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Thursday, 18 February 2016 20:15

STEP Matters 185

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Friday, 19 February 2016 16:55

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Friday, 19 February 2016 16:55

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Friday, 19 February 2016 16:55

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Friday, 19 February 2016 17:36

STEP Matters 179

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Tuesday, 12 April 2016 14:21

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Monday, 05 September 2016 23:37

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Tuesday, 06 September 2016 18:27

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Thursday, 16 February 2017 19:55

STEP Matters 189

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017 15:20

STEP Matters 190

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Friday, 09 June 2017 22:34

STEP Matters 191

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Tuesday, 22 August 2017 05:19

STEP Matters 192

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Tuesday, 21 November 2017 13:45

STEP Matters 193

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Sunday, 11 February 2018 20:28

STEP Matters 194

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Friday, 13 April 2018 20:45

STEP Matters 195

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Saturday, 12 May 2018 21:31

STEP Matters 196

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Monday, 13 August 2018 18:47

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Monday, 19 November 2018 15:17

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Thursday, 07 February 2019 02:12

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Tuesday, 16 April 2019 21:54

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Monday, 06 May 2019 20:21

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Tuesday, 09 July 2019 16:17

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Tuesday, 09 July 2019 16:17

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Tuesday, 09 July 2019 16:17

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Sunday, 26 January 2020 03:19

STEP Matters 205

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Sunday, 26 January 2020 03:19

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Sunday, 26 January 2020 03:19

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Sunday, 26 January 2020 03:19

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Wednesday, 17 February 2021 03:29

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Wednesday, 17 February 2021 03:30

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Friday, 04 February 2022 16:49

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The NSW and Australian governments still want a rapid increase in population This will place great pressure on new outer suburbs and areas near public transport that have been earmarked to accommodate the demand for new housing.

There was optimism that a directive issued by former Planning Minister, Rob Stokes of planning principles would have made new suburbs more pleasant places to live. They might have had more parks and street trees that would reduce the ambient heat and buildings designed with sustainability principles. They would help NSW meet the ambition of net zero by 2050 considering that buildings account for 25% of emissions.

The principles also provided that resilience and risk management from climate change be key considerations so that development in floodplains or close to bushland would be controlled. These principles would be applied throughout all NSW cities and towns. Recent events have demonstrated their importance.

The details for the implementation of the principles are set out in a draft Design and Place State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP). It has been developed by the Department of Planning in collaboration with architects, planning experts and researchers.

In a shock announcement, the new NSW Planning Minister, Anthony Roberts, has decided to bow to the developer lobby and revoke the principles and the Design and Place SEPP. What happens now is unclear.

Increase in density

The draft policy was not all good. It included an Urban Design Guide that established objectives for quality urban spaces. It was intended to advise applicants and their design teams, who prepare development proposals, on expectations and to assist in assessment of proposals (by local or state government).

There is a sting in the tail of the list of objectives. They include a blanket increase in density to 30 dwellings per hectare in areas within 5 min walk to local shops or near to public transport and 15 dwellings per hectare everywhere else. The latter equates to 666 m2 average area per dwelling including space for roads, parking, parks etc. Implementation can occur by mixing apartment buildings into low density areas.

The reasoning stated in the guide is the creation of more vibrant urban areas. That seems highly unlikely. Current LEPs would be ignored. Character and heritage would be lost in the process if the developments that have sprung up all over Sydney are anything to go by.

Push for spot rezonings

In another backward move the government has issued a discussion paper about a proposal to allow developers to request spot rezonings. Councils would have a limited time to assess these applications.

The authority of councils and community wishes determined by strategic plans would be overtaken by developers making these requests. This goes against the objective that ensures strategic planning is the foundation for all decisions about potential land-use changes. The pressure to assess applications within a fixed time frame will compromise the ability of councils to assess how a proposal fits into the area’s strategic framework and take into account other developments in the process of construction or under assessment.

The planning system is more flawed than ever. More details of these changes are described in FOKE’s March 2022 newsletter.

Wednesday, 13 April 2022 02:00

Population and climate change

This important discussion paper on population and climate change by Ian Lowe, Jane O’Sullivan and Peter Cook was published in February 2022 by Sustainable Population Australia. Here is their summary.

The relationship between population and climate change is complex. At a basic level, for a given lifestyle (consumption pattern), emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change are directly proportional to the size of the population. For example, if Australia’s recent population growth rate of about 1.5% per year were to continue, in less than 50 years we would double our demands for energy, food, water and all natural resources. All else being equal, we would double our carbon footprint also. On the other hand, in a hypothetical world where we achieve lifestyles entirely free from greenhouse gas generation, how many of us there were would make no difference to the climate. But even if this were achievable, which is questionable, we could decarbonise our lifestyles more rapidly if population growth was not constantly adding to the demand for energy and resources. Hence, the rate of population growth will make a considerable difference to the cumulative emissions generated during the transition. Furthermore, population growth greatly increases our vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

The population issue has had a controversial history which has led to the development of a ‘taboo’ against talking about population as a policy-relevant factor. This paper calls for a new level of maturity in discussing the population issue. It should no longer be acceptable for unfounded accusations of racism to be used to silence respectful and thoughtful discussions about population growth. It should no longer be acceptable – at an epochal moment of existential risk for human civilisation – for climate policy prescriptions to conspicuously exclude population-related actions in the face of abundant evidence (as reported in this paper) that such measures are feasible, effective and consistent with human rights and democratic values. Ending global population growth more swiftly and at a lower peak is a necessary but not sufficient condition for overcoming the climate crisis.

Population and consumption work together

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says:

Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

But these are not independent contributors to emissions; they multiply each other. Most emissions are attributable to the richest billion people, but their economic growth since 1970 has not increased their average emissions per person. The growth in emissions has come from lifting multitudes of poor people to a modest middle-class lifestyle in places like China and India.

It is futile to ‘blame’ past emissions on either population or consumption patterns when they are the product of both. What should be of more interest to us is the extent to which the future challenges of climate change, including emissions reduction and adaptation, can be lessened by giving due attention to population growth. This paper argues that our climate change response can’t afford to ignore the potential to minimise further population growth.

Slow-response actions are no less urgent

Nobody expects addressing population growth alone to solve climate change. There is no intention to deflect attention from high- emissions consumption patterns, nor to blame the poor for the excesses of the rich. Demographic inertia means that even concerted efforts to slow population growth are unlikely to have significant impact on the timescale demanded by the climate crisis. Measures to decarbonise our energy system and reverse the loss of vegetation and biodiversity are needed urgently in this decade, if we are to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change. Measures to reduce childbirth will take decades to make an appreciable difference to greenhouse gas emissions and human demands on nature.

Nevertheless, how well we do in the second half of this century will depend more on what we do about population growth this decade than on any actions that will remain available to us in 2050. If the successful efforts to promote voluntary family planning adoption in the 1970s and ’80s had not been abandoned in the 1990s, the global population might now be on track to peak below 9 billion. Because of decisions made in the 1990s, we’re heading for 11 billion or more. But if we renew family planning efforts now, a peak below 10 billion is possible and we could end this century with fewer than 8 billion people. If we wait until 2050, 11+ billion would be locked in.

A slow fruition does not make population action any less urgent. As the proverb says, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’ So it is with addressing global population. The climate crisis is largely a product of the short- sightedness of political responses decades ago. Those who say that reducing birth rates is too slow to be relevant to the climate change response are suffering the same short-sightedness that created the problem they seek to fix.

In rich countries, fewer people means lower emissions and fewer vulnerabilities

Any increase of population in the more affluent countries will add to those countries’ use of resources and their greenhouse gas emissions. In a rich country, having fewer children does more to slow climate change than any of the other actions often advocated, such as eating less meat, avoiding air travel or using only renewable energy. If immigration is high enough to cause population growth, it also increases a country’s emissions, but some people argue that it makes no difference globally. This is untrue: the average migrant to Australia increases their carbon footprint fourfold by adopting Australian lifestyles. While Australians have recently reduced their per capita emissions a little, Australia’s total emissions from energy have risen 49% since 1990 due entirely to population growth of 8.3 million people.

Australia is not only one of the world’s largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases, it is also among the countries likely to be most affected, in terms of negative impacts on agriculture, water supply, bushfire threat and extreme weather events. All these threats are intensified by the threat-multiplier of population growth.

The current Australian government policy of encouraging high levels of migration could see the 2060 population approaching 40 million and continuing to grow rapidly. That scale of increase would significantly magnify the task of producing enough clean energy to meet our material needs within a responsible carbon budget. Australian agriculture is unlikely to feed that number during increasingly frequent and severe droughts, and water security will depend on costly and energy-intensive desalination or recycling. These serious vulnerabilities are entirely avoidable if we choose population stabilisation.

In poor countries, smaller families are essential for adaptation

Population growth heightens vulnerability to climate change to a much greater extent in poor, high-fertility countries. For most of these countries, population growth itself is a greater threat to security and wellbeing than climate change is. Saying this does not in any way diminish the serious impacts of climate change. However, if a projected 11–25% reduction in crop yields this century due to climate change is considered a crisis, it is absurd to claim, as many people do, that population growth in high-fertility countries is not important when it will diminish the available water and agricultural land per person by a factor of three or more, while ensuring high levels of unemployment and poor infrastructure provision. While family size should be considered part of emissions reduction efforts in rich countries, it should be integral to adaptation efforts in poor countries. Nevertheless, the emissions caused by growing numbers of the poor are not insignificant. Deforestation is particularly vulnerable to population pressure.

Currently, family planning services are badly underfunded, denying many women access to safe and reliable contraception. As a result, the fall in birth rates has been much slower than was anticipated a generation ago, unemployment is rampant and hunger is once more on the rise.

Many of the beneficial impacts of lower birth rates are enjoyed much more rapidly than their effect on carbon emissions. These benefits include greater autonomy of women, health of infants, food security of families, protection of biodiversity, employment prospects for youth and economic development of nations. If climate adaptation is dominating the agenda for international aid, it makes sense that family planning should be included as an adaptation measure.

Climate change will affect world population

The other side of the coin is the impact climate change is projected to have on population, through greater loss of life. The frequency of extreme heat events, floods and crop-destroying droughts is projected to increase substantially. Some Pacific islands and low-lying coastal areas will become uninhabitable, causing either loss of life or relocation of whole populations. Mass migrations could possibly in turn lead to conflict between the displaced people and those whose traditional lands they enter. However, responses to climate change can have some beneficial health impacts. Urban air pollution and indoor smoke exposure are both major causes of premature deaths, and might be substantially reduced by electrification of energy systems. It is difficult to anticipate the net effect on population trends.

Only low-population scenarios can keep warming below 2°C

The most compelling reason to include population in the climate change response is that climate mitigation models are only able to achieve sufficient emissions reduction if their scenarios assume a rapid peak and decline in global population. These assumptions are not readily visible: they are hidden under the labelling of scenarios such as ‘SSP1’ or ‘SSP2’. Without making these assumptions explicit, and discussing the actions that could help achieve the required birth reductions in a way that elevates people’s rights and freedoms, these scenarios can’t become reality.

Addressing population growth alone can’t solve climate change, but not addressing it will ensure we fail.

The EPA released the three-yearly State of the Environment Report (SoE) in February. There are some pluses but mostly it paints a sorry picture. It boils down to the human impact from climate change and population growth.

The Australian SoE was sent to the Minister for the Environment, Susan Ley, in December. But it is has not been made public yet. The minister is required to table the report in parliament within 15 sitting days of receiving it. Parliament has sat only briefly this year so the government is not legally required to release it until the next parliament forms. What is she trying to hide?

For a change the NSW report does acknowledge the significance of population growth ‘population growth is the main driver of environmental issues’.

Yet, the NSW government’s top bureaucrats have urged the premier, Dominic Perrottet, to take a national leadership position and advocate a temporary five-year doubling of the pre-pandemic migration rate, which would increase the NSW population by about 2 million in 5 years. The argument is that this would rebuild the economy and address labour shortages.

The economy seems to be doing all right, thank you! Labour shortages seem to be a perpetual issue despite high immigration for most of this century. Perhaps it is more to do with wages being too low in the affected sectors of the economy. In 2018, Gladys Berejiklian, called for a pause to enable the state’s infrastructure to catch up. This still hasn’t happened.

Some pluses in this SoE report include:

  • Air and urban water quality are generally good but the state’s major inland river systems continue to be affected by water extraction, altered river flows, loss of connectivity and catchment changes such as altered land use and vegetation clearing.
  • Greenhouse gases are declining having fallen by 17% since 2005. Renewable energy sources have grown but they are still only 19% of electricity power in 2020. But, unlike the federal government, there is actually a plan to get to net zero by 2050.
  • About 9.6% of NSW is conserved in the public reserve system. The rate of new reservations has increased markedly, with around 305,000 ha being added to reserves since 2018.

What about biodiversity?

The story on biodiversity is very different. Much loss can be attributed to the Black Summer bushfires but the downward trend has accelerated due to climate change and land clearing.

Improvements have been made through the Saving our Species program. $175 million has been allocated to the program for the 10 years to 2026, and $240 million has been allocated over five years to support a greater commitment to long-term conservation of biodiversity on private land.

Land clearing is the greatest threat to biodiversity. Land clearing and logging of native forests continue at record levels (54,500 hectares in 2019). Unrealistic logging contracts are driving the rates of tree felling which is crazy when several reports have shown that the government is losing money on logging operations. Land clearing is now so bad that in February the koala was declared an endangered species under the Commonwealth EPBC Act.

Money is going into saving species but the amount of land clearing is likely to be creating more threatened species. Invasive species are also a major threat. The regulatory framework under the Biodiversity Conservation Act is failing as was predicted by environment groups and the EDO.

The Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) is a voluntary scheme, administered by the Australian government’s Clean Energy Regulator. It aims to provide options or incentives for a range of organisations and individuals to adopt schemes to reduce their emissions. These schemes can earn Australian carbon credit units (ACCUs) for emissions reductions. One ACCU is earned for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2-e) stored or avoided by a project. ACCUs can be sold to generate income to the government through a carbon abatement contract.

The market was extended recently when the government changed the rules so that holders of ACCUs may sell them in the secondary market. Strong demand has increased their value markedly. The government no longer needs to pay for these ACCUs. The 2022 budget reveals that the commitment has reduced by $2 billion.

There is a plethora of potential emission reduction projects (currently 38) supported by the scheme such as upgrading building lighting to LEDs, landfill gas capture, sequestration through growing trees or soil carbon improvement. The government’s website shows how very complicated the scheme is. Each type of project has supporting documents outlining the ACCU calculation methods and reporting requirements. ACCUs are not earned up front.

Successive government budgets since 2014 have included allocations to the ERF that now totals $4.4 billion. Payments are made as the emission reduction is deemed to have been achieved in accordance with the contract that has a fixed time frame of 5 to 10 years depending on the type of project. For a project based on growing trees the ACCUs accrue over 15 years but the forest has to be maintained for 25 or 100 years. The calculation of carbon stored includes a big range of adjustment factors that are too detailed to go into here.

Standards for effective offsets

STEP Matters 188 reported on the standards that the scheme needs to follow in order to actually achieve carbon emission reductions:

  • additionality – the scheme should only identify new emission reduction projects, not ones that would have occurred anyway
  • permanence – this is an issue with forestry projects where the carbon stored may be lost through fire or disease
  • accountability – it is reasonably easy to measure the emission reductions and administer the project

Increasing reliance on offsets

The current government’s plan for net zero by 2050 claims that emissions can be reduced by 10 to 20% of 2005 levels using permanent offsets such as storing carbon in soils and vegetation and projects in Asian-Pacific neighbours. The overseas projects would come under the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism that is part of the Kyoto Protocol.

However there is already an increasing demand for offsets:

  • Large emitters are required to keep their emissions below defined levels under the Safety Mechanism. They need to buy ACCUs if their emissions are too difficult or expensive to prevent by other means.
  • Other companies have sustainability objectives to reduce emissions but some of these are being met by buying offsets.
  • Banks are also requiring the big polluters to effectively have offsets as insurance against future carbon liabilities before operations can be refinanced.

Apart from the ERF there are many private carbon offset providers such as Greenfleet – they sell carbon credits to companies or individuals. They are matched with tree planting to offset a company’s emissions or from one-off events such as aeroplane flights.

Question marks about the integrity of some of the fund’s projects

There has been much media publicity recently questioning the integrity of some aspects of the ERF. It is contended that billions of taxpayer dollars are being wasted on projects that are not actually achieving meaningful emission reductions.

The details of the shortcomings of the scheme have been exposed by Professor Andrew Macintosh. From 2013 to 2020 he was chair of the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee that was set up to advise on the integrity standards for the ERF. He was principal author of the review into the scheme in 2019. The review discovered loopholes in the standards. The government has resisted fixing the problems.

There are three main schemes where the accounting for emissions is of concern.

  1. Avoided deforestation
    Landowners of large areas of western NSW were granted rights to clear their land prior to 2010 but many of the permits have not been acted upon. Now it is actually more lucrative for them to allow the trees to continue to grow instead of the implied intended use of growing crops or grazing because they will be entitled to receive payments for ‘avoided deforestation’. The argument about the legitimacy of this scheme is that the land was never going to be cleared based on historical data of actual clearing rates. This scheme makes up 20% of accrued liabilities.
  2. ‘Human induced regeneration’ or planting of forests on land previously used for cropping or grazing
    It is claimed that many of these projects are in areas like western NSW where a permanent forest will not be possible because of low rainfall. The ultimate forest growth level achieved has to be 20% canopy cover and a height of at least 2 m. The Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee considered that much of the land to which the scheme was being applied was not suitable for this expected growth to occur.
  3. Operating electricity generators that harvest methane from landfill sites
    These projects would have been implemented anyway because they are financially profitable. Some were operating before the ERF was established.

Advice to the government from the integrity committee was that these projects should not receive any more carbon credits. The response from Minister Angus Taylor was to allow them to get another five years’ worth of credits.

2022 Budget

The Coalition government’s mantra for addressing climate change is with technology not taxes but it is failing to support technology in a meaningful way. It is still fixated with the use of fossil fuels. The effective solution to climate change is to invest in roll out of renewable energy sources and storage. Instead, the Coalition government is increasing funding towards gas production with the idea that unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) will help reduce emissions. Much of this gas is intended to support the production of hydrogen for export to our Asian neighbours.

There have been more announcements of funding ($1.3 billion) for CCS technology that, in theory, will be used to produce low-emissions steel and hydrogen fuel. Australia’s only operating CCS project at the Gorgon gas field of WA has been a failure so far. If successful, CCS may reduce emissions but it uses a lot of energy in the process and is expensive. Many other countries are advancing hydrogen production technologies. It may become a very competitive market.

The budget papers have revealed the impact of a decision by the Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister, Angus Taylor, to allow holder of ACCUs to sell their entitlements to payments from the ERF on to the more lucrative private voluntary market. This will contribute to a $2 billion improvement in the budget bottom line over the next four years.

The Budget estimates $5 billion will be needed over the next two years for support measures for flood affected communities, as well as clean up, mental health and temporary accommodation measures. This will be funded equally by the federal and state governments. The cost of extreme weather events over the past two years have demonstrated that we need to plan for adaptation and well as reducing emissions. There is still no concrete plan and funding from the government.

Offsets are not a panacea for reaching net zero by 2050

Carbon offsets can provide false assurance that we need not change the way we live but the demand will ultimately be impossible to meet.

A report by Oxfam, Tightening the Net, published in August 2021, provides a global perspective on the unrealistic expectations of companies and countries for carbon offsets to solve their net zero ambitions.

One-fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest publicly-listed corporations now have ‘net-zero’ goals that are dependent upon land-based carbon sinks.

There is simply not enough land on Earth to soak up corporate greenhouse gas emissions. Oxfam estimates that the land required to meet carbon removal plans by businesses could amount to five times the size of India – more than the entire area of farmland on the planet. And much of it rightfully belongs to indigenous and other local people, who in many cases have not given their consent. This process has a name: carbon colonialism.

Wednesday, 13 April 2022 02:11

Eucalypt of the year

Eucalypt Australia holds a competition every year asking people to vote for their favourite out of a short list of selected species. And this year the winner is … the Mountain Ash, E. regnans, the tallest flowering plant in the world.

It grows as tall open forests in high rainfall areas of southern Victoria and north-eastern and southern Tasmania. These Mountain Ash forests are important homes to threatened species like the Leadbeaters (Fairy) Possum and Greater Glider.

The tallest regnans lives in Tasmania’s Huon Valley. Named Centurion, it towers at 100.5 m high. Another notable tree, named Gandalf’s Staff, could be 500 years old and is found in the Styx Valley.

E. regnans is one of an estimated 80 species of eucalypt that are killed by fire, and can only regenerate from seed. They take at least 20 years to mature and produce seed. The increasing fire frequency and severity is threatening their survival.

Second place went to the splendid and widely beloved Red Flowering Gum, Corymbia ficifolia. Its restricted endemic range is in southwestern WA but it now commonplace along streets and in gardens across southern Australia in a hybridised form.

Rounding out the top three is the statuesque Sydney Red Gum, Angophora costata. Also known as the Smooth-barked Apple, this species has been in the top three eucs almost every year since the competition started in 2018!

Eucalypt Australia is the operating name of a Trust, established in 2007 following a bequest from Bjarne Klaus Dahl.

Norwegian-born Bjarne Klaus Dahl spent his working life among the eucalypt forests of Victoria. He developed an affinity with the Australian bush and a high regard for the silvertop ash, E. sieberi.

Bjarne Dahl linked his well-being and financial prosperity to eucalypts, so much so that he left his entire estate to the Forests Commission of Victoria. The Trust’s objectives are the establishment, promotion, cultivation and conservation of eucalypts, and education of the public about them.

There are nearly 20,000 introduced plant species in Australia – roughly the same number as our native species – and while some were brought in for horticultural purposes, the vast majority were introduced as ornamental garden plants. Some of these have become problem invaders.

One such plant is lantana that was introduced as an ornamental species in the mid-1800s and has since spread across 4 million hectares. Birds spread its seeds, helping lantana invade native forests from their disturbed edges and forming dense thickets that dominate ecosystems. It costs graziers more than $100 million pa in lost production.

Another serious problem is privet, originally from Asia, which was enthusiastically adopted by the English as a hedging plant. It is too cold for them to fruit in the UK. They produce masses of fruit here that are widely dispersed into native bushland across the east coast by birds.

Thousands of seemingly harmless species we currently buy from nurseries, chain stores and markets, could also damage nearby ecosystems if they escape our gardens.

Garden Responsibly

Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences has recently launched another initiative in their program for Smart Green Cities. The program is called Garden Responsibly. The full website will be launched in September 2022.

The team that developed the website is led by Distinguished Professor, Michelle Leishman, a former president of STEP.

The data underlying the program comes from the Plant Sure scheme, a collaborative project between the Nursery and Gardening Industry Association of NSW and ACT, the Australian Institute of Horticulture and the NSW government. The scheme is designed primarily for use by industry specialists and checks international species databases to flag plants known to be invasive in other countries.

Plant Sure will help gardeners and plant sellers choose ornamental garden plants that will reduce the risk of future weed invasions. Gardening businesses that are certified under the Plant Sure scheme will receive stickers to identify and promote plants as 'gardening responsibly' participants.

Smart Green Cities

The Smart Green Cities program is a collaborative hub connecting industry, government, researchers and community to create liveable urban environments by inspiring change through evidence-based problem solving.

There are now many projects being undertaken investigating ways of making our cities more liveable in the face of climate change.

When we attached tiny, backpack-like tracking devices to five Australian magpies for a pilot study, we didn’t expect to discover an entirely new social behaviour rarely seen in birds.

Our goal was to learn more about the movement and social dynamics of these highly intelligent birds, and to test these new, durable and reusable devices. Instead, the birds outsmarted us.

As our new research paper explains, the magpies began showing evidence of cooperative “rescue” behaviour to help each other remove the tracker.

While we’re familiar with magpies being intelligent and social creatures, this was the first instance we knew of that showed this type of seemingly altruistic behaviour: helping another member of the group without getting an immediate, tangible reward.

Testing exciting new devices

As academic scientists, we’re accustomed to experiments going awry in one way or another. Expired substances, failing equipment, contaminated samples, an unplanned power outage – these can all set back months (or even years) of carefully planned research.

For those of us who study animals, and especially behaviour, unpredictability is part of the job description. This is the reason we often require pilot studies.

Our pilot study was one of the first of its kind – most trackers are too big to fit on medium to small birds, and those that do tend to have very limited capacity for data storage or battery life. They also tend to be single-use only.

A novel aspect of our research was the design of the harness that held the tracker. We devised a method that didn’t require birds to be caught again to download precious data or reuse the small devices.

One of the trackers we attached to five magpies, which weighs less than one gram. Dominique Potvin, Author provided

We trained a group of local magpies to come to an outdoor, ground feeding “station” that could either wirelessly charge the battery of the tracker, download data, or release the tracker and harness by using a magnet.

The harness was tough, with only one weak point where the magnet could function. To remove the harness, one needed that magnet, or some really good scissors. We were excited by the design, as it opened up many possibilities for efficiency and enabled a lot of data to be collected.

We wanted to see if the new design would work as planned, and discover what kind of data we could gather. How far did magpies go? Did they have patterns or schedules throughout the day in terms of movement, and socialising? How did age, sex or dominance rank affect their activities?

All this could be uncovered using the tiny trackers – weighing less than one gram – we successfully fitted five of the magpies with. All we had to do was wait, and watch, and then lure the birds back to the station to gather the valuable data.

This magpie wasn’t sure what to think of its new accessory. Dominique Potvin, Author provided

It was not to be

Many animals that live in societies cooperate with one another to ensure the health, safety and survival of the group. In fact, cognitive ability and social cooperation has been found to correlate. Animals living in larger groups tend to have an increased capacity for problem solving, such as hyenas, spotted wrasse, and house sparrows.

Australian magpies are no exception. As a generalist species that excels in problem solving, it has adapted well to the extreme changes to their habitat from humans.

Australian magpies generally live in social groups of between two and 12 individuals, cooperatively occupying and defending their territory through song choruses and aggressive behaviours (such as swooping). These birds also breed cooperatively, with older siblings helping to raise young.

Magpies playing together.

During our pilot study, we found out how quickly magpies team up to solve a group problem. Within ten minutes of fitting the final tracker, we witnessed an adult female without a tracker working with her bill to try and remove the harness off of a younger bird.

Within hours, most of the other trackers had been removed. By day 3, even the dominant male of the group had its tracker successfully dismantled.

We don’t know if it was the same individual helping each other or if they shared duties, but we had never read about any other bird cooperating in this way to remove tracking devices.

The birds needed to problem solve, possibly testing at pulling and snipping at different sections of the harness with their bill. They also needed to willingly help other individuals, and accept help.

Our new tracker design was innovative, allowing a magnet to release the harness. Dominique Potvin, Author provided

The only other similar example of this type of behaviour we could find in the literature was that of Seychelles warblers helping release others in their social group from sticky Pisonia seed clusters. This is a very rare behaviour termed 'rescuing'.

Saving magpies

So far, most bird species that have been tracked haven’t necessarily been very social or considered to be cognitive problem solvers, such as waterfowl and raptors. We never considered the magpies may perceive the tracker as some kind of parasite that requires removal.

Tracking magpies is crucial for conservation efforts, as these birds are vulnerable to the increasing frequency and intensity of heatwaves under climate change.

Magpie with straw in its beak
Tracking magpies is crucial for conservation efforts. Shutterstock

In a study published this week, Perth researchers showed the survival rate of magpie chicks in heatwaves can be as low as 10%.

Importantly, they also found that higher temperatures resulted in lower cognitive performance for tasks such as foraging. This might mean cooperative behaviours become even more important in a continuously warming climate.

Just like magpies, we scientists are always learning to problem solve. Now we need to go back to the drawing board to find ways of collecting more vital behavioural data to help magpies survive in a changing world. The Conversation

Dominique Potvin, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Richard Flanagan provides a depressing description of the Tasmanian salmon farming industry in 189 pages.

This review looks at environmental problems associated with salmon farming but the author delves into regulatory capture, unbelievable cooperation of the Tasmanian government with salmon farmers, bullying and intimidation, and the ineffectiveness of residents’ complaints. He has done a fine job of alerting us to the unseen, loosely regulated salmon ‘farming’ industry currently degrading Tasmanian waters.

Despite there being no index, table of contents, chapter headings nor map, there are 270 mercifully consecutive references.

Flanagan has publicised his findings on radio, TV and in print; maybe you have heard his arguments.

After you read Toxic I believe you will not purchase Tasmanian farmed Atlantic salmon.

The beginnings

In 1985 the Robin Gray government established Saltas (Salmon Enterprises of Tasmania) with the government as majority owner. Norwegian advisors noted that, apart from one or two experimental pens, the D’Entrecasteaux Channel was too shallow and its flow too weak to disperse the tonnes of sludge produced.

By 2005 Tassal had the ear of the minister and the regulators were captured. More and more salmon farming operations have been permitted with the latest in 2018.

In 2002 from his home on the west side of North Bruny Island, Flanagan detected a small salmon farm. He has seen the gradual degrading of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Impacts have been:

  • a decline in fish, abalone and other species
  • green algal blooms that threaten internationally significant seagrass beds
  • TasWater has had to upgrade water filtration systems
  • increased risk that algal blooms that cause hypoxia could draw toxic heavy metals into the marine ecosystem

Location of salmon farms

map

Environmental harm from feed production

Tassal has said that 1.73 kg of wild fish are needed to produce 1 kg of salmon; one-quarter of wild fish caught are estimated to feed farmed fish. Wild fish are reduced to fishmeal in order to feed farmed fish!

Most of the high-protein plant material in salmon feed is grown in Australia, but not soy. Soy cultivation is driving deforestation in the Amazon and in the Cerrado in Brazil.

Harm to humans

The argument that we must farm salmon in order to feed the hungry world falters if you remember that when whole grains fit for humans are fed to animals, and then animal parts fed to fish, less than 10% of the energy in the grains may be converted into edible protein. Never mind questionable health effects of consuming antibiotics fed to fish, nor synthetic astaxanthin, derived from petrochemicals, used to pinken salmon flesh.

Cruelty to animals

Fish farms are in reality gigantic floating feedlots. Chapter 4 details the cruelty involved –  majestic creatures reduced to circling in crowded cages of poo and ammonia.

Tasmania’s fur seals like to eat salmon. The salmon industry seeks to get rid of this protected species, by trapping or firing ‘beanbags’ full of lead pellets at them or releasing loud noise bombs.

Pollution and jellyfish

Flanagan correlates the transformation from a diverse healthy ecosystem to the polluted, sick monoculture left by fish farms with a proliferation of jellyfish. Jellyfish kill native fish species and harm oysters, mussels, scallop, clam, sponges and polyps.

Plastic pollution

Salmon pens are made of rigid plastic pipe scaffolding, netting, pulleys, stanchions, handrails, walkways; and kilometres of nylon rope. This loose plastic is difficult to see, floating on the surface where it causes collisions with boats. Plastic pollution litters once-pristine beaches and coastlines.

Toxic: The rotting underbelly of the Tasmanian salmon industry by Richard Flanagan, Penguin books
Reviewed by Margery Street

'What’s in a name?', asked Juliet of Romeo. 'That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'

But, as with the Montagues and Capulets, names mean a lot, and can cause a great deal of heartache.

My colleagues and I are taxonomists, which means we name living things. While we’ve never named a rose, we do discover and name new Australian species of plants and animals – and there are a lot of them!

For each new species we discover, we create and publish a Latin scientific name, following a set of international rules and conventions. The name has two parts: the first part is the genus name (such as Eucalyptus), which describes the group of species to which the new species belongs, and the second part is a species name (such as globulus, thereby making the name Eucalyptus globulus) particular to the new species itself. New species are either added to an existing genus, or occasionally, if they’re sufficiently novel, are given their own new genus.

Some scientific names are widely known – arguably none more so than our own, Homo sapiens. And gardeners or nature enthusiasts will be familiar with genus names such as Acacia, Callistemon or Banksia.

This all sounds pretty uncontroversial. But as with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, history and tradition sometimes present problems.

What’s in a name?

Take the genus Hibbertia, the Australian guineaflowers. This is one of the largest genera of plants in Australia, and the one we study.

There are many new and yet-unnamed species of Hibbertia, which means new species names are regularly added to this genus.

Many scientific names are derived from a feature of the species or genus being named, such as Eucalyptus, from the Greek for 'well-covered' (a reference to the operculum or bud-cap that covers unopened eucalypt flowers).

Others honour significant people, either living or dead. Hibbertia is named after a wealthy 19th-century English patron of botany, George Hibbert.

George Hibbert by Thomas Lawrence
George Hibbert: big fan of flowers and slavery. Thomas Lawrence/Stephen C. Dickson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

And here’s where things stop being straightforward, because Hibbert’s wealth came almost entirely from the transatlantic slave trade. He profited from taking slaves from Africa to the New World, selling some and using others on his family’s extensive plantations, then transporting slave-produced sugar and cotton back to England.

Hibbert was also a prominent member of the British parliament and a staunch opponent of abolition. He and his ilk argued that slavery was economically necessary for England, and even that slaves were better off on the plantations than in their homelands.

Even at the time, his views were considered abhorrent by many critics. But despite this, he was handsomely recompensed for his 'losses' when Britain finally abolished slavery in 1807.

So, should Hibbert be honoured with the name of a genus of plants, to which new species are still being added today – effectively meaning he is honoured afresh with each new publication?

We don’t believe so. Just like statues, buildings, and street or suburb names, we think a reckoning is due for scientific species names that honour people who held views or acted in ways that are deeply dishonourable, highly problematic or truly egregious by modern standards.

Anophthalmus hitleri
This beetle doesn’t deserve to be named after the most reviled figure of the 20th century. Michael Munich/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Just as Western Australia’s King Leopold Range was recently renamed to remove the link to the atrocious Leopold II of Belgium, we would like Hibbertia to bear a more appropriate and less troubling name.

The same goes for the Great Barrier Reef coral Catalaphyllia jardinei, named after Frank Jardine, a brutal dispossessor of Aboriginal people in North Queensland. And, perhaps most astoundingly, the rare Slovenian cave beetle Anophthalmus hitleri, which was named in 1933 in honour of Adolf Hitler.

This name is unfortunate for several reasons: despite being a small, somewhat nondescript, blind beetle, in recent years it has been reportedly pushed to the brink of extinction by Nazi memorabilia enthusiasts. Specimens are even being stolen from museum collections for sale into this lucrative market.

Aye, there’s the rub

Unfortunately, the official rules don’t allow us to rename Hibbertia or any other species that has a troubling or inappropriate name.

To solve this, we propose a change to the international rules for naming species. Our proposal, if adopted, would establish an international expert committee to decide what do about scientific names that honour inappropriate people or are based on culturally offensive words.

An example of the latter is the many names of plants based on the Latin caffra, the origin of which is a word so offensive to Black Africans that its use is banned in South Africa.

Some may argue the scholarly naming of species should remain aloof from social change, and that Hibbert’s views on slavery are irrelevant to the classification of Australian flowers. We counter that, just like toppling statues in Bristol Harbour or removing Cecil Rhodes’ name from public buildings, renaming things is important and necessary if we are to right history’s wrongs.

We believe that science, including taxonomy, must be socially responsible and responsive. Science is embedded in culture rather than housed in ivory towers, and scientists should work for the common good rather than blindly follow tradition. Deeply problematic names pervade science just as they pervade our streets, cities and landscapes.

Hibbertia may be just a name, but we believe a different name for this lovely genus of Australian flowers would smell much sweeter.


This article was co-authored by Tim Hammer, a postdoctoral research fellow at the State Herbarium of South Australia.The Conversation

Kevin Thiele, Adjunct Assoc. Professor, The University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There have been several items of news that are making the Warragamba Dam project look increasingly less likely to proceed. Nevertheless, Stuart Ayres, the Minister for Western Sydney, is still determined to go ahead. He has dismissed the objections about the impacts on biodiversity and cultural heritage as unimportant. He argues that the flood mitigation that the wall raising is meant to achieve is vital.

The project is not the panacea that he promotes. The dam does not hold back flood waters from the several rivers below the dam that can flood the Hawkesbury Nepean Valley.

The insurance industry has suggested that houses on land that ‘should have never been developed’ below the 1 in 100 year flood level could be resumed. The cheaper mitigation option is to improve the roads and other infrastructure so it will be easier to escape a flood.

Several NSW government agencies have attacked the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS) prepared by WaterNSW that was released in September, for example:

  • the Environment, Energy and Science division of the Department of Planning noted that WaterNSW’s evaluation of the project’s impact on World Heritage values is based on ‘incorrect assumptions’
  • the assessment of aquatic ecology had failed to identify that raising the dam wall would result in inundation of about 284 km of rivers and streams during floods
  • the EIS' conclusion that the project would have minimal impact on threatened species was ‘not supported by the data or evidence’
  • Heritage NSW's response to the EIS indicates that the assessment underestimated the area’s cultural significance, saying the impact to Aboriginal cultural heritage values would be ‘significant’

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported this month that the Greater Blue Mountains would be likely to lose their World Heritage status if it went ahead. They wrote to the federal government last month expressing their concerns about the EIS.

The assessment process is in the hands of the NSW government under the bilateral agreement with the Commonwealth, an arrangement that has been a cause for concern. Over 2000 submissions were received during the consultation period of which only 45 were in favour of the project.

Now the NSW government will have to do more work on the EIS, a process that will cost a lot more taxpayers’ money.

As one drives north along the M1 towards Gosford and cross the Hawkesbury River Bridge one has magnificent views of the river and the dense bushland on the surrounding hillsides.

Heading south there is a spectacular view of the sandstone cliffs created by the river and the cuttings that were made to build the freeway that now allows easy access from the Central Coast to the metropolis of Sydney.

To the east there are two islands, Long and Spectacle. The natural values of the whole area are preserved as all these lands are national parks or nature reserves. The only development is low key with some houses clinging to the water’s edge or on available flat land such as in Brooklyn, Mooney Mooney and Dangar Island.

There is one area of development that has stood untouched for many years on Peat Island. This island originally housed a centre for treatment of alcoholics that was opened in 1910. It was later a general psychiatric hospital and a residential care centre for people with intellectual disabilities. It was closed in 2010 in line with the government policy to close down large institutional care centres. There are many historic buildings on Peat Island plus a chapel on the east side of the M1.

The nearby lands are the only flat areas available on the Lower Hawkesbury for community use. They provide access and views for the Lower Hawkesbury. In addition, the area contains many sites of cultural, heritage and spiritual significance to Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

The NSW government has been trying to sell off the land on Peat Island and on the narrow peninsula adjoining it near the M1 and Pacific Highway. In 2014 they proposed the development of 450 houses, mostly medium density building plus retail, tourism and community facilities. Fortunately it was knocked it back. It was totally inappropriate to have so much development in an area with no public transport or employment opportunities. The dwellings could end up being mostly holiday houses and make no contribution to housing needs.

The Central Coast Council is currently considering a new concept plan proposal from the Department of Planning. This still has a significant amount of residential development on the land alongside the M1 with 105 houses and townhouses and medium density buildings with up to three stories with 162 apartments.

Peat Island would be transformed into a tourism and accommodation precinct, with supporting cafes, restaurants and the like to be accommodated in retained historic buildings and the addition of new buildings.

The chapel on the eastern side of the M1 has pedestrian access to Peat Island via an underpass. The precinct includes several historic cottages. The plan is to adaptively repurpose these buildings for community use plus the possibility of a community centre. However the whole area would be surrounded by some of the new housing.

There is also a possibility of a marina that Hornsby Council’s submission explains would cause several environmental issues such a damaging the estuarine mangrove environment and disturbing sediment contamination including asbestos.

These issues are apart from the fact that it would be totally out of keeping with the scenic landscape of the Lower Hawkesbury.

Hornsby Council’s submission also points out this level of development in an isolated area will exacerbate existing inadequate water and sewage management and parking facilities and cause traffic congestion.

The local groups opposing the plans are the Central Environment Network and Dyrarubbin Peat Island Association. Their view is that the concept plan lacks the vision and depth expected for an iconic site of regional, state and national significance. Dyarubbin is the First Nations Darug people’s name for the Hawkesbury River.

STEP believes the land should be developed for a world class park as the natural, cultural, heritage, aesthetic, social and recreational values of the site far outweigh the value as a residential area. This park should link the historic buildings and landscape of Peat Island to the broad sweeping landscape west of the M1 and to the intimate space of the chapel precinct. The historic buildings of Peat Island can be sensitively repurposed for cafes, cultural centres, museums, and a marine/ estuarine research centre. The proposed housing in the chapel precinct should be deleted as it severely impacts the curtilage of this building.

Submissions closed just prior to Christmas. We hope that common sense prevails. The NSW government has created some outstanding public parks such as Bicentennial Park at Homebush Bay. This Peat Island Park could be another example.

Monday, 07 February 2022 12:47

Final chapter of SAN development

The Wahroonga Estate was acquired by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1898 when the land was just an orchard. The land was then developed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church with the hospital, church and administration buildings.

A major redevelopment was planned in 2008. Plans have now been submitted to Ku-ring-gai Council for the final stage of this development on the San Hospital site. The concept plan for the developments was approved in 2010 by the Department of Planning under the controversial Part 3A process under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act that took consultation out of the hands of councils and the community. Nevertheless, the plan ended up being significantly smaller than the original application submitted in early 2007.

STEP, the local community and local councils strongly opposed the plans. The department ruled that several reports submitted by the developer engaged by the SAN were inadequate.

The final stage covers the construction of four apartment buildings, one on Fox Valley Road and three behind the school with an access road from Fox Valley Road with traffic lights.

The design is for 178 apartments with 222 car parking spaces plus visitor parking. The approved plan was for 200 apartments in five buildings but, following Adventist school and local community consultation, more open space was allocated for use by the school.

A new set of traffic lights will be built near the entrance to the school and apartment complex. This is only a couple of hundred metres from the traffic lights at the entry to the hospital. Despite the claims that the new development will not worsen the current congestion this seems implausible.

Biodiversity management plan

During the prolonged approval process it was found that the ecological reports commissioned by the developer Johnston Property Group were seriously inadequate.

Ku-ring-gai Council vegetation mapping showed that proposed new housing on the eastern side of Fox Valley Road and creation of a new road would have destroyed one of the finest examples of vegetation transition from shale to sandstone soils. Also the vegetation mapping of the whole site confirmed that there were significant areas of critically endangered Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest and Blue Gum High Forest. The integrity of these areas would have been damaged by asset protection zone requirements.

When the mapping was corrected the areas of STIF and BGHF were sufficient to alert the federal Department of Environment (whatever it was called at the time – see note) of the potential damage to these critically endangered ecological communities under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The department ruled that the development was indeed a significant risk and made the development a ‘controlled action’. This means that the biodiversity management is subject to regular review and is detailed in a biodiversity management plan.

In the end the reduction in the residential development areas increased the bushland area from 18 ha to 34.1 ha, all zoned as E2, environmental conservation. The Adventist Church is responsible for implementation of the biodiversity management plan. A volunteer group called Wahroonga Waterways Landcare group managed by Adventist Aged Care also assists.

There is a huge amount of work to be done to restore the areas that were neglected for many years. However, the area along Coups Creek is magnificent bushland and is open to the public to enjoy. The area on the eastern side of Fox Valley Road is more problematic as a large part of it was reserved as a corridor for the freeway linking the F3 and M2 that was finally abandoned in 1995 (see Coalition Against the Lane Cove Valley Freeway 1988 to 1995: An Amazing Community Achievement. Some of this land is still owned by the NSW Department of Planning that doesn’t appear to be taking any action to control weeds like lantana and ochna.

Note on names of Australian government environment department

2010–16, Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts

2016–20, Department of Environment and Energy

2020 to present, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Monday, 07 February 2022 13:01

Powerful Owl Project reaches a landmark

It is ten years since the Powerful Owl Project was initiated under the auspices of Birdlife Australia. This highly successful project aims to involve the general public in discovering information about the Powerful Owl population, their location and behaviour and carry out research into their health and habitat needs.

The intrepid citizen scientists have far exceeded the original expectation of finding 50 territories in Greater Sydney and surrounds; the total now is over 250. Their observations have contributed enormously to the understanding of the ecology of the Powerful Owl in the urban environment.

Here are some extracts from the newsletter that documents the experience of the last 10 years or so.

Breeding success

It’s been a good breeding season for our urban owls, with 95 successful breeding sites and 157 chicks fledged, up from 121 chicks fledged last year. It’s been a good year for double chick clutches, with 65.3% of clutches having two chicks, up from 39.5% last year. The table below gives an overview of the breeding season stats for the past few years.

Untitled 2

Research into nesting hollows

We know Powerful Owls need large tree hollows to breed, but we don’t know much about the environmental conditions inside the hollows where successful breeding takes place.

In March 2021, data loggers were installed in 11 known Powerful Owl nesting hollows across the Sydney Basin, funded through Cumberland Bird Observers Club. The data loggers measured the temperature and humidity levels in the hollows during the breeding season and were retrieved again in November. A huge thank you to Kai Wild, arborist and environmental campaigner, who installed and retrieved the loggers.

Powerful Owls successfully use both dead trees and live trees for nesting. We had hoped to install the data loggers in a representative sample of each, but the dead trees proved too dangerous to climb.

We are rapidly losing our old, hollow-bearing trees through land clearing, bushfires, drought, safety concerns and natural attrition. A hollow suitable for a Powerful Owl to breed in takes 150 to 500 years to form. At current rates of loss, scientists have estimated that in 95 years there will be no suitable tree hollows left in the urban space that can accommodate the breeding of Powerful Owls.

The results of the analysis will be available in January 2022. They’ll help inform land management decisions around the retention of hollow bearing trees and help guide attempts to design artificial nesting structures for Powerful Owl. To date, all attempts have been met with owly disdain, other than on one occasion where the owls successfully fledged a chick from a nest box but have not returned to it in subsequent seasons.

Mortality

Sadly there were 82 death and injury events recorded in 2021. 85% of these birds were either killed outright or died in care due to their injuries. For all reports we received we collated all the information we could on where the bird was found, what the physical signs were and, where possible, bodies were collected and necropsied.

These numbers are, sadly, more than double that of 2020, largely due to a doubling in reported cases of motor vehicle accidents and an increase in death or injury from animal attack or from unknown cause. Of course, as people become aware of the ability to report incidents then of course reporting to us increases so it is difficult to determine just yet whether these events are increasing, or people are simply more aware of how to report them.

What we do know though is that motor vehicle accidents continue to be the largest single cause of death and injury in our urban owls with 39% of reported injuries/deaths in 2021 and 50.4% of injuries/deaths in our records since 2012.

What to do if you find an injured or dead owl

If you find an injured Powerful Owl do not attempt to rescue the owl yourself, for the safety of both yourself and the owl. The rescue of raptors requires specialist training and handling.

Assess the environment for any potential danger to yourself. Check if there are any immediate threats to the owl. Take note of your location (GPS coordinates or address). Then call a specialist wildlife rescue organisation and they will talk to you, assess the situation, and decide what action needs to be taken.

If you’re in the Sydney Metropolitan Area, please call either of the following (both available 24 h day, every day of the year):

  • Sydney Wildlife Rescue on 9413 4300
  • WIRES on 1300 094 737

If you find a dead Powerful Owl, please let someone know, as knowing how many Powerful Owls are dying, and where and why they are dying, is important for our understanding of how to support the survival of the species.

Rodenticides

The use of rodent poisons is a major concern for the survival of all raptor species. Of particular concern is what are called second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGAR). These are rat poisons with the active constituents of brodifacoum. Studies of dead Powerful Owls has shown that we can add Powerful Owls to the more than 40 Australian animals and bird species that are poisoned by these products.

There is more work to come, but early results from our research are alarming and is why we will be pushing forward with this research and actively campaigning for the removal of these second-generation rat poisons from public sale. From our first batch of testing we have found:

  • 37 of the 38 samples showed an anticoagulant rodenticide was present.
  • The most common rodenticide present was brodifacoum. Brodifacoum is a SGAR, the most persistent anticoagulant rodenticide registered for use in Australia, and is the most common one used in rat poisons available on hardware and supermarket shelves.
  • Nearly 60% of Powerful Owls tested had levels high enough to cause impairment. This likely puts these birds at greater risk of other threats such as being hit by vehicles – the leading cause of death we are seeing in these Sydney birds.
  • An additional 10.5% had AR levels high enough to kill the bird outright.

How you can help

As the largest hardware retailer, Bunnings can be leaders in the market by removing a huge source of poison from their shelves and instead providing consumers with alternatives that are just as effective.

Sign our petition, but also use our Bunnings finder to (politely and respectfully) call your local Bunnings store and let them know you are concerned about this issue. We even have a script for you to use.

Powerful Owl Coalition

STEP is a member of the Powerful Owl Coalition, a group of northern Sydney environment groups that aims to promote improvement in habitat for Powerful Owls. We have been working with Dr Beth Mott the head of the project for the past five years. Sadly she has moved to another job. We greatly appreciated her extensive knowledge and assistance with our work.

Monday, 07 February 2022 13:16

News from another STEP

We have a rival? Well actually no! The Southern Tablelands Ecosystems Park has very similar interests to ours. The Park is a regional botanic garden, education and conservation centre demonstrating southern tablelands species within the National Arboretum Canberra (Forest 20).

The arboretum is a great scenic place to visit in Canberra. Its current layout was created after a radiata pine plantation was burnt out in the 2003 bushfires. There was already some forests on the site that had been established under Walter Burley Griffin’s plans for an arboretum. The plan is to create 100 forests and 100 gardens focussing on threatened, rare, and symbolic trees from around the world.

The site has been planted since 2005, and includes ceremonial trees planted by visiting heads of government and ambassadors.

Forest 20 differs from the other single species forests. STEP is growing 16 species of eucalypt trees, selected to represent the major vegetation types of the region; and it includes shrubs, herbs and grasses to demonstrate the understorey plants commonly found in the region’s forests and woodlands.

The STEP forest is an educational resource where visitors and school students can easily identify the trees and plants typical of the Southern Tablelands. Of particular significance are the trees and plants of the critically endangered Yellow Box/Red Gum Grassy Woodland ecosystem.

Forest 20 is managed by the STEP community group in partnership with the National Arboretum Canberra and welcomes individuals, community groups, schools and others to join this exciting project. STEP have regular working bees and other activities.

If you are ever in Canberra with some spare time, perhaps you should pay them a visit.

Monday, 07 February 2022 13:20

Book review: Tapestries of Life

There are many books dedicated to nature and the environment, most of them good, some very good, but this one is outstanding.

The author is a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and her previous book Extraordinary Insects made it to the Sunday Times best seller lists. Her special interests and research lie in forest ecology and in the role played by insects, fungi and other creatures in interacting with forest plants to create a natural living web. This is especially important in old growth forests whose biodiversity goes far beyond trees into the huge range of species that inhabit and live off not just the living trees but also dead, rotting wood or mouldy leaf litter. And here was a big surprise, her homeland of Norway, a timber producer, apparently has hardly any old growth forests left, most existing ones being sustained or created by managed regrowth and plantings. Lots of comments and thoughts to ponder in this topic on how we manage and respect our own old growth forests and natural world in general.

But this is far from the whole story in the book. It extends across an amazing array of animals and plants and their interactions, from Brazil nuts that require the unique orchid bee to pollinate, to fig wasps, to incredibly ‘intelligent’ slime moulds and to our own (probably extinct) gastric brooding frogs. And she goes quite a bit into the biopharmaceutical story too, from the blue blood of horseshoe crabs to a jellyfish called Turritopsis that can reverse its life cycle back to the polyp stage and can therefore technically live forever.

And a word about the style, which if it wasn't up to it could drag a book like this down into the dumps and make it heavy going however fascinating the content. Yes, she really does write well, and she acknowledges her English translator too who carries some share of the top marks for the final product.

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, Mudlark (Harper Collins), paperback 344 pp, $27.99

Reviewed by John Martyn

I can't quote a price for this book because it was a gift or rather a swap. I met the author socially at a publishing friend's lunch – he received a copy of Rocks and Trees in return though I possibly got the better half of the deal!

The author Alasdair McGregor has multiple credits to his name, he is an architect, artist, writer, photographer, expeditioner and historian of Australian explorers and pioneers.

This book, Mountains, was created on request by the National Library following highly regarded previous works like Frank Hurley: A Photographer's Life and Mawson's Huts: An Antarctic Expedition Journal.

I warmed to this book because of a personal preference for ranges like the Snowies and Blue Mountains over ‘real mountains’ like the Swiss Alps. He quotes Sir Edmund Hillary's well known comment that Tasmania's Federation Peak is ‘Australia's only mountain.’ Jagged and formidable though it is only 1,224 m high, hardly on a world scale in elevation. But that isn't really the issue in our continent where ranges like the Blue Mountains and the high peaks of North Queensland were formidable barriers to early settlers and explorers whether in terms of terrain, vegetation or in getting on with the locals.

The style of description in the various chapters is broad and framed in a historical sense because to learn what it was like to traverse Australian mountain country in early settler days is a vivid introduction, and in the case of the Snowies, to follow through their history that included early cattle grazing, Von Mueller's botanical visits, gold mining, early skiing pioneers and the Snowy Mountains scheme paints a vivid picture. Though this is embellished with the sad accounts of threats to wildlife like the Bogong Moth and mountain pygmy possum, to wildfires and to the plague of wild horses. But the Snowies is a classic illustration that on our so-called flat continent we have alpine vegetation above the tree line in one corner and tropical rainforest in others. And our fractious summers bring both tropical mangos and cool climate cherries in abundance.

Some of Australia's mountain country he describes in the book I know well, like the Hamersley Ranges through years of geological fieldwork. But the chapter I probably enjoyed most was on country I don't know; the chapter on the high mountain peaks of far north-east Queensland where cloud forests with native rhododendrons are unique on our continent but threatened by climate change. And where it rains like you wouldn't believe. He also has vivid personal stories to tell from his experiences on Heard Island where he was in the first party to climb the awesome peak of Big Ben. He still regards that island as his most beautiful place.

Alasdair McGregor, NLA publishing (National Library of Australia); hardback, 268 pp

Reviewed by John Martyn

As one who enjoys long bushwalks and studying nature, having walked as a ‘swaggie’ from Yuleba to Surat along the Cobb and Co coach route in 2018 and having walked 48 km in one exhausting day and night from a bogged vehicle in isolated Chesterton National Park, south west Queensland, I was very keen to grab hold of a copy of this recent book. Not only to read about Peter’s incredible walking journey but to learn about the natural history and cultural history of the huge Cumberland Plain which comprises much of western Sydney.

Living and working in Ku-ring-gai means I have become accustomed to the Hawkesbury Sandstone environs, but the fauna, flora and history of the Cumberland Plain still remains a mystery to me.

In the winter of 2019 ecologist Peter Ridgeway set out to walk 179 km across the Cumberland Plain, the region of rural land west of Sydney. Carrying his food and water and camping under the stars, he crossed one of the least-known landscapes in Australia, all within view of our largest city. I think he was as ‘game as Ned Kelly’ to undertake this venture in an area that is much under-loved for its amazing nature and today more valued as a dormitory for greater Sydney.

This well-illustrated book recounts a unique journey across a landscape few Australians will ever see. In this open country the familiar forests of Sydney’s sandstone are replaced by a fertile world of open woodlands, native grasslands and wetlands – known as the Cumberland Plain, home to some of the nation’s most unique and endangered wildlife. The Cumberland Plain is the traditional land of the Darug, Gundungurra and Dharawal peoples, and the birthplace of the first Australian colony and it is a landscape which also holds the key to our entwined and conflicted origins.

What was once a limitless tract of woodland is now being engulfed by the city to the east, in the largest construction project ever undertaken in the Southern Hemisphere – the near elimination of an ecosystem and a past community.

This book provides a detailed immersion into the history, wildlife, and culture of one of Australia’s most rapidly vanishing landscapes, and reveals how the destruction of ‘the west’ is erasing not only itself, but we are losing something central to the identity of all Australians.

Peter Ridgeway is a highly experienced biodiversity scientist and land manager for this remarkable area and his knowledge of the Cumberland Plain is fully reflected in his writings – almost a lament for the times when he grew up in the area when times were better – at least through his childhood eyes.

Peter’s book is literally a landscape memoir, nature guide and a detailed history narrative – all rolled into one amazing book. It has similarities to the late Eric Rolls history of the Pilliga A Million Wild Acres.

In addition to a very informative text, the detailed trip maps and lovely photographs add so much to the volume.

As stated by N Scott Momaday:

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with hands at every season and listen to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of the moon and the colours of the dawn and dusk.

Peter Ridgeway has admirably achieved all of this in his wonderful landscape memoir. Please purchase a copy, you will not be disappointed!

Peter A. Ridgeway ($50) from the author (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or Nokomis (03 5774 7083 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Reviewed by Mark Schuster, Bushfire Technical Officer/Fire Ranger, Ku-ring-gai Council and NCC bushfire representative for Hunters Hill, Lane Cove, Parramatta and Ryde Bush Fire Management Committee

Thursday, 16 December 2021 23:33

Annual Report for the Year to October 2021

Welcome to the annual report on the 43rd year of operation of STEP Inc. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 has turned out to be similar to 2020. Many more people have been getting out in the bush and discovering our maps and books, membership has again increased and our walks and talks program has been severely curtailed. We hope to be able to go back to normal in 2022.

On the environment front some bold decisions have been made by the NSW government but the federal government is as recalcitrant as ever. There has also been plenty of activity at the local level with councils putting out many plans and policies for consultation.

Talks

The restrictions on group activities imposed to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus have meant that we have held only one talk. In March Professor Culum Brown gave a fascinating talk about shark behaviour that highlighted the damage being caused to marine life by shark nets when there are more effective methods of shark control available.

We look forward to the Zoom talk after the 2021 AGM by Mark Schuster from Ku-ring-gai Council on balancing fire management and biodiversity protection.

Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of Resilience, has agreed to give a talk but this has had to be postponed to a date to be decided early next year.

Walks

We were able to hold a few walks before the COVID lockdown in June. We hope to resume the program in February next year subject to the COVID guidelines.

We thank Peter Clarke for his enthusiastic leadership of the introductory walks program. He is not able to continue as he has moved up north. We have a new leader for the introductory walks, David Roberts, who had a great knowledge of the local area.

Membership

We are currently offering a year’s free membership to anyone who buys a book or map. There has been a good response to this offer so our membership is now over 550.

Publications

Sales of our maps have boomed. The South Turramurra Post Office that is close to Lane Cove National Park, has become a successful outlet for map sales.

The supply of Middle Harbour North maps has now run out. We plan to complete a reprint early in 2022. John Martyn is currently checking changes to the tracks shown on the map.

Committee

The STEP committee has, as always, been a great group of people to work with. We owe a huge thank you for all their efforts. Other individuals have been a great help in specialist areas of our operations.

We have had two resignations from the committee. Peter Clarke, as mentioned before, has moved away from the area. We appreciated his help with putting the newsletter onto our website and conducting walks. Anita Andrew has also decided not to nominate as she will be doing lots of travelling. She has done a great job as treasurer checking that our books and banking activities are in order.

We thank Jim Wells for doing the nitty gritty of keeping track of our finances and compiling monthly finance reports.

John Burke and Trish Lynch continue to keep Twitter and Facebook up-to-date and find lots if interesting items to add on a regular basis.

There has been a long list of documents put up by local councils for public consultation. The most significant of these were the Hornsby and Westleigh Park Master Plans and the St Ives Showground Draft Plan of Management. Robin Buchanan, Margery Street and I have put in many hours examining these documents and viewing the sites.

Since our last AGM we have made 17 submissions to local and NSW governments.

Accounts

The net cash balance at the end of the financial year has fallen by $540 despite the increase in publication sales. Revenue has fallen because we waived annual subscriptions in 2020–21 and increased donations to other environmental organisations.

The Environment Protection Fund balance has reduced as the funds are being applied to John Martyn Research Grant. We would like to be able to support more environmental projects so please contact us if you have any ideas. Our general fund can also be used to support educational projects.

Again we thank Allan Donald, Chartered Accountant, for his completion of the audit on a pro bono basis.

Newsletter

We are continuing to publish five issues of STEP Matters, each year with most members receiving a pdf version via email. Links to individual topics are also included in the email and are on our website so anyone can pick out particular articles of interest. These articles also have links to previous articles on related topics.

While the newsletter concentrates on local issues and events we also cover broader national environmental issues that affect us all. We aim to be educational but not too technical. I hope they are of interest, but feedback is welcome. Also, contributions from members about local events and developments can be published in the newsletter or on Facebook.

Environment Protection Fund

We continue to maintain the Environment Protection Fund which has deductible gift recipient status so that donations are tax deductible. The fund’s purpose is to support our environmental objectives. We received a total of $417 in donations in the past financial year.

We received a small number of applications for the John Martyn Research Grant for 2021 and hope there will be more to consider in the future. This grant supports student research in an area relating to the conservation of bushland. The award this year went to a student from the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at the University of Western Sydney to assist her study of phosphorus limitation on photosynthesis of a range of native plants.

Education

For many years STEP has been donating a prize in the Young Scientist Awards run by the NSW Science Teachers Association. The selection of a winning project out of a wide range of ecological issues is an interesting exercise. We have not done the judging for 2021 yet as the students have been given more time to complete their projects.

Advocacy

One of the major local issues has been the plans to install synthetic turf in many playing fields in Sydney including two sites in Ku-ring-gai and the Hornsby and Westleigh sites. We have formed a coalition, the Natural Turf Alliance, with groups in several locations in Sydney that are also fighting these projects. The group shares data about the social and environmental impacts of these fields and the low impact alternative of natural grass that can provide plenty of playing hours if planned and maintained properly.

There are many children and young adults at a loose end due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Some individuals with no appreciation of the unique and fragile bushland have been carving out tracks and building jumps. Local councils and national parks are struggling to control this destruction and educate the community about the illegal damage to habitat and wildlife.

It is great to see some positive initiatives being taken by the NSW Minister for Energy and the Environment in creating renewable energy zones and funding to help establish green hydrogen projects and incentives to change to electric vehicles. However the NSW government is still supporting new coal projects and the Pilliga gas project, a puzzling situation. How this can be consistent with their pledge of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a puzzle.

Conclusion

A community group like STEP works best with many lines of communication. We enjoy a good relationship with other community groups and local council staff. Information sharing is an important part of our work. To that end we appreciate feedback from our members and reports on local issues that we may not be aware of. It is becoming harder to keep track of local developments as the local newspapers have shrunk considerably. Contributions on articles for our newsletter or help with our website are also welcome – please let us know about events and talks.

Jill Green (President)

19 October 2021

Friday, 17 December 2021 02:23

Local council elections

Much has been written in the press about the stalemate that developed within Ku-ring-gai Council following the ‘election’ of a new mayor Cedric Spencer in September. There was a 50/50 split in the vote between him and his predecessor Jennifer Anderson, so the standard process is to draw a name out of a hat.

Soon after his election Cedric Spencer’s faction attempted to hold an Extraordinary Council Meeting to review the appointment of the general manager, John McKee, only three months before the election. The opposing faction refused to attend so there was not a quorum present. This situation continued as several more attempts were made to hold this meeting including adding the item to the agenda of the October ordinary meeting. The Minister for Local Government asked for an explanation of the situation but took no further action. As a result of the boycott of the ordinary meeting several council plans will not be progressed until February 2022.

After being postponed from 2020 the local government elections were finally held on 4 December. The outcome in Ku-ring-gai looks promising with several new faces with independent views.

The final results will not be declared until 20 December but it looks likely that STEP‘s new committee member, Greg Taylor, has been successful in the Comenarra Ward. Greg has a keen interest in bushland restoration and conservation and conducts school environmental education programs. Unfortunately he has decided to resign from the STEP committee to avoid conflicts of interest with issues where STEP has made submissions.

In the last parliamentary sitting week of the year the Coalition attempted to legislate some major changes to the National Parks and Wildlife Act without any prior consultation with stakeholders.

The environment NGOs’ opinion of the current Environment Minister, Matt Kean, has been dented. The creation of new national parks, increase in funding and climate change initiatives have been welcomed but these proposals were appalling. Fortunately the NPA, NCC and Colong Foundation were able to work with Labor, the Greens and independents in the Upper House to remove these elements from the Bill.

The good aspects of the Bill formalise prior announcements such as the Assets of Intergenerational Significance (see STEP Matters 212), the creation of the Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area and the use of digital recognition of number plates of vehicles entering national parks and requiring the NPWS to monitor the ecological health of parks.

The bad moves would have conflicted with the purposes and objectives of national parks. They would have created new methods of fund raising such as:

  • providing for a trust to accept tax deductible donations to national parks
  • creating and trading carbon sequestration rights in national parks
  • creating and trading biodiversity credits for works carried out in national parks and reserves

These moves would allow environmental destruction outside parks to be compensated with payments being made to the NPWS. The use of biodiversity credits to offset bushland destruction outside national parks is bad policy. Extending this practice to national park land will only exacerbate the situation.

The other changes proposed would have allowed the minster to shorten the exhibition period for changes to plans of management from 90 to 28 days and approve actions that are inconsistent with an approved plan of management such as building new visitor infrastructure.

There was also a provision in the original bill that would have removed stakeholders such as the National Park Association and Local Government Association from having a role in nominating representatives to the National Parks Advisory Council and regional advisory committees. Fortunately this was removed before the Bill reached parliament.

There is about to be a reshuffle of ministerial positions in the current NSW government. The new environment minister will need to be educated about the importance our national parks and reserves in the conservation of nature and control the push for their commercialisation.

Source: National Parks Association blog post.

Friday, 17 December 2021 02:38

Cockatoo bin opening survey

Our highly intelligent and loud sulphur-crested cockatoos have developed a new skill, opening wheelie bins in order to raid their contents. This behaviour has been surveyed by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour, the Australian Museum and Taronga Zoo over the past four years and the ‘word’ is spreading.

Help the researchers learn about cockatoo bin-opening: whether you ‘have’ or ‘have not’ observed this behaviour is valuable to the study, so please participate.

Reported in three suburbs in 2018, the ‘knowledge’ has spread to 44 suburbs by late 2019. The research published in the journal Science reported differing techniques between suburbs resulting from different sub-cultures that have developed in areas that are well separated from each other.

The Friends of Lane Cove National Park were planning to hold a celebration this year commemorating 30 years of volunteering in the Park but COVID-19 stymied that plan. However Mike Pickles and David Meggitt have compiled a booklet documenting the achievements of the volunteers Thirty Years of Caring: Volunteer Bushcare in Lane Cove National Park.

It includes a history of the northern Sydney Bushcare movement from its beginnings in the 1960s. The techniques were formalised by publications such as Joan Bradley’s Bringing Back the Bush and Robin Buchanan’s TAFE sponsored textbook that became the reference (and still is) for all trainees.

In Lane Cove National Park, a series of working bees were held in the early 1990s and these evolved into the creation of the Friends thanks to the initiative of Nancy Pallin and Nan Goodsell. The creation of this organisation facilitated the ability to apply for government grants.

The first meeting was held in January 1994 and a week later one of Sydney’s worst bushfires occurred and 85% of the park was badly burnt. This led to a large influx of volunteers eager to help restore the park and the Volunteer Bush Regeneration Program was created. This program is still going strong.

The booklet chronicles the activities and personnel involved with the Friends, including the great support from the NWPS staff. It also provides a profile of each of the 27 Bushcare sites that are still functioning.

Friday, 17 December 2021 02:40

Young Scientist Award 2021

It is good to see the Young Scientist Awards being run again this year. The winner of the STEP award was Chloe LeMap from PLC Sydney for her project Cool the Sand, Save the Sea Turtles. Her project has demonstrated excellent background research, scientific process and initiative. We thank Gaye Braiding and Margery Street for judging.

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