Flora and Fauna Survey and Research

Graeme Suckling (bio)

In the early 1970s the FCV initiated critically important flora and fauna survey work. This was a response to concerns about the potential for loss of biodiversity due to clearing native forests to establish pine plantations. This article describes a young forestry graduates' experiences in flora and fauna survey, and associated research work, for the FCV.

See also FCV Bulletin 24

New Era

A New Era Begins

I graduated from the Victorian School of Forestry in 1968 and was posted to work with the Research Branch in Melbourne. My responsibilities mainly involved measurement of various field trials, particularly growth trials established by John Jack as part of his MSc research into woody weeds in young Pinus radiata plantations.

After completing a year in the Research Branch and successfully completing a chemistry refresher course I commenced study leave to attend the University of Melbourne during 1970 and 1971.

Towards the end of my second year at the University I spoke with respected FCV researcher, Brian Gibson, about areas of work he believed would be of significant relevance over the short to medium term. Brian identified wildlife and forestry economics as two critically important areas.

Armed with this information I met with Dr Fred Craig to advise him of my keen interest in wildlife research, and to request that I be considered if any opportunities for such work were to arise. But when I finished my university studies the Commission advised me I was to be posted to the Maffra District, and I promptly made all the arrangements to relocate to Briagolong. My wife and I had moved into our new accommodation and just finished unpacking when I received a telephone call from Dr Craig.

Fred was calling to advise of a new position being established in Myrtleford to undertake wildlife surveys in pine plantations, and offered me the role of coordinator, with specific responsibility for mammal research. Although I was disappointed to be leaving my first District role even before it had started, I was excited by the prospect of a new challenge in an area I had been keenly interested in since my childhood. So across the Alps and off to Myrtleford it was.

The FCV had initiated the program of biological surveys in plantations of P. radiata in North Eastern Victoria because of mounting pressure through persistent allegations that pine plantations were “biological deserts”. A detailed analysis of the biodiversity conservation arguments, as well as the economic arguments, was published during 1973 (“The Fight for the Forests”, written by Richard and Valerie Routley). While this work appeared after our survey work had commenced, the publication provided a framework against which we were able to check the design of our study, analyse our results and ultimately present our findings.

The initial survey work could be said to be a relatively low budget project aimed at documenting the species of native mammals, birds, plants and insects which were able to adapt to life in pine plantations. The work was overseen by Dr Fred Craig of the Research Branch and a small team, with me as coordinator, was based in Myrtleford.

I was supported by a competent and enthusiastic young amateur naturalist from the Otway Ranges, Leon Stephens, who was employed as the project’s Technical Assistant. Eli Backen, a forester with extensive knowledge of Victoria’s bird species, was also employed full-time on the project and was also based in Myrtleford. Eli conducted extensive ornithological survey work, as well as some detailed research, the latter unfortunately never being published because of his untimely death.

Detailed entomological work was conducted by Fred Neumann and John “Basher” Harris, who were based in Melbourne and travelled to northeast Victoria for a series of regular seasonal surveys. These surveys produced extensive data on the species of invertebrates in the project’s study areas which represented native forest (Long Corner Creek); young (less than ten years old first rotation) P.radiata plantations (Running Creek); approximately 20 year old first rotation P.radiata plantations (Slaughteryard Creek); and mature (greater than 35 year first rotation) P.radiata plantations in the Ovens Valley.

Various FCV personnel assisted with the design and interpretation of the surveys during the life of the project, which extended from late 1971 to late 1975. In particular, Arnis Heislers, who had accumulated extensive knowledge of mammal research through detailed studies of the effects of fire on mammals, was a valuable resource for the mammal survey work.

The early mammal work encountered a significant problem, in the form of a visit from a local Fisheries and Wildlife Officer to interview me about illegal trapping of wildlife. Apparently the trapping permit had been applied for and was supposed to be issued soon, but had not come through by the time we started to get some local media about the project.

Fisheries and Wildlife was opposed to the project, believing they should have been funded by the FCV to undertake the work. This was all sorted out at higher levels and did not cause further problems, although the relationship between our survey team and some Fisheries and Wildlife personnel remained frosty for several years.

Another problem we encountered was the 1974 floods, which came unexpectedly while our mammal traps were set in the Long Corner Creek native forest study area. I was living in a rented house at Whorouly in the Ovens Valley at that time and one morning I was greeted by extensive flooding with our house being surrounded by water for as far as one could see.

Fortunately I had taken Don Thomson’s short wheel base Toyota home, but it was still a harrowing adventure getting to Long Corner Creek via back routes, necessitated because various bridge approaches on the main roads had been washed away. I made it by negotiating steep slippery tracks in a plantation and fording floodwaters which must have been over a metre deep and extended for many hundreds of metres. It was a bit reckless and certainly dangerous, but to have left the traps set and unchecked for an extended period would have risked the lives of our study animals and jeopardised our results.

For many field staff in the FCV at that time, the surveys may have been considered to have been a waste of time and money. This was because their observations of various native mammals (such as grey kangaroos, swamp wallabies and common wombats) regularly found in relatively large numbers in at least some plantations, appeared to make a lie of the “biological desert” tag.

But the published results of the ground-breaking biological surveys confirmed the diversity of mammal, bird and invertebrate species in all the radiata pine study areas was substantially simplified when compared with the native forest study area.

Although very young plantations were found to contain good populations of some native mammals, such as brown antechinus, bush rats, swamp wallabies and wombats, this appeared to be a result of the relatively dense native vegetation which had regenerated on the site and continued to grow until overshadowed by the pines by the time plantations were 15 to 20 years old.

The absence of a tall canopy of eucalypts, as well as the absence of the abundant tree hollows found in native forests, meant that habitat for most possums and gliding mammals did not occur in any of the radiata pine study areas. However, some of these arboreal mammals were found in corridors of riparian vegetation where these had been left uncleared along watercourses.

Many bird species were also missing from the P.radiata study areas, and once again, age of the plantation was an important factor in determining the suitability of habitat for various species. For example, the more open areas in the mature pine plantations in the Ovens Valley allowed some native understorey plants to thrive, particularly in creek gullies and along roadsides.

Interestingly, unpublished work conducted by Eli Backen in these older plantations, which involved mapping and monitoring of individual nests of species such as Blue wrens and White browed scrub wrens, showed there were very high rates of mortality of both eggs and/or young birds. The mortality was found to be the result of predation by resident Pied Currawongs, which were thought to have been able to readily locate the nests by observing the behaviour of the breeding birds in the relatively open environment of a mature pine plantation.

It was clear from the survey work that plantations of radiata pine were not “biological deserts”. But it was also clear that conversion of large areas of native eucalypt forests to pine plantations in North Eastern Victoria was having a measureable impact on the biodiversity of the region.

For me there were two significant conclusions arising from this survey work conducted at an early stage of my career:

  •  if the FCV was to achieve credibility for its work on vertebrate fauna in pine plantations (or indeed any other studies of the impacts of forestry operations on vertebrates), the studies needed to be conducted by appropriately qualified people. This meant that if I was to continue to be involved in this work I needed to invest in some appropriate post-graduate training in a relevant discipline.
  •  because the surveys had clearly demonstrated the value of remnant native vegetation, such as along riparian zones and on slopes too steep to clear, for providing habitat for species which would otherwise have disappeared from the study region, further research was required to identify the optimum size and configuration of retained areas within managed forests (relevant to both native areas and plantations)

Island Studies

Why are Studies of Island Biography Relevant to Conserving Biodiversity in Plantations?

Towards the end of the survey program in North Eastern Victoria, I started to make inquiries about obtaining study leave to undertake post graduate research in zoology. I decided this work would best be undertaken at Monash University and eventually managed to persuade the Commission that this was a wise course of action. At that time, in the early 70’s, Monash still had a reputation for radical student protests and was not seen as being as reputable as the long-established University of Melbourne.

As it turned out, Monash and the University of Sydney were the two leading tertiary research institutions sponsoring studies of vertebrate ecology from that period into the early 80’s, so Monash was an excellent place from which to conduct my research.

But it was not an easy road. For a start, a Forestry graduate had to prove `his suitability to undertake post graduate studies in zoology by completing a modified Honours Degree in that field. This was essentially an Honours Degree without a project or thesis – but it required the successful completion of various course work, including a unit titled “Population Ecology” delivered by the late Associate Professor Doug Dorward.

I completed this zoological work while simultaneously completing publication of the Radiata pine biological survey work. Fortunately, I was highly motivated to succeed in zoology and passed all of the required units, achieving a High Distinction in Population Ecology.

Now the stage was set for commencement of a Master of Science project on the survival of mammal species in remnant areas of forest. With assistance from the FCV, I was able to find a suitable 82,000 hectare study region in south west Gippsland through support from APM Forests, who also provided a caravan for accommodation during field work, and importantly, local assistance from experienced Plantation Foreman and local farmer Ned Missen.

Ned introduced me to local property owners and a study portfolio of 59 isolates of forest, situated on both private land and public land, and varying in size from about 0.5 hectares up to over 2,000 ha, (as well as some larger areas for which mammal species data already existed) was soon identified. The study areas were situated in landscapes formed by clearing for agriculture and pine plantations. Some of the areas were tenuously connected to other remnants by roadside and other vegetation corridors.

So how did this research plan arise? Through early contact with project supervisor Associate Professor Tony Lee at Monash University, as well as through my zoological course work at Monash, I became familiar with (and fascinated by) research into various plant and animal groups on oceanic islands. The research was conducted by many world-renowned scientists and was extensive with respect to the parts of the world where it had been conducted as well as the animal groups studied.

Interestingly, irrespective of where the work was conducted, or the group of plants or animals being investigated, the number of species in that group (species richness) could reliably be predicted from the relationship between the logarithm of the area of the island and the number of species each island contained. That is, a regression analysis of the number of mammal (or bird or reptile etc) species found on islands of different sizes would more often than not show a straight line relationship with the logarithm of the area of the islands studied. Such regressions commonly explained over 80 percent of the variation on the number of species found on the islands.

Armed with this information, I set out to discover if there was a relationship between the size of a remnant area of forest and the number of mammal species it could be expected to contain in my south Gippsland study area. But in my study the remnants (or “isolates”) were not separated by water; instead they were separated by a “sea” of farmland and/or pine plantations.

I was confident that the size of the remnant area would be a valuable predictor of the number of mammal species it contained, but was also confident that vegetation type, plant diversity and structure, as well as logging, burning and grazing history, were likely to have significant impacts on mammal species richness.

The work commenced on schedule and a sampling plan was developed for each study area, depending on its size. The plan allocated a number of vegetation sampling sites, intensity of small mammal trapping (“trap nights”), hours spent searching for mammals by spotlight and a regime for stationary sampling using “hair sampling tubes” (a technique I developed during my studies - see reference 1 below).

Information on observations of mammal species was also gathered by interviewing local landholders and searching relevant literature, both for contemporary information, as well as historic information on mammal species which had been located, or had previously been known to inhabit the study region. Several of my older landholders died during the study, but I was fortunate to obtain some very relevant information from the childhood memories of these older residents while they were still able to recall details (such as the vivid image of quolls sunning themselves on old log fences as the horse-drawn carts rolled by.)

While study leave to undertake postgraduate training might seem to be a soft option compared to the cut and thrust of public service life, the work proved to be a very tough slog. For example I had been accustomed to working with at least one other person during field studies, usually including a Technical Assistant. I was also accustomed to having the cost of accommodation and meals covered by the relevant allowance when I was away, or just going home for dinner if I was working nearby.

But my postgraduate research was largely conducted alone and I had only a caravan for my accommodation. I provided my own food and cooked my own meals and put in very long hours, during the day and again at night. At times it felt extremely lonely to be away from my family and sometimes I wondered if I would have the stamina to get through the long years of study.

Fortunately, as if by divine intervention, in the early days of my research I found a stray Border Collie living in dumped car in one of my study areas. I bought him food and coaxed him out of the car and we were soon great mates. He accompanied me on my nightly spotlight walks and sometimes even found mammals for me, such as an echidna he would sniff out or a brush-tailed possum he would frighten up a tree where I could see it!


PhD Studies Incorporate Survival of Mammals in the Region, with a Specific Study of Survival of the Sugar Glider in Fragmented Forest

During the survey work I made a surprising discovery – the Sugar Glider, previously described by CSIRO researchers as a “Forest Dependant Resident” which could be expected to require a protected habitat area of around 5,000 ha, was regularly found in isolated forest areas as small as 0.5 ha.

In seeking to learn more about this species, which had never been the subject of any formal capture-mark-recapture study, I set traps up trees using a ladder and spread diluted honey on nearby branches as an attractant. This methodology proved to be a spectacular success and an application was lodged to convert my existing MSc research to a PhD thesis and funding was sought via a Commonwealth Forestry Postgraduate Award.

The funding application was successful and the PhD study commenced. Over a period of thirty-one months of intensive research I was able to capture and tag 120 individual Sugar Gliders within a 20 ha study area of fragmented forest on farmland and along a roadside vegetation corridor. A combination of two tags in the ear of each of the gliders (males in the right ear, females in the left), each marked with colour coded reflective tape, enabled tagged gliders to be readily identified by spotlight at night.

Individual gliders were captured a total of 1650 times during the study and were also observed about 850 times by spotlight. A key finding of the study was that population densities of gliders were strongly correlated with the density of black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), the sap of which provided an important autumn and winter food source. I was able to amass an unprecedented level of information on the species. Details of my findings on sugar gliders were published in 1984 (see reference 2 below).

The mammal studies in my “islands” of forest habitat showed that around 86 percent of mammal species richness was explained by the logarithm of the area of the isolate. Although I spent a great deal of time trying to establish a link between mammal species richness and other indices, such as measures of vegetation density and structure, plant groupings, and history of logging, grazing and burning, no index showed any consistent value as a predictor of mammal species numbers.

In addition to my PhD Thesis, other results of my work were published in “Australian Forestry” in 1982 (see reference 3 below). To my great embarrassment, a mistake in the Summary for this paper was not picked up during editing, and the conclusion that “short-term conservation of mammal species could be achieved by retaining a system of 20 000 ha reserves representing all habitat types in the region”, was actually a typographical error. It should have read 2,000 ha, as would be evident from reading the data presented in the paper.

Both the broader mammal conservation research and the specific work on sugar gliders strongly confirmed the value of linking corridors between larger habitat areas, at least for some mammals, particularly arboreal species such as gliders and possums.


Life in an Academic Institution 

Although I was still relatively young when I attended Monash University, I had nevertheless worked full time for over five years as a public servant and had a clear perspective that I had a job to do and needed to work steadily at the many tasks I had to complete during my allocated study leave. Hence I was surprised to see some PhD students (who presumably had never worked anywhere other than at university), saunter in at around 10 am, often do very little work of any consequence, and wander off again by around mid-afternoon.

I had a very enjoyable and productive time at Monash and am extremely grateful to the FCV for providing me with that opportunity. But I always saw my postgraduate days at Monash as being served out in an artificial environment which was nothing like the real world – recognising that many people would not see the public service as the real world either.

The Zoology Department of Monash University was on the crest of a wave while I was there and we regularly had visiting overseas academics on campus. Most of these people had extensive zoological research experience and many were valuable sounding boards as my research progressed and I started to write the papers arising out of this work.

Almost every field trip produced new and interesting information and I was always eager to catch up with a visiting academic at morning or afternoon tea, which seemed to be attended by the whole Department on a regular basis, to discuss my results and potential future directions with my project.

My lecturer in Population Ecology, the late Doug Dorward, used to say that a PhD student in zoology had something in common with an Olympic gold medallist. This was because at the time you were doing your PhD on your species of animal, there was no-one else in the world who knew as much about that species as you did – you were at the pinnacle of knowledge for that species on a world scale.

I imagine that if your species was some type of parasite inhabiting the intestines of feral pigs, the level of interest from the general public would not be high. But I was fortunate enough to be working on an engaging and attractive gliding mammal species which many people had also kept in captivity as pets.

I must admit that it did feel special to be invited to write the species description for the Sugar Glider in the first edition of the Complete Book of Australian Mammals. I have since written the revised description for two subsequent versions of the book, as well as for a shorter field companion volume on the same subject. I recently submitted a further revised description of the Sugar Glider for the fourth edition of this publication, which is probably scheduled to be published some time during 2019.

During my field studies I hosted visits to my sugar glider site by visiting academics and their families, proudly showing them how these charming little animals would glide off between the trees upon release from my traps.

I co-authored a paper on the field energetics and water balance of sugar gliders with a visiting researcher from the Department of Nuclear Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles (Dr Ken Nagy) and I provided opportunities for the ABC to film gliders actually gliding in the wild. This footage has also been used by the BBC and has probably been seen by millions of people around the world.

My PhD research, along with research being conducted concurrently by two other Monash PhD students (Andrew Smith and Mike Fleming) was featured in a chapter titled “Investigating the living world” in a biological science text book published around the early 1980s, and will have been seen by thousands of biology students from that era.

I believe I can state with some confidence that my work at Monash enabled me to establish my credibility, as well as the credibility of the FCV in the area of mammal conservation research. The work also developed a significantly improved understanding of how the Commission could achieve improved wildlife conservation outcomes in managed native forests and plantations.


Back to Reality in the FCV

When I finished my period of study leave it was time to get back to work with the Commission and build on the work that I had done, as was well as the work of other biologists who had by then been employed.

The Ecological Studies Group was formed and we were based at the Mountain Forest Research Station (MFRS) in Sherbrooke Forest. I was appointed to the role of Manager of the group and my professional staff included Richard Loyn, Malcolm MacFarlane and Evan Chesterfield.

We conducted various research and survey work and further enhanced the understanding of conservation of forest mammals, birds and vegetation. We also spent time with field operatives such as overseers and bulldozer drivers, believing that it was important for these operators to be aware of why protection of habitat was important.

We even did some collaborative work with Fisheries and Wildlife researchers from the Arthur Rylah Institute and we played a key role in the establishment of the first national Forest Wildlife Research Group. I was the inaugural Chair of that group and we participated in productive meetings of forest wildlife researchers from around the country.

But there was significant change in the air and the election of a new Labor Government in 1983 turned our world upside down.

I had a visit from our new Minister the Hon Rod McKenzie and his adviser Russell Joiner at MFRS during which they asked me what additional resources we would need if we were to conduct surveys in “new logging areas” to identify and allow the protection of significant habitat areas for birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and plants (and later also aquatic fauna as I recall).

After doing some rough calculations I advised the Minister we would need $150,000, although I can’t remember how I arrived at that figure. Imagine my surprise when a few months later Russell Joiner telephoned to say they had the money and to ask when we could start work.

Apparently the money was retrieved from unexpended funds in the Tree Growing Assistance Scheme, which was flush with cash because few farmers had planted any trees during the 1983 drought.

We set to work, initially employing eight suitably qualified biologists. We purchased bat traps, ground mammal traps, a purpose-built survey caravan, generators, spotlights and various other items of equipment. Additional vehicles were made available out of the FCV pool and our work commenced in the summer of 1983/1984.

Our initial study areas were in East Gippsland and included the Rodger River block, a magnificent forest area adjacent to the Snowy River National Park. Despite the successful gathering of data from various areas, it turned out that only the Rodger River block data was of any value at the time. This was because all of the other study areas were essentially reduced to ash during the major fires of that summer.

Despite this setback, the Rodger River block turned out to be a valuable case study regarding how the system of surveys and negotiation on areas to be reserved from logging would work. Many new species records were made during the survey and specific areas containing habitat for sensitive species were earmarked for protection, should logging ever occur.

As far as I am aware, the Rodger block was never logged. But the system we developed for conducting surveys and identifying habitat areas worthy of protection from logging continued on for many years.


A New “Mega” Department

Further significant disruption of the work of the MFRS Ecological Studies Group resulted from the then Government’s merging and regionalisation of various Departments responsible for land management in Victoria. This was a major upheaval and resulted in the FCV becoming part of the new Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands.

My efforts to ensure the Commission’s flora and fauna research was credible no longer seemed to be quite as relevant, although it continued to be critically important for foresters and scientists with specific knowledge of forest management to be involved in such work.

Early in the re-structuring process I was seconded to the Implementation Task Force working with Peter Langley and his team to help implement the massive changes taking place. The forestry profession played a major role in the implementation as well as in the management of key elements of the new department, but for many older Commission personnel, life would never be the same.

I saw an opportunity to work in one of the Assistant Regional Manager Resource Conservation roles, and during 1985 I left MFRS to take up that position in the Geelong Region of the new Department. I had little involvement on how wildlife research and survey work was conducted within the Department from that time onwards.

It was certainly an interesting experience to be involved in trying to incorporate research findings into management practice. Briefly, it was often frustrating trying to get a researcher to commit to a particular course of action, because of all the scientific uncertainties associated with interpreting the results of specific studies. In my opinion managers generally needed timely advice on the most effective way to achieve particular outcomes, while some researchers seemed to be more interested in the science than what it all meant for management.

This experience, and many other experiences during my professional working life, taught me the importance of “walking a mile in another person’s shoes”.



A Legacy of Forest Wildlife Surveys and Research

Since the 1970s forest wildlife research has advanced considerably. Around the same time I was conducting my PhD research, as well as since that time, various other researchers have undertaken new and comprehensive research on arboreal forest species including Leadbeater’s possum, the Greater Glider, the Yellow bellied Glider, the Squirrel Glider, the Feathertail Glider and the Pigmy Possum.

In addition, CSIRO have conducted ground-breaking research on the relationship between nutrients in eucalypt foliage and the abundance of arboreal mammals in woodchipped areas in New South Wales. When considered as a whole, this body of research has advanced Australia’s knowledge of arboreal forest wildlife, and therefore the management strategies that are likely to ensure habitats are maintained for this important group of Australian forest fauna.

Yet since the 1980s we have seen the discovery of new forest / woodland-dwelling species such as a new glider in Queensland (the Mahogany Glider, Petaurus gracilis) and a new species is in the process of being described in the Northern Territory (this species was previously thought to be a Sugar Glider but has now been proven to be genetically distinct).

In my opinion, such discoveries reinforce the importance of maintaining healthy biodiversity in the nation’s forest estate. I was therefore pleased to learn that the importance of retained habitat, linked by suitable vegetation corridors, has been recognised by forest and plantation managers in the Strzelecki Ranges in Victoria (the “Cores and Links” program).

There is still a great deal of work to be done on forest biodiversity conservation, and it must be recognised that many native wildlife species have highly specific habitat needs, such as certain successional stages of native forest following fire. Providing for the needs of such species no doubt represents a significant challenge to forest managers.

I hope researchers will continue to conduct relevant studies, working in close association with forest managers, to further enrich our knowledge of forest wildlife and develop effective management strategies for various species in the future. I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to dedicate a significant part of my career to research into forest wildlife and management of forests to help conserve their biodiversity.

Selected References:

1. Suckling, GC (1978). A Hair Sampling Tube for the detection of small mammals in trees. Aust Wildl. Res. 5(2: 249 – 252.
2. Suckling, GC. (1984). Population ecology of the sugar glider, Petaurus breviceps, in a system of fragmented habitats. Aust Wildl. Res. 11: 49 – 75.
3. Suckling, G.C. (1982). Value of reserved habitat for mammal conservation in plantations. Aust Forestry 45: 19 – 27.