Land regeneration
– Practical survival tips

There are strategies that all property managers can adopt to mitigate the harsh effects of climate change and inappropriate land usage, according to members of The Mulloon Institute, a not-for-profit land management and research organisation in NSW. John Power reports.

By using land hydration and re-vegetation strategies, a section of Mulloon Creek has been transformed from an eyesore to an oasis. Shown here in 2015.

Australia’s climate is becoming harsher, burdened by greater temperature extremes, longer and severer weather events, and unprecedented stresses on soils and vegetation. Combined with nearly two centuries of land degeneration due to unsustainable and inappropriate land use, it is plain to see that the threats facing entire ecosystems are both powerful and entrenched.

Before: The section of Mulloon Creek in 1977.

Many of Australia’s landscapes, particularly large-scale agricultural and farming properties, have become wastelands in recent years – stripped of vegetation, scarred by dead creekbeds, and transformed into sterile dustbowls; even apparently healthy properties have only remained ‘viable’ with costly additives and interventions. 

Meantime, smaller properties like urban reserves and sporting and recreation precincts have become increasingly difficult to maintain, with traditional caretaking practices losing potency under the strain of higher temperatures and ‘feast or famine’ rainfall.

For almost 15 years The Mulloon Institute has been refining methodologies to bring Australia’s degraded landscapes back to life – and all property managers can learn from this work.

Prior to European settlement, most Australian landscapes had naturally healthy and well-hydrated soils due to heavy vegetation groundcover, limited continuous exploitation, and more complex protective ecologies and microclimates. The Mulloon Institute’s management policies reflect a respect for these more natural environmental states.

The Institute’s programs began in earnest in 2005 when landowner Tony Coote AM (dec.) and his wife Toni (dec.) decided to restore their rural property along Mulloon Creek, Bungendore, NSW, with the help of renowned landscape restorer Peter Andrews OAM. Peter is respected internationally for his natural sequence farming (NSF) practices and allied organic land regeneration techniques. Today the nucleus of the Institute’s activities is the ‘Mulloon Community Landscape Rehydration Project’, which is a land regeneration program that has grown to comprise 20 neighbouring land holdings with the 23,000 ha Mulloon catchment. Results have been spectacular, with productivity, health and resilience beginning to return. The Institute is also expanding its work to address land degradation throughout Australia, and the organisation has even started its own consultancy service – Mulloon Consulting, Contracting & Certifying (MCCC) – to help landowners and farmer groups restore their own properties and catchments.

“Importantly, the principles we’ve adopted at The Mulloon Institute have practical applications in all kinds of managed landscapes, regardless of location, topography or size,” The Mulloon Institute Chairman, Gary Nairn said.

The Institute’s land management principles – whether applied to golf courses and botanic gardens or racecourses, farms or civic reserves – can help property managers fortify their land against severe weather conditions associated with climate change, and remedy many of the faults attributable to inappropriate land useage.

What are these broad principles? As we will describe in greater detail below, the Institute’s main landscape restoration strategies are interlinked and focus on commonsense initiatives, such as: increased soil hydration and water capture; planting more leafy vegetation; collecting and redistributing biomass on site; and using the natural contours of the land to demarcate appropriate divisions of replenishment, production and recovery.

‘DE-ENERGISING’ WATER

Perhaps the most fundamental of the above points is good hydration, which underpins all landscape health.

“All land drains in some way – there are always falls and rises – and the principle around water management is really about taking the energy out of the water, slowing it down, and allowing it to do its job in the landscape more effectively,” Mr Nairn said.

The idea of slowing down water flow and seepage applies to all landscapes featuring creeks and watercourses, as one might expect, but it also applies to other terrains that have no obvious water catchments at all. This is because all landscapes, including apparently ‘flat’ properties like sports fields, still have dynamic drainage characteristics based on gravity, small undulations, as well as uneven topographical features.

“When you’ve got fast water runaway, whether it’s flowing down an incised creek or running off a very bare surface like a grassy slope, you lose most of that water even if there’s a large downpour,” Mr Nairn explained. “Whereas if you take the energy out of it, the water works its way into the landscape and stays there for weeks or even months.”

Techniques for ‘de-energising’ water flows are largely self-sustaining once implemented, and quickly help restore more complex natural habitats.

Let us take the example of a degraded creek, which might be dry for much of the year, but subject to torrential flows during episodic storms. Signs of damage will be obvious: mostly linear routes, denuded banks, deep channels, as well as desiccated adjoining soils. “Torrential flows might look impressive but the water is effectively wasted – practically none of that fast-moving water penetrates the soil,” Mr Nairn said. Rectification works, he suggested, might begin with the installation of small ‘leaky weirs’ or revet-style tributaries along the length of the creek. These deltaic digressions serve to inhibit flows, raise water levels, and facilitate soil hydration over swathes of adjoining land.

“The water level in a creek is generally equivalent to the water level in the ground adjoining it, which provides an opportunity for increased fertility and ground coverage, which in turn increases the amount of water you gain.” 

Contrary to intuition, slow-moving water and increased vegetation levels do not block flows to downstream properties; indeed, research along Mulloon Creek has shown that the landscapes, once saturated, permit far more consistent and reliable flows downstream, even during drought conditions.

What if there are no creeks on a property? What steps can a land manager take to trap, collect and ‘bank’ rainwater? Mr Nairn said there are plenty of techniques to enhance soil hydration in paddocks, reserves, gardens and similar properties, without spending a fortune on building dams or ponds. The first step is to “read the landscape”, he said, and use the natural contours of the land to inform gravity-based solutions. This might entail the creation of horizontal terraces or garden beds along upper slopes to interrupt and trap water flows. Similarly, horizontal plowing and even coarse scarification of sloping landscapes can inhibit water runoff. What about highly manicured properties like golf courses? Mr Nairn  concedes that no one would advocate plowing up the turf in the middle of a fairway! However, a ‘mosaic’ approach to rectification works might prioritise the horizontal terracing of inactive parts of a golf course, including borders and non-playing spaces, or introduce lateral mowing and light scarification regimes in intermediate zones like roughs. Such simple techniques can rejuvenate the wider landscape, minimise low-lying flooding, and reduce irrigation loads.

Once hydration has been improved, the natural consequence, Mr Nairn said, is improved plant life.

Before and after: the difference is stark between the Triple Ponds landscape, Mulloon Creek, shown here in 2006.
Before and after: the difference is stark between the Triple Ponds landscape, Mulloon Creek, shown here in 2013.

VEGETATION

Vegetation of any kind, explained Peter Hazell, Project Coordinator for the Mulloon Community Landscape Rehydration Project, enhances landscape condition. For example, natural soil recovery processes are enhanced by plants because they improve water quality; fix carbon in the soil, which helps the soil hold more water; provide nutrition for soil organisms; improve microclimate, for example through shading and windbreaks; and they invite insects and other animals into an area.

“A fully hydrated system allows for green plants to not only photosynthesise, but also to transpire [release water vapour from their leaves into the air], which cools the landscape during the day. A fully hydrated system also allows plants to collect vapour as dew from the air at night, which warms the landscape. “So you’re getting a micro cycling of the water and moderation of temperature extremes on a day-night basis,” Mr Hazell said.

Dew collection deserves special mention. Leafy plants are great condensation traps. Research at Mulloon suggests a robust coverage of leafy plants, including grass, can harness as much as 100mm of dew per annum. For this reason, infrequent mowing regimes are vastly preferable to high-frequency cuts, as the extra leaf coverage boosts the abovementioned processes. Most importantly, Mr Hazell noted, property managers should always be aware of the simple natural forces underpinning the land. 

“One of the key things about our land management approach is its subtlety; solutions rarely have to be heavily engineered.”

For instance, he added, a simple trick like harvesting biomass at the bottom of a slope (the filtration and recovery zone) – and then placing that organic matter at the top of a slope (the replenishment zone) so gravity can drive its absorption back into the landscape – is one way of working with, not against, natural forces to keep a healthy cycle in motion. Correct land management, Mr Hazell said, is more about “reading the landscape” than dominating it. Nevertheless, the right equipment can facilitate day-to-day tasks. “And that’s something Peter Andrews was always on about – the need to think about adaptive machinery to support adaptive thinking. We’re still not there yet.”

For example, Mr Hazell said a challenge includes the development of a small ‘forage harvester’ machine to cut, mulch and haul green waste over difficult terrains. “Something a bit more nimble to get in and out of trees and coarser riparian vegetation.”

A bigger challenge, he concluded, is for property managers to change mindset and see the value of land regeneration in the first place. Happily, the message is gaining momentum, and The Mulloon Institute is meeting demand by offering regular field days and joining national and international partners to conduct practical research and projects.

Inquiries about The Mulloon Institute’s activities and consulting services are always warmly received – see contact details below.

More Information
The Mulloon Institute
www.themullooninstitute.org
Call Gary Nairn, Chairman, on 0419 420 108
Email garynairn@nullthemullooninstitute.org