Analysis

The Secret Woodlands That Safeguard Australia’s Threatened Birds

The Great Western Woodlands are among the last expansive habitats where native birds can thrive

Great Western Woodlands© The Pew Charitable Trusts

The Great Western Woodlands are the only large, temperate woodlands in Australia where bird numbers are known to be stable, and they are also a botanical hotspot that’s home to more than 20 per cent of Australia’s plant species.

The Great Western Woodlands—a vast tract of ancient salt lakes, mallee and tall eucalypts—may be the last forest in Australia where native birds are not in sharp decline.

A new study by BirdLife Australia and The Nature Conservancy found that: “The majority of species in the Great Western Woodlands showed stable population trends,” whereas in other Australian woodlands between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of birds have suffered “significant population decline.”

At 16 million hectares—an area larger than all of England—the Great Western Woodlands are the largest remaining intact temperate woodlands in the world. The expansive area stretches from the edge of the Western Australian wheatbelt north to Kalgoorlie and east to the Nullarbor Plain. 

This healthy native habitat is pivotal for birds, largely due to its proportions and relative intactness. The BirdLife report calls its size “the single most important asset of the Great Western Woodlands, which has resulted in this stability [for birds].”

Most birds in the woodlands are nomads and migrants, moving across the region and the surrounding areas to find water and food, especially nectar on flowering trees. Nomadism is an important survival strategy in Australia’s dry environment.

The study found that nomadic birds like the purple-crowned lorikeet and white-fronted honeyeater moved in unpredictable ways, with individuals “almost entirely absent from the Great Western Woodlands at certain times, in all areas at other times, and often in just one part of the region.”

Fewer threatened birds were found in damaged parts of the Great Western Woodlands, especially areas that were logged or near livestock watering points.

Despite their significance, only small parts of the Great Western Woodlands are formally protected. Existing mining and exploration tenements occupy more than 60 per cent of the woodlands, and uncontrolled fire and human disturbances are ongoing threats in many areas.

Over 90 per cent of temperate woodlands have been cleared in the Western Australian wheatbelt, where half of all woodland birds (49 per cent of species) have declined since 1900. Bird numbers and diversity are also falling in south-east Australia’s cleared woodlands.

The Great Western Woodlands are the only large, temperate woodlands in Australia where bird numbers are known to be stable, and they are also a botanical hotspot that’s home to more than 20 per cent of Australia’s plant species.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is a long-term supporter of conservation in the Great Western Woodlands through its partnership with Gondwana Link, which has been working with the region’s traditional Ngadju owners for the past seven years. In 2014, Ngadju were granted exclusive possession native title over approximately 4.6 million hectares of the Great Western Woodlands.

In partnership with Ngadju Conservation, a conservation action plan has been developed to identify land management priorities and threats within the native title area. A Ngadju Ranger program has been established in Norseman, supported by a local mentor employed by Gondwana Link.

These initiatives will help to ensure that the cultural and natural heritage of the Great Western Woodlands is protected for future generations to enjoy.

The BirdLife report concluded that: “The experience in the Western Australian wheatbelt and elsewhere has taught us that many woodland birds struggle to survive in a fragmented landscape. … Maintaining a large, intact, and well-managed woodlands is vital to ensure the ongoing viability of these species in Western Australia.”

These findings support one of Pew’s key messages on the Outback: Protecting large, intact areas of undisturbed habitat is the best way to preserve Australia’s unique natural heritage.

Barry Traill directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Outback to Oceans program, and Ian Lunt is Pew’s Outback science consultant.

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