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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 18(4) March - May 2010, p 7-8

Conserving the endangered montane wetlands of the New England Tablelands

Adam Gosling and Nic Cobcroft
WetlandCare Australia, Ballina, NSW. Email: adamgosling@wetlandcare.com.au

Upland wetlands field day at Little Llangothlin. Photo: Adam Gosling.

Ranging from shallow, ephemeral lagoons amongst open, grassy woodlands to peat swamps at the icy headwaters of mountain creeks, the montane wetlands of the New England Tablelands of New South Wales are both intrinsically beautiful and incredibly biodiverse. They support a unique variety of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic and have an extremely limited distribution.

Most of the wetlands occur in a highly modified agricultural landscape, and as a consequence many have suffered significant damage or have been completely lost. A large percentage of those wetlands remaining are located on private property and are critically important as they provide the only habitat for a range of interdependent species. Amongst these species are many that are rare or threatened including the migratory Latham’s Snipe (Gallinago hardwickii), the ground burrowing Sphagnum Frog (Philoria spagnicolus), the Giant Dragonfly (Petalura gigantea), the New England Gentian (Gentiana wissmannii) and the endangered Tenterfield Eyebright (Euphrasia orthocheila).

These montane wetlands are also located within the only Australian north–south corridor that can support conservation linkages over the maximum possible elevation, latitude and climate range. Additionally, many of these wetlands are at the headwaters of creeks and drainage lines which provide drinking water for the majority of the population of the east coast of Australia.

‘Upland Wetlands and Montane Peatlands and Swamps of the New England Tableland’ are listed as endangered ecological communities under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (NSW). Upland wetlands are also nationally listed as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. These listings recognise these wetlands’ significance and vulnerability and provide legislative mechanisms to aid their protection. Unfortunately, these listings do not alone ensure wetland conservation.

Over the past six years, WetlandCare Australia has been working with landholders, researchers, government agencies, Landcare groups and passionate individuals on projects that have resulted in the protection and enhancement of over 2500 hectares of these wetlands and their immediate upper catchments. With funding from the New South Wales and Federal Governments, Northern Rivers Catchment Management Authority and the Border Rivers-Gwydir Catchment Management Authority, WetlandCare Australia has delivered a variety of on‑ground works including wetland protection fencing, weed and feral animal control, revegetation of buffer zones and installation of interpretive signage. Numerous community field days have also been held in order to showcase the work that has been achieved, and to raise awareness of these important ecosystems and the need to further protect them.

Upland wetlands (lagoons)

Upland wetlands or lagoons occur as permanent, intermittent or ephemeral wetlands in oval-shaped depressions above 900 meters elevation. The majority have suffered extreme modification with more than 70 per cent having been drained or dammed. Most lagoons hold water only temporarily and ecological communities have adapted to take advantage of this natural cycle of wetting and drying. Hydrological alterations, accumulation of sediment, weed infestation, ecological damage by feral pest species and continued clearing are some of the historical and current, threats to these wetlands. Healthy lagoons of this kind are extremely rare on the New England Tablelands to the extent that only about 15 of the documented 58 remain in a reasonable condition.

Like other high altitude ecosystems with a restricted distribution, upland lagoons are threatened by the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The predicted increase in temperature and reduction of precipitation are likely to render these wetlands even more vulnerable to factors such as weed and feral animal invasion, as well as having a significant impact on the distribution and health of the remaining lagoons.

WetlandCare Australia has facilitated the rehabilitation and protection of five of the most intact upland lagoons through long-term conservation agreements. These include iconic lagoons such as Dangars, Racecourse, Barleyfields and Thomas, all located near Uralla, and a second Barleyfields lagoon at Glencoe. All these sites now have long-term management agreements in place, and the land managers have the resources to undertake the requisite actions to ensure that the wetland’s ecological health is maintained into the future.

Plants found in wetlands at Ebor: Xyris operculata (left), Thysanotus tuberosus (centre) and Thelymitra cyanea (right). Photos: Adam Gosling.

Montane peatlands and swamps

Montane peatlands and swamps are found at the headwaters of high altitude creeks where the topography is relatively flat and runoff is slow. This allows the accumulation of peaty or organic sediments which favour these unique vegetation communities. Common plant families represented include Poaceae, Cyperaceae, Myrtaceae and Fabaceae, which combine to form vibrant and colourful wetlands in the hidden corners of the New England Tablelands. Their composition is highly variable and differs according to substrate, water flow and historical anthropogenic pressures (including overgrazing, clearing, draining, nutrient enrichment and high fire frequency). Over-exposure to some, or all, of these can ultimately result in the destruction of seed banks and the death of these vegetation communities.

Like the upland lagoons, the health and diversity of these ecosystems are also threatened by the likely effects of climate change. Increased temperature and decreased precipitation will result in both a contraction of the species distributions, increased susceptibility to weed and feral animal invasion and higher fire frequencies. Like many high elevation plant communities, there are restricted opportunities for altitudinal succession.

WetlandCare Australia has provided funding to promote the importance and facilitate the rehabilitation and protection of these fascinating wetlands. Through numerous stages of WetlandCare Australia’s endangered ecological community montane wetland projects, and with current Federal funding, landholders have been assisted to properly manage these wetlands. In addition, the wider community has been provided with extension services and education opportunities through information dissemination and field days, improving the understanding and capacity of landholders to better manage these wetlands.

Future work

Due to the significance and limited distribution of the endangered montane wetlands of the New England Tablelands, they remain a high protection priority for WetlandCare Australia under the organisation’s ‘Australian Wetland Biodiversity Program’. This program focuses on the protection of nationally- and state-listed threatened species, endangered ecological communities and high conservation value aquatic ecosystems.

With impending climate change, this work is imperative to enhance the resilience of important ecosystems such as montane wetlands. WetlandCare Australia continues to work closely with landowners and other agencies in many areas to restore wetlands and protect their dependant flora and fauna.

WetlandCare Australia’s experience in working on the New England Tablelands in partnership with local stakeholders has delivered exceptional immediate and future environmental benefits. In addition, the experience has also highlighted the value landowners now place on these wetlands and their desire to assist in long-term environmental preservation. It is now widely accepted that these wetlands not only have considerable environmental value, but also play a vital role in overall landscape health and the resulting agricultural benefits. Traditionally, funding available for environmental works has probably exceeded demand; this is no longer the case.

WetlandCare Australia’s mission ‘to support the community to protect and restore Australian wetlands’, has resulted in protection of 2500 hectares of these wetlands and their immediate upper catchments. The work undertaken will ensure the existence of these unique montane wetland ecosystems for future generations to discover, appreciate and treasure.