A new era in grassland and grassy woodland restoration

(From a conversation with Dr Paul Gibson-Roy, Greening Australia’s Lead Scientist)

For over a decade, Greening Australia has been developing native seed production techniques and technologies that could transform restoration on a national scale.

Tucked within the grounds of Western Sydney University, the flourishing seed production area (SPA) is making achievable what once seemed impossible – restoration of the Cumberland Plain’s unique native grasslands and grassy woodlands.

Native grasslands and woodlands once covered great swathes of Australia including Sydney’s Cumberland Plain, but with the switch to European agriculture and urban development, these diverse and beautiful habitats have largely disappeared.

Until recently, broad-scale restoration of native grasslands and grassy woodlands was thought to be unachievable due to a scarcity of wild seeds and traditional agricultural seeders being unsuitable for most native species.

Seed production area. Seed production area.

“Native ground cover species are typically rare and some even locally extinct. Even when seed is available, restoration through planting is far too costly. Even if you do get the plants into the ground, the success rate can be extremely poor.”

“We overcame the problem of seed scarcity by establishing our own ‘seed bank’ from small amounts of native seed collected from the wild. For the first several years, we just drove around looking for seed on the Cumberland Plain. From these, we used horticultural techniques to grow healthy native crops from which we can now source the seeds needed for our restoration work.”

“Initially we grew our seed crops in simple foam boxes outside our nursery. Since then, we have scaled this up to over five hectares of large in-ground crops.”

Grassland restoration at Wickliffe Plains (top) and Camden (bottom) Grassland restoration at Wickliffe Plains (top) and Camden (bottom)

“We also employ non-traditional approaches, such as using earth movers to scalp and remove the nutrient and weed laden topsoil where appropriate to create optimal conditions for seed growth. We have spent many years modifying and designing ‘purpose built’ seeders that allow us to sow as many species as we want at a time”.

“An important feature of this approach is that we often find eucalypts and native shrubs simply returning by themselves. This shows it’s possible to recreate a stable native ground layer and there is no need to physically plant trees.”

“This new technique of direct seeding with a complex range of species is a completely new shift in approach to restoration in Australia.”

“It takes restoration from being largely focused on planting in straight lines, to a more holistic and ecologically efficient process, which enables us to restore very complex habitat in a way that is has the potential to further evolve and transition with appropriate management.”

“A major benefit of being based at the university is that we are able to embed research into all aspects of our work.”

Burr Daisies flourishing in the seed production area. Burr Daisies flourishing in the seed production area.

“And it’s not just the environment that benefits. Many native grassland species are more resilient to extreme conditions than exotic ones. They are therefore able to cope better in more marginal farming environments and under extreme conditions. They don’t need to be cut as often and they produce lower fuel loads so are potentially less of a fire risk. We also now know that many of the native wildflowers attract good beneficial insects that can assist with pollination or predation of pest insects.”

“Many are also extremely pretty in flower. We see a lot of opportunities to use these species in urban landscapes such as Sydney. It is possible to add beauty and restore native biodiversity at the same time.”

“Our SPA gives us the capacity to return hundreds of native species into urban areas. This could be as part of new urban infrastructure, such as on roads and roundabouts, on public lands for habitat, or in gardens and business centres purely for their attractiveness.”

“After a relatively short period we are beginning to see some amazing on-ground outcomes which speak for themselves. Our restored sites in Western Sydney present our partners with the opportunity to achieve outcomes that were simply not achievable before.”

“And from monitoring of our grassland sites in Victoria in the early 2000s we know that all sorts of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, frogs and fungi quickly recolonise the restored grasslands. So in terms of increasing biodiversity and complexity, these approaches provide fantastic opportunities and outcomes.

A Kangaroo Grass cell at Western Sydney University A Kangaroo Grass cell at Western Sydney University

“Ideally, we would like to see these new techniques and approaches built into public policy. For example, clear requirements for the use of native grasses or wildflowers along our roadsides. The economic, environmental and aesthetic benefits would make it a clear winner with many Australians.”

The Australian Government recently announced $10 million dollars in funding to expand the footprint of the Western Sydney seed production area.

“This funding is extremely exciting because it provides us with a unique opportunity to increase the scale and efficiency of our facility to a more commercial level.  We believe that with an appropriately financed SPA, which is effectively managed and well-staffed, the outcomes we will be able to achieve will result in huge shifts in the Western Sydney landscape. In time, this model could change the way things are done across the country.”

“This could be one of the most transformative restoration projects that has ever taken place in Australia.”