THE PLATYPUS: WHY ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S MOST ICONIC ANIMAL IS BEING SUPPORTED BY NSW LANDCARERS

In the dappled sunlight beneath shady trees the platypus moves gently through the water. With only a few minutes of oxygen, it closes its eyes, ears and nostrils when foraging underwater and uses its bill, equipped with receptors sensitive to pressure, and with electro-receptors, to find invertebrates for food.

One of Australia’s more elusive species, and most definitely one of its most unique, the platypus occurs in freshwater systems from tropical rainforest lowlands and plateaus of far northern Queensland to cold, high altitudes of Tasmania and the Australian Alps.

With such a diverse range of ecosystems to choose from you’d be pressed to assume that this unique animal lived in abundance however this is far from the truth.

An assessment released by University of NSW scientists and conservation groups in 2020, found the areas where platypus live across eastern Australia has shrunk by 22 per cent over the past 30 years.

Add additional challenges such as the Black Summer bushfires that caused the biology of waterways to shrink in response to the mass movement of ash, preceded by years of drought, and this shy mammal is significantly impacted.

But behind every challenge are countless volunteers and scientists monitoring and supporting its survival into the future.

In the Sydney Basin, Cattai Hills Environmental Network (CHEN) Project Officer Danielle Packer says their work engaging with landholders and community groups will help to better understand platypus who live in urban areas and help to mitigate the pressure caused to waterways with urban expansion.

“Our project is quite new, but we know that there is a small population of platypus in the Hills Shire in the Cattai and Little Cattai Creek Catchments, and we’ve found that they (the platypus) were positive in more urban areas rather than in rural areas.

“There’s lot of questions there and we need to do more research as to why that is and how the platypuses are surviving in response to a lot of urban development and agricultural farming causing severe habitat degradation”.

Danielle said the project began when platypus expert, Dr Michelle Ryan, from Western Sydney University, and the Chair of CHEN Sue Martin joined forces to find out if there were platypi in the catchment.

“(We) undertook a research project using eDNA (eDNA is short for Environmental DNA) and Dr Ryan and Sue, and the volunteers undertook water sampling at 18 sites across the Cattai and Little Cattai Creek Catchments. When we got results back…9 out of the 18 sites were positive which created a great deal of excitement in the Hills Shire community,” says Danielle.

And the groundswell movement is gaining momentum, with new Landcare groups forming in support of local platypi, their health, and their habitat.

“A lot of what we are trying to do is to educate landholders and communities to get them aware that they may have platypus in their nearby waterways and what they can do to help.”

Working with school children to educate them on supporting the platypus

“We have had a lot of schools come on board and we are working with the Hills Shire Council to undertake future planning for the health of the waterways and the platypus.

“(These groups will help us) assess how the Greater Sydney platypus are adapting to these extreme natural events as they become more common. They are a big threat for platypus as they do get impacted by drought. They rely on water availability and small pools for habitat, so things like weirs and dams significantly impact them. It creates issues as if there’s a lack of water, it will increase their rate of being killed as the platypus will need to go on land more (to find new homes) where there are predators.

Danielle says platypus can serve as an indicator species of waterway health as they are usually the first to return to waterways after water quality rehabilitation and conservation efforts have been established.

“These issues are not just about the platypus. They are about a whole ecosystem that is under threat and how the platypus can ‘help’ look after all parts of the ecosystem by bringing community awareness through their unique profile”.

The Southern Highland Landcare Network (SHLN) are as equally passionate with member of the SHLN Platypus Group Clive West, calling the platypus the ‘canary in the mine’ of the waterways.

“One of the things that worries us is water quality, because platypus are kind of like the canary in the mine. With all the bushfires last year we were worried, but our local population is still standing up, but one of the things we’ve noticed further upstream is the impact agriculture has on water quality. Particularly when cattle have been allowed to go into the river. It has caused several kilometres of just mud and poor water quality so there’s no habitat for the platypus so…we’ve been working to revegetate the banks of the river with local landholders,” says Clive.

Danielle agrees, saying if agricultural activities are not done sustainably, platypus populations and water quality will continue to be severely impacted.

Erosion of Banks leads to large silt deposition affecting water quality and health of waterways

“Platypi are pretty hardy, but their food source and homes are easily affected by even small changes in water quality. So, for example, if there’s no fences along the creek, livestock are defecating in the water, their hooves are creating erosion degrading the bank so platypus can’t create their burrows in the bank. Fertilisers and pesticides are running into the creek affecting water health and therefore affecting water bug diversity (platypi’s main food source). So if agricultural landscapes aren’t looked after properly, if they’re not fenced off or there’s not much riparian vegetation then platypus won’t be able to live there.

However, both reiterate that education is the key.

“Education plays a big role. Platypi are a bit like the koala. They are an iconic species and people are inherently interested in them because they’re pretty strange creatures and if people know how vulnerable they are then you’ll get funding and support for them. It’s so important to get public support for them,” says Clive

Lidded yabby traps are a death trap for the platypus

“(Simple things that we never think of such as) lidded yappy traps are a death trap for the platypus. Once the platypus goes in they only have a couple of minutes to live, because they can’t get out to breathe. But our group advocated for them to be banned by making contact with our local MP (Greens Member Cate Faehrmann, MP) and alerted her to this because we have been trying to get them banned. Cate talked to the Minister for the Agriculture, Adam Marshall who was very supportive and within days we had a compete ban on them! That was us agitating for just one change so we need the public to be agitating for protection.

“But people can help by learning. By being involved. By spreading the word that there’s a need for protection! They are an iconic species and they need to be protected and it (absolutely) comes down to education and awareness that there is a need for increased protection and extending the habitat and protecting the waterways. The benefit goes beyond the platypus.

“Our big challenge will be climate change and more extreme weather events. We know that we have seen on average two to three platypuses each time we do a survey because we have people up and down the river we can make sure that it’s not the same platypus travelling up and down the river.

“So when we found one dead platypus from the recent serious floods, it was terrible. The sheer volume and ferocity of water is deadly for them

“I definitely think people being involved in community groups like Landcare, taking part in platypus surveys, if they live along the riverbank that is degraded making sure they revegetate it. All those things can, and do, make an impact. But I think there is a need generally for the average person to be aware of the issues facing us. Things like climate change and taking care of the environment. We need to raise awareness more generally that you need to have – an appreciation of the world – that is beyond the money side of things.

“To be honest, it’s sad that not until koalas were critically endangered did people properly sit up and say ‘oh well we better do something about this’. Platypus need that support and a similar sort of push and awareness of their threats.

Danielle agrees, saying support by all members of the community will ensure they survive and thrive across all of Australia.

“They are such a fascinating and unique creature! They are an egg laying mammal, and they can even glow in the dark! It is such a shame to just let them slide away when they are such a unique Australian icon. They are beautiful and I want to look after them.

“It is important to remember though, that these issues we are facing are not just about the platypus, it is about the ecosystems they are a part of that are under serious threat from human activities It is more important than ever that we look after our waterways so that all parts of the ecosystem are protected. The more people who are passionate about the platypus the better!” said Danielle.

Working together the key to the future of Landcare

From the northern rainforests of Gumbaynggirr Country to the open plains and rocky ranges of the Wiljali, stretching across the largest Country in NSW, the Wiradjuri, and up to the alpine landscapes of the Maneroo, the original Landcarers have been working with Country and on country for millennia.

Across NSW, traditional and new Landcarers have been coming together to celebrate, heal and work on local landscapes through funding from the NSW Landcare Program’s Working Together Program.

In the Upper Snowy Landcare region and Maneroo Country, the local Landcare community have been busy building stronger connections with the local Aboriginal community networks.

“We recently held a two-day on-country theory and show and tell workshop which helped bring adults and children together and aimed to develop an understanding of Maneroo country, its people, practices, perspectives, special sites and artefacts,” said Upper Snowy Landcare Network Local Landcare Coordinator, Lauren Van Dyke.

Upper Snowy Landcare Network workshop

“The Upper Snowy Landcare Network recently commenced a lease on a significant part of the Gegezerick Travelling Stock Reserve – a grassy woodland overlooking the Monaro Plains and the little village of Berridale. While we were aware of the Aboriginal significance of this place (with anecdotal stories) we were informed during this workshop of its purpose as a traditional training ground.”

“Led by Aboriginal cultural heritage expert’s Aboriginal elders, Glen Morris, Chris (Snappy) Griffiths and Graham Moore, the knowledge that the Gegegedzerick Hill being a training ground for young indigenous people was welcome news indeed. Especially as on the second day we had more than 40 school children join in from the Trakz Program – an established program consisting of activities and experiences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Cooma to learn about cultural beliefs and practices on Country.

“The event helped us all begin to understand the land from an Aboriginal perspective and the key information gathered will assist in the future management of the Landcare site. Opportunities to build and strengthen the connection with local people and the local landscape is at the core of what ‘Landcare’ is”, Lauren said.

Upper Snowy Region ‘Working Together’ Workshop

Up in Gumbaynggirr country, North Coast Regional Landcare Network held a three-day event that included developing and exploring cultural knowledge within the region, and ways to move forward in line with the work Traditional Custodians have been undertaking for generations.

North Coast Regional Landcare Coordinator Josh Keating said the event and outcomes were a chance to identify opportunities to initiate and strengthen ties between the local Landcare community and Aboriginal groups and organisations.

North Coast Regional Landcare Network RCoP participants viewing coastal fish traps

“Our event was part of our annual Regional Gathering and we weaved together the theme of Working Together: past, present future throughout the event. It was a opportunity to focus on what work has been done in the past between Landcare groups and Aboriginal communities, what is currently being jointly delivered and what we would like to do in the future.

“It was great to see that there is a common goal by participants across the region to embrace the opportunity to learn how we can better work with Aboriginal communities in our local areas. Additionally, at a regional scale, to learn about people’s connection to their country and take those learnings away and inform how we can work with local Aboriginal groups in our area.

“The North Coast Region follows Landcare NSW’s recognition that Aboriginal communities are the original Landcarers and we are all focused on caring for the land, environment and communities in our region and building a sustainable approach to the future.

“One of our strongest outcomes was the acknowledgement that our work will be strengthened with an application for funding put forward for a Regional Aboriginal Engagement Officer who will help local networks and groups connect with relevant groups, organisations or Traditional Owners.

“Both communities have a great opportunity to engage with one another and share one another’s knowledge and experience for mutual learning. The things that Landcare can offer to Aboriginal communities include capacity building and increasing knowledge of technical skills regarding environmental management. Whereas Aboriginal groups can provide cultural knowledge and locally specific information that helps Landcarers understand how they can better manage their land. This will strengthen all our works in supporting our local environment and communities.

“This is one of the most valuable things about community connection; it is about getting people together to connect and seeing how we can evolve from there,” Josh said.

NSW Landcare Program Community Aboriginal Engagement Officer, Craig Aspinall, said the 2021 theme of ‘Healing Country’ and the wider theme of seeking greater protections for our lands, waters, sacred sites and cultural heritage from harm, highlights how Landcare and Aboriginal community organisations have a joint purpose and can grow together to care for country and the communities that live on the land and waters.

“Across the state NSW Landcare groups and community organisations have been working with Aboriginal community organisations with the shared objective to build knowledge and understanding and work for the betterment of our environment. The Working Together Program is just one way Landcare NSW is supporting and connecting with traditional landholders.

“Continuing to grow together through cultural and environmental understanding will ensure that future generations will have the knowledge and understanding of the connection between the health of our environment and our communities and how it is all intertwined,” Craig said.

 

This initiative is made possible by the NSW Landcare Program.
A collaboration between the Local Land Services and Landcare NSW Inc. supported by the NSW Government.

Citizen Science for Summer fun

We love Citizen Science here at HQ, and indeed all across the Landcare landscape, so that’s why we have compiled some great Citizen Science Projects to keep the summer holidays ‘I’m bored’ comments down to a minimum.

StreamWatch & Waterwatch

Waterwatch is a national citizen science program, involving landholders, community groups and schools, and aims to engage communities in monitoring and protecting the health of local waterways.

Streamwater is a citizen science water monitoring program in the Greater Sydney region that enables community groups to monitor the quality and health of local waterways.

Participants can take an active role in monitoring the health of their local catchments by conducting monthly water quality testing and optional seasonal surveys of aquatic macroinvertebrates, to understand and monitor the health of their rivers, and provide quality assured data, which is uploaded to an online database.  With the data they collect, communities can influence the management of their local waterways and take direct action.

If you are in Greater Sydney click here to register your interest

If you are in all other part of NSW click here to register your interest 

WetlandSnap

WetlandSnap is a photopoint monitoring citizen science initiative designed to engage and mobilise communities in public and private areas to capture to help track environmental conditions at wetlands and rivers and how they change over time. Images and spatial information from WetlandSnap sites and one-off snapshots from other sites are intended to be openly available for visualisation, outreach, research, and other purposes.

You will need a camera

To register your interest click here https://wetlandsnap.com/

Hungry Parrots Project

This project helps collect data on the natural & novel diets of wild parrots in Australia, especially in the aftermath of the recent bushfires, when native food supplies are low.

Whenever you see a parrot feeding on something, stop and take a photo! Also take a photo of the food item (i.e. the tree species) and the foraging residue left behind (i.e. the dropped fruit pieces).

You will need: Something to take photos (phone or camera), something to upload the data (phone or computer), a notebook, a GPS

To participate in this project contact Erika Roper at erikamroper@gmail.com

Waterbug Blitz Training Survey

If you are interested in rivers, streams, wetlands, ponds, oxbows or even farm dams, then join the Waterbug Blitz as they figure out how many of Australia’s waterways are in good nick, and how many need a bit more TLC. 

Simply using a net and an app to have a closer look at your local waterways.  By identifying the littler animals (waterbugs) that live in them, you can learn a lot about freshwater ecology, and also how healthy these water bodies are. 

To find out more click here

National FrogID

FrogID is a national citizen science project that is helping the Australian Museum learn more about what is happening to Australia’s frogs. All around the country, people are recording frog calls with nothing more than a smartphone.

Australia has over 240 known species of frog, almost all of which are found nowhere else in the world. Some species are flourishing, like the Striped Marsh Frog. But others have declined dramatically since the 1980s, and four have become extinct.

To get involved click here 

Fairy Wren Project

Do you see fairywrens? Fair Wren Project are looking for citizen scientist partners across Australia to help collect observations of fairywrens and their plumages. Whether you’re a serious twitcher or enjoy seeing fairywrens in your garden, your observations help!

When you see fairywrens, submit an eBird checklist to check how many individuals of each plumage type you saw in the species comments, separating codes with a space:

b = bright male, i = intermediate male, d = dull male, f = female, j = juvenile, u = unknown dull

For more information and the register click here https://fairywrenproject.org/participate/

LANDCARE IN THE TIME OF A PANDEMIC: HOW COVID-19 IS CHANGING THE FACE OF ‘LANDCARE’

‘You’re on mute’ seems to be the catchphrase of 2020, but with a global pandemic restricting activities and gatherings, the method of connecting via online platforms can no longer be restricted to the young or tech-savvy.

With geographic distance between individuals and local groups no longer as big of a challenge for established and new Landcarers, learning new skills on how to care for our environment and community has become more accessible that ever.

Exploring remote Landcare sites via live feeds on Facebook, webinars on the design and installation of nestboxes to help with post bushfire relief and mental health and community support – by migrating online, Landcare communities are continuing to positively impact their local communities and environments.

“Landcarers, like everyone else, have had to become more flexible in their approach to delivering outcomes,” says Landcare NSW CEO, Dr Adrian Zammit.

“Landcarers are resilient and flexible individuals, and despite our current situation limiting on-ground activities, what we’ve seen is individuals looking for new ways to help address all the environmental and social challenges that haven’t changed since COVID-19 started.”

Based in Tenterfield in Northern NSW, Granite Borders Local Landcare Coordinator, Mandy Craig, says online workshops have become a core component of delivering recent activities, meaning landholders in remote areas have access to the same events as those individuals living closer to towns.

“People can just take a break for an hour or so and join the event. It’s not the case of setting aside a day to travel to Tenterfield. Many of our Landcarers live up to, and over, an hour away from town so this is a great way to have a greater geographical reach and connect with farmers from across our region.”

“Online means we can have more training events or activities in a cost-effective way. For example, our most recent event was a book club where we were able to have each author join in our zoom meeting. This would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have authors join us locally.”

Upper Shoalhaven Landcare Local Landcare Coordinator, Rebecca Klomp, agrees saying webinars hosted by experts, as well as online resources, mean that more people can make positive impacts for their local environment and be part of an established community.

“Our webinar on nest box installation with Ecologist Alice McGashen had 30 people take part.  The webinar covered local hollow dwelling species, nest box design and materials, installation and monitoring. We also produced videos on YouTube and downloadable material for people to have at home with nearly 100 nest boxes currently being built.”

“The session was shorter than a face-to-face session and the face-to-face networking that normally happens between landholders was a little different, however everything else ran like a normal workshop with interactive options.” 

“I definitely think we will use online technology more in a combination with face-to-face delivery for our Landcare activities. Of course, the face-to-face connection remains so important and plays a crucial role in sustaining our communities to deliver work so we look forward to that being commonplace again,” Rebecca said.

Community involvement crucial in environmental protection

If you didn’t know where to look, you would hardly notice them. But for those well versed in cane toad’s habits and habitat’s the quest to eradicate the estimated 200 million amphibians seems insurmountable. But you’ll be hard pressed to see that attitude here.

Armed with torches, buckets and good ears to tap into calling toads, volunteers and field workers in the Clarence Valley undertake night-time cane toad surveys across multiple private properties.

Community efforts and collaborations between government and local bodies such as the Clarence Landcare, Clarence Valley Conservation in Action (CVIA) Landcare Group, Department of Primary Industries, NSW Local Land Services and the Office of Environment and Heritage are crucial in helping stop the spread of invasive species.

Local Landcare Coordinator for Clarence Landcare, Debbie Repschlager, says projects such as the community and professional Cane Toad Control and trialling of Cane Toad Detection Dogs, are all tools used in the crucial role of supporting local ecology.

“We are trying to reduce and halt the Southern Front of cane toad migration and it is a big undertaking. The project covers a large area, over 30,000 hectares, with very diverse environments, but for us it’s as much about community participation and education as it is about on-ground work,” Debbie says.

“Since this project began in 2019, we have collected 13,361 mature and juvenile cane toads and 565,232 tadpoles. That’s 578, 593 toxic species removed from the local environment! That is a lot, but there’s a long road ahead of us.”

With females being able to produce between 8,000 – 35,000 eggs at a time, usually breeding twice a year and few predators to control the population, the job at hand is a long-term approach.

“It’s what we do” says Debbie.

“Landcare is about a long-term approach and thankfully we are supported in our endeavours. With this project we worked with Border Ranges Richmond Valley Landcare Network and the Office of Environment and Heritage. We share information, resources and landholder contact details in overlapping areas. There’s no such thing as borders with invasive species and it takes a strategic community approach to deal with them.”

The economic cost of invasive species in Australia is large. A study published in 2016 (using data from 2011/12) found the combined estimated cost of invasive species was $13.6 billion in the 2011-12 financial year. In 2019, the Invasive Species Council of Australia released a paper advising that an estimated $155 million over just five years would be needed to deal with invasive species in Australia.

Landcare NSW CEO, Dr Adrian Zammit is not surprised.

“The cost of invasive species to our economy and ecology is not to be underestimated. You have incredibly delicate ecosystems versus thousands of different invasive species who see opportunity and jump on it. These are animals, birds, plants, insects and other invertebrates, fungi, parasites and marine creatures. There’s thousands of them killing off our native species who have few, if no, defences against them.”

But we are not without hope.

“In the NSW Landcare network alone you have citizen scientists, industry leaders and the average concerned landcarer dealing with them. They are upskilling and educating themselves in best practice and management.

“Our Landcare groups work within all borders, both local and state, to ensure that vulnerable species are supported and maintained. Each region may have its own unique problems, but they joined in being a network of dedicated individuals and communities that want to see their native environment survive and thrive.

NSW Landcare Program Manager Natasha English agrees, saying that all groups, regardless of their location, are on the forefront on invasive species management.

“Every one of our Landcare groups across NSW are dealing with pests and weeds. From the madeira vine to feral cat and dog control, they are part of a strategic approach, working with government agencies to tackle a wide range of bio-security threats. With bushfires, droughts and flood exacerbating pest control through the migration of species you’ve got to work towards being responsive to each challenge and I believe we are doing just that.”

Image courtesy of Clarence Landcare – Cane Toad Control –