Wagga, Gundagai and Narrandera) all travelling stock reserves greater than 5 ha were assessed for their biodiversity values and condition. Many of the TSRs were found to be of medium-high conservation value, leading to a major shift in management practice. These and many of the other TSRs within New South Wales (totalling 600 000 ha) contain remnant vegetation including a number of the most threatened ecosystems in NSW. (Map courtesy RLPB Orange).

Table Box 2. . Conservation ratings used in the travelling stock reserves surveys
HighThe most intact category, with all structural layers represented (including at least some shrubs).
Medium-highGenerally intact structure and floristics but a major element missing (e.g. usually shrubs).
MediumRelatively intact but with some dense exotic patches in the ground layer in some places (e.g. exotic annuals under trees).
Low-mediumA proportion of the reserve in good condition (e.g. a rocky knoll or creekline) but the remainder dominated by exotics.
LowGenerally dominated by exotics, similar to the surrounding land.

Conservation rankings

Results from these initial biodiversity assessments showed that many of the reserves contain substantial remnant native vegetation. The survey ranked a substantial proportion of the reserves in each of the six RLPB areas as being medium to high; with the percentage of reserves achieving this ranking ranging between 41% (in Hume and Gundagai RLPB) and 79% (Narranderra RLPB; Table 1).

Table 1.  Conservation status of travelling stock reserves in six Rural Land Protection Boards in southern NSW (Webster 1997; 1999a; 1999b; 2000a; 2000b; 2001a; 2001b)
RLPBTotal No. TSRsTSRs rated med-high conservation value
No.%
  • *

    Hume Board comprised smaller RLPB areas of Albury and Holbrook when initial surveys were conducted in 1997.

Hume*1305341
Murray1347959
Riverina 987577
Wagga Wagga1156557
Narrandera 876879
Gundagai 963941

The survey also found that the reserves contained a diversity of important flora species – and that some of the reserves were considerably more floristically diverse compared to adjacent farmland, especially in terms of the native grasses and forbs. There are three explanations for this. First, TSRs have historically experienced periodic grazing with rest periods in between the sometimes intense grazing events (rather than the ‘set stocking’ usually practiced on private land which allows no rest period and can deplete palateable species; Box 3). Second, to the best of our knowledge, there has been no fertilizer use on TSRs. And third, they have never been ploughed for crops.

Table Box 3. . Some grazing terminology
Set stocking
Stock are grazed on the site year round, without significant regular spell periods. This allows stock to graze preferentially, generally leading to the decline of palateable species.
Pulse grazingStock are grazed on a range of smaller, subdivided paddocks, and moved frequently to new paddocks, allowing significant regular spell periods. This avoids preferential grazing and the spell period allows recovery of all species.
Crash grazingThe use of large herds or mobs of stock, for a relatively short period of time, to remove or trample a ‘build up’ of biomass in the grass sward.
Targetted, controlled or strategic grazingUsing stock to achieve a vegetation management outcome, for example, using pulse grazing to sustain native pasture or crash grazing to reduce the amount of exotic annual grass seed fall.
Stock campingWhere stock rest at night, these sites are often regularly used and are very disturbed with highly enriched soil and a very weedy groundlayer.

General condition

Although TSRs are important from a conservation perspective, they are not ‘pristine’. Many are relatively small (usually 20–200 ha) and are scattered throughout the agricultural mosaic as isolated patches, except where linked by TSR roadsides. They are thereby, heavily influenced by external degrading processes such as invasions by exotic weeds, primarily annual pasture grasses. While condition of individual reserves is often quite variable, overall quality can often be attributed to their proximity to nearby streams or geographical position in the valley floor. The most weed-infested reserves in the Murray Valley, for example, are those on the more heavily stocked higher floodplain terraces running parallel to the Murray river, with the lower floodplain sites more protected from grazing by lengthy floods.

Changes to travelling stock reserves management

Since considering the results and recommendations of the biodiversity assessment phase, the boards and RLPB rangers responsible for the management of the reserves have agreed to develop more active conservation grazing regimes in a subset of the reserves; with the goal of improving the health of the native perennial grassy sward. As improvements in the perennial sward benefit both grazing and biodiversity outcomes, this goal has won widespread support.

Originally, land managers and other experts advocated for more active conservation management of the better quality ‘high’ and ‘medium-high’ conservation value reserves’ but RLPB rangers argued that, at best, this would just be maintaining the status quo. It would be far better, they argued, if opportunities were taken up to alter and improve grazing strategies on the ‘medium’ and even some of the ‘low-medium’ reserves as well, as even ‘low-medium’ conservation status reserves (or at least patches within them) are able to recover to some degree.

As a result, the boards are therefore now committed to improving management practices and overall conservation status in all reserves. To this end, RLPB rangers have added controlled grazing (to enhance the perennial component of the ground stratum) to their regular duties including animal protection, weed control and other land management issues.

The potential to improve the condition of TSRs depends upon the ability of RLPB rangers to use selective grazing as a conservation tool. This is technically possible in these temperate areas because the growth phase of exotic annual grasses precedes the growth phase of most of the native forbs and perennial grasses. So if grazing is restricted to when annual grasses have developed but before they have flowered or set seed, improvements in the cover of native perennial forbs and grasses may result (Box 4).

Each RLPB ranger is responsible for over 100 reserves and, therefore, has many opportunities to strategically move stock between reserves. Rangers can ensure stock are moved on if reserves cannot withstand a long period of intensive grazing, and can also ensure that particular reserves are spelled for a long period after grazing if appropriate, as determined on a site by site basis. However, the flexibility available to the RLPB rangers to graze or rest particular sites depends on the location of individual reserves. For example, rangers often have great difficulty managing TSRs located along major stock routes, or situated near stock sale-yards. However, there are still opportunities to fence off sensitive sites in such reserves (Fig. 3), and ensure stock are camped in stock yards or more weedy, low conservation value areas.

Figure 3.

Billabong Creek runs through two Rural Land Protection Board (RLPB) areas; the Hume and Murray boards. The section of unfenced creekbank shown in photo (a) indicates the condition of sections of the creek within travelling stock reserves (TSRs) prior to a cooperative program between RLPB Boards, Greening Australia and Landcare to fence the creek from stock. (Note the sheep at the top of the bank.) Photo (b) shows the dramatic recovery of the ground layer after fencing about 30 km of the creek within TSRs. The TSRs were then used as demonstration sites for private landowners. (Photos, Ian Davidson).

‘Linear reserve’ pilot project

Whilst the biodiversity assessment phase identified the main species and condition of each TSR, it soon became clear that specific strategies needed to be developed, in consultation with the boards and rangers, for each site. A recent 12-month pilot project has, therefore, been developed – focusing on 20 of the higher conservation value sites in three Murray Catchment RLPBs (Hume, Murray and Riverina) – to test procedures for developing specific grazing management strategies for each TSR. It is anticipated that this pilot project will be further expanded over the next 3 years through a project involving the Murray, Riverina and Hume boards.

One of the first steps in the pilot was to form an advisory committee made up of representatives of the RLPBs, rangers and (NSW) National Parks and Wildlife Service. This group came up with priorities for sites and the scope of the strategies, each of which involves specifications for formal monitoring for each TSR. As a result, each Site Management Plan has been designed to have at least one (and perhaps several) specific primary management activities which are then broken down into action-based objectives (including habitat management objectives) specific to the reserve or a particular zone within the reserve (Fig. 4). The reserve's management recommendations specifically address each objective in terms of grazing location and timing, revegetation activities (if required), fencing (if required), weed control, timber removal, erosion, and pest animal control.

Figure 4.

(From left) Phil Maher, Steve Seymour and Rural Land Protection Board (RLPB) Ranger Mick Mullins at Wanganella travelling stock reserve in the Riverina Board area. This reserve contains both wetland and sandhill ecosystems and provides important habitat for the threatened Plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus), protection of which are major goals in the site's management plan. (Photo, Riverina RLPB.)

Cost-sharing with government

One important element of the Linear Reserve pilot was the trialling of cost-sharing between rural landholders (who currently entirely fund the management of TSRs, routes and the boards) and government. In recognition of this need, the Murray Catchment Management Authority (CMA) has allocated $20 per ha for each reserve with a grazing management strategy specifically written for it. This funding, devolved from the federal government's Natural Heritage Trust, will enable individual RLPBs to offset the costs involved in conservation management activities and help them offset lost grazing revenue from reduced numbers of travelling stock on the road. Expansion and long-term security of this funding will be needed, however, to avoid some RLPBs taking on permanent agistment, an option that would result in set-stocking and subsequent decline in conservation values.

A shift towards a degree of public support for management of ‘high’ conservation status sites within the RLPB system makes considerably more economic sense to governments than excising the higher quality areas for complete conservation. This is not only because much of the infrastructure and management costs ‘piggy back’ on existing management, but also because the most feasible tool for controlling annual grasses in large acreages is the continued use of grazing itself. Furthermore, ‘high’ conservation value reserves provide important education opportunities for rangers, and their retention reinforces the rationale and motivation to manage the rest of the extensive RLPB estate.

Monitoring component

With access to additional funding secured, the committee agreed that monitoring specifications should be contained within each site management plan to ensure that outcomes of the actions (specifically changes in relation to the perenniality and status of the sward) can be measured over time. Permanent monitoring sites are to be established for each TSR in the project. While data collection techniques will vary depending on target parameters determined by RLPB rangers, the project conducted two monitoring techniques workshops in conjunction with other experts in the field. The workshops came up with a standard approach which involves setting up 100 or 200 m transects along which sampling is undertaken at the same time of year during two or three organized monitoring phases. Options for data collection include step-to-point monitoring, which is a simple method used by Agricultural departments for measuring pasture sward. In this method, a pin in the toe of one's boot is used to record the category of ground cover (e.g. plant type, bare ground etc.) occurring at the pin for each step or second step (to achieve at least 100 of these points along the transects). Depending on the level of knowledge of personnel, the plants may be categorized as ‘a perennial native grass’ or ‘an introduced annual’, which is sufficient to provide a measure of changes in relative abundance of perennial versus annual or introduced versus natives over time. In other cases, rangers may use quadrats or a number of other monitoring techniques (such as stem counts, tree health rankings, and permanent photo points).

Ideally, the project will monitor reserves on a 3–5 year cyclical basis, where a certain percentage of the reserves are randomly selected and the data analysed to see if there should be some adaptations made to management.

Key role of rangers

Neither the assessments nor strategies prescribe micromanagement grazing techniques for each reserve. This aspect is left to RLPB rangers on the basis that they are the ones ‘closest to the ground’ and can develop the most knowledge of the dynamics of the individual sites. The strategic planning process does, however, involve talking in detail about the sites with the rangers so that their ideas about how the treatments are likely to affect the preferred species can be teased out and integrated into the strategy. The rangers are, therefore, key actors in the rehabilitation of the sites.

Although it is too early to observe any results from the expanded Linear Reserves Project, noticeable improvements in the quality of native vegetation communities have already occurred in the last decade or so in many reserves. This is a result of active and enthusiastic management activities undertaken by rangers responding to the initial assessment phase, in conjunction with a fortunate downturn in use of the TSR and routes (Box 5). Where a reserve once may have contained a few large and scattered woodland trees, woody regeneration is now visibly occurring, and palatable understorey species are regenerating, improving the habitat values for associated native fauna.

Interpreting the strategies, undertaking the management activities and carrying out or supervising the monitoring will have the effect of progressively increasing the skills of the rangers and will provide a focus around which the general principles and skills are passed on to future successors. The rangers and boards are particularly conscious of the need for ongoing training and the induction of successors of the current cohort of rangers. It can be observed that new recruits to the job of ranger are more likely to have training in nature conservation as conservation management becomes more and more important in the everyday duties of RLPB rangers. But the rangers also point to the importance of a background of working in the rural sector. Sean Learmonth, for example, learned from his predecessor, Laurie Perris.

He was very passionate about looking after native pastures and is well respected in the district. I spent my first 12 months with him, trying to learn as much as I could. It comes down to a common sense approach. The practical side of land management I learned from growing up in farming has been a huge help to this job. I hope more young people get out into the rural sector first, before they look at a job like this because if you try and meet with landholders and recite something that you've read in a book or heard in a lecture it doesn't seem to go over too well. But if you take a common sense approach that both you and the landholder can understand, it works a hell of a lot better. Then, along with common sense, you need the research to back up whatever you’re trying to achieve on the ground.

Summary and directions for the future

Since the creation of the TSR reserve network in the 1800s, the values, use and importance of TSRs to the community has certainly changed, particularly over recent years. Though their role in helping to conserve endangered ecological communities was unintended, TSRs are recognized both here and overseas as a legacy of good conservation planning in agricultural landscapes (Forman et al. 2003). While this result may be partly due to the pulse grazing pattern of travelling stock and a downturn in travelling stock, the deliberate consolidation of these gains within a planning and management context is largely due to the innovative journey the boards and rangers have made in the past decade. This is demonstrating that the boards are delivering a ‘public good’ environmental service in a cost-effective way, far more so than many other publicly funded revegetation programs. Recognition of this service should enable the boards to access funding on the basis of the results they are now delivering, to enable them to continue to successfully manage these precious reserves.

Acknowledgements

This article would not have been possible without the efforts and contributions of all past and present RLPB rangers. Acknowledgement is also given to the Hume, Murray, Riverina, Wagga Wagga, Gundagai and Narrandera Rural Lands Protection Boards; the earlier work done by Rick Webster and the generous support of Norman Wettenhall and his Trust, who were major sponsors of the original surveys. Thanks are also extended to Mark Sheahan and Peter Spooner for reviewing an earlier draft, with Peter also providing valued editorial assistance.

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