Explaining Ecological Communities

Many different types of ecological communities exist within the Southern Highlands. It is important that people understand what an ecological community is as many of Wingecarribee Shire’s ecological communities are classified as endangered by either the State or Federal Government and are protected by law.

An ecological community is defined as a group of actually or potentially interacting species living in the same place. An ecological community includes all organisms that occur within an area. Plants, animals, soil organisms, bacteria etc. are all included.

Fifty ecological communities have been identified in the southern highlands by Wingecarribee Shire Council in their 2003 Biodiversity Study. Seven of these are classified as endangered. Hefty fines and possible imprisonment can result if anyone harms protected or endangered fauna and flora or any endangered ecological community. A licence under S ection 91 of the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and or section 132C of National Parks and Wlldlife Act 1974 is required for any action that may threaten or harm an endangered ecological community.

Ivy climbing up Eucalypts in an EEC

Most southern highlands ecological communities are recognized by their soil type and the plant species that occur within the community.

The predominant endangered ecological community in the southern highlands is the “Southern Highlands Shale Woodlands Community” This community is found on clay soils derived from wianamatta shale and may exist as tall open forest, grassy woodland or scrub. Tree species such as Mountain Grey Gum, Narrow Leaf Peppermint, Swamp Gum, Snow Gum, White Top Box, Grey Gum and Cabbage Gum are common.

Another endangered community is the Robertson Basalt Tall Open-forest. This community is found on the rich soils derived from basalt. Common tree species include Mountain Grey Gum, Brown Barrel, Narrow Leaf Peppermint, Manna Gum and Blackwood.

Another endangered community is the Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest. This community is commonly found on sandy soils intergraded with clay. Fire can be frequent with common tree species being Grey Gum, Gully Gum, Brittle Gum and the White Stringybark.

These endangered communities represent over 50% of the total land area in the shire. Given the widespread distribution and abundance of endangered ecological communities, clear guidelines should be available from our Council and the Department of Climate Change as to identifying these communities and what activities can or cannot be undertaken within them.

Failure to act within the law (unknowingly by some – remember ignorance of the law is no excuse) has led to a member of our community being fined over $100,000 for undertaking for what in the past he considered was standard practice of reducing undergrowth and saplings on a residential development site.

Another more recent incident of note is the alleged poisoning of trees by so-called vigilantes in one of our public parks. My understanding of this incident is that community volunteers were undertaking thinning of feral (not planted) and unsafe exotic trees in a public park that is classified as an endangered ecological community. Were these community volunteers undertaking activities designed to reduce a threatening process impacting on the ecological community and the endangered plants within the park?

Agapanthus spreading into bushland

In response to the emotional outcry to this incident by some of our local councilors, the local press and some traditional highland gardeners I suggest they study the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 and the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts 2006 – Significant Impact Guidelines when assessing impacts on endangered ecological communities and legal obligations.

Knowledge on State environmental legislation is also necessary. Further bedtime reading should therefore include the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and the Protection of Environment Operations 1997.

Many grey areas exist within the law. Many legal responsibilities may be financially in the “tell them they’re dreaming” world. Our local and state government are the major landholders in our shire and have a responsibility to preserve and protect our natural heritage. Leading the way with clear guidelines to the community and management plans for all endangered communities under their control would assist in reducing stress and conflict within the community.

Australia is home to between 600,000 and 700,000 species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Australia also has the dubious record number of extinct species compared to any other nation.

Protecting and enhancing natural ecological communities makes sense in today’s world.

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