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Survival in Queanbeyan: A good news story

by Maria Taylor

Three of Australia’s most endangered species are recovering or maintaining their populations at the Queanbeyan Nature Reserve and at the Poplars private land across Lanyon Drive.

The Grassland Earless Dragon, the Golden Sun Moth and the unfortunately named Button Wrinklewort are being monitoring on these sites and elsewhere in the region (primarily the Monaro), by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) Queanbeyan. Comparative surveys are also being conducted in the ACT.

This is a good news story, particularly for the little earless dragon which, during the height of the drought five years ago, could not be found on the nature reserve managed by OEH.

OEH ecologist Rod Pietsch said that in the early 2000s before the drought about 50 dragons were sampled at the reserve. In 2008 there were zero. The last check yielded 10. This means they have survived here and on adjacent land and are recolonising the area.

“At the reserve and at the Poplars we detected earlier population recovery than in the ACT, which is only now starting to get good numbers again,” he said. He thinks condition of the habitat is the main reason for the recovery.

Dragons only live for about two years so egg survival is critical. Low soil moisture, as during a drought, sees the eggs dry up. The scientists sample the dragon by constructing artificial burrows, that mimic a natural spider burrow (the preferred home), and then spy in with a torch.

Sympathetic grazing welcome

He said “sympathetic grazing” by kangaroos or stock is good to keep the country open with good grass structure affording different heights of grass and tussocks, including open spaces. The point is to retain soil moisture and harbour insects which are dragon food. Cooperating Monaro farms are presently being surveyed for dragons.

Asked how he defines ‘overgrazing’ he said “when it doesn’t look like grassland anymore, with no tall tussocks”, a sight evident around the region with heavy stock grazing.

“The kangaroos don’t seem to be a problem,” he said of the long-term populations both at the 65 hectare reserve and at the 110 hectare Poplars site which is being considered for conservation. In fact, having that mix of native wildlife appears to be really important, he said.

A 2009 national recovery plan for the earless dragon recommends no change in existing management of sites where dragons occur, saying also that research is so far inadequate to support different management guidelines.

Similarly, the 2012 national recovery plan for the Button Wrinklewort says on page 8, “kangaroo grazing is a useful tool for biomass control of this species”. Kangaroos do not eat the plant, unlike domestic stock, according to this document. It is also likely their droppings naturally help fertilise it and other grassland plants.

Pietsch said there is not good long-term monitoring data for the Golden Sun Moth but its spread is “reasonably good across the reserve,” as is the Button Wrinklewort. Sun moths might prefer a grazed native grassland with an open but diverse structure but have been found in places as varied as Civic in the ACT and Captains Flat roadsides.

Weeds the top threat

Weed invasions are top-order threats according to national surveys and recovery plans for endangered grassland species (along with habitat fragmentation, agricultural practices, urban expansion, changed fire regimes and predation by domestic and feral animals).

Weeds, including large swathes of St John’s Wort as well as African Lovegrass and Serrated Tussock, are being sprayed intensively in sections at the reserve, according to Ranger Maggie Sutcliffe.

She showed the Bulletin around the reserve, accompanied by Landcare’s Tom Baker who is caring for the Poplar’s threatened plants and animals. Weeding is the biggest part of the challenge, said Baker.

The Queanbeyan Nature Reserve and part of the Poplars, with a history of stock grazing and once slated for urban development, are now proud strongholds for creatures amongst Australia’s most endangered.

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