Meet the volunteers bringing biodiversity back to degraded land

By Claire Laws 8 September 2023

It’s a sunny spring weekend. Fifty keen volunteers have travelled to a rural farm where they are scattered around the pasture ready to plant 1,000 native seedlings. With the right care, the seedlings will create important habitat for threatened wildlife, rebuild soil health and return some of the previously degraded land to nature. In just one weekend, the volunteers will have made some great friends and seen the benefits of sustainable land management first-hand.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the only way to protect our native plants and animals is to create more national parks. However, given a vast area of land is privately owned, the activities we undertake in these spaces can also have substantial environmental benefits. The real challenge is managing private property, such as agricultural land, in a way that meets human needs without compromising biodiversity.

The agriculture sector is one of the main drivers of global biodiversity loss. Food production systems have significant environmental impacts, including pollution from runoff containing fertilisers, landscape degradation from overgrazing and habitat loss from land clearing. Agriculture also accounts for 70 per cent of global freshwater consumption.

Regenerative agriculture is a potential way forward. This farming method balances the essential human activity of food production with the need to maintain healthy ecosystems that support biodiversity. By shifting to more regenerative practices, such as organic and biodynamic farming, holistic grazing and re-establishing native vegetation, agricultural land can better sustain all forms of life. 

Rotary’s Adopt-A-Tree program is a prime example of the shared benefits of restoring agricultural land. Launched after recent bushfires and floods, the program is a joint initiative of around 140 Rotary Clubs across NSW and the ACT. It provides individuals and organisations with the opportunity to adopt seedlings that are planted on privately owned land in need of regeneration. Those who adopt a seedling can choose to receive regular updates on its growth. 

Barry Antees, from the Rotary Club of Parramatta City, helps run the Adopt-A-Tree program. He says many people are adopting plants in the name of their children to reduce anxiety about the climatic conditions the next generation will inherit.

“It has been rewarding when the children, accompanied by their parents, are enthusiastically planting on our days out,” Barry says. 

Since 2022, the Adopt-A-Tree program has planted over 8,500 seedlings on private property, much of which had been cleared or depleted by past agricultural practices. One of these properties is a 3,000-acre sheep farm called Moorlands in the NSW Southern Tablelands. Moorlands has been in the same family for over 180 years and is currently owned and managed by Vince Heffernan, an expert on regenerative land management. 

Much of the original native vegetation at Moorlands was cleared for agriculture. However, over the last 20 years, Vince has started to restore biodiversity and improve the functionality of the ecosystem through regenerative practices.

“An example is the planting of native trees, shrubs, grasses and native aquatic plants. Another is the elimination of introduced pest species that impact native fauna,” he says. 

Moorlands is a certified biodynamic farm, which means no use of chemicals, such as pesticides or artificial fertilisers. Vince explains that “biodynamic practices are focused on producing healthy, living, well-structured soil – healthy plants and animals are a result”. The farm also implements holistic grazing techniques and does not overgraze, which improves soil health so that native vegetation can thrive. 

In an inspirational effort to regreen the property, over 60,000 seedlings have been planted at Moorlands to date, most of them by Vince and his family. This regreening is an ongoing project supported by groups like Rotary Adopt-A-Tree and Greening Australia.

“We’ll plant some 6,000-plus native trees and shrubs this year and again in 2024 and 2025,” Vince reports. 

This effort has already yielded significant benefits, including improved biodiversity. The threatened superb parrot, a species Vince says is at the heart of revegetation efforts, is now a regular visitor on the farm. The region around Moorlands is home to several other threatened species which landowners like Vince are helping to protect, including the golden sun moth and the yellow-spotted bell frog.

Last year, 2,000 seedlings were planted at Moorlands as part of the Adopt-A-Tree program. Two more plantings of 1,000 seedlings each will take place this September with support from Planet Ark's Seedling Bank. The team will plant a huge variety of indigenous trees and shrubs, including eucalypts, wattles, bottlebrushes, sheoaks, banksias and grevilleas. Vince says species are chosen for both habitat and feed sources, so something is flowering every day, which is essential for nectar-feeding birds. 

Parramatta Rotary Club’s Barry Antees says the Moorlands plantings, like all carried out under the Adopt-A-Tree program, will support local nurseries and bring the community together to care for the environment. 

For landowner Vince Heffernan, it’s all about restoring biodiversity and building a resilient ecosystem.  

“Regenerative agriculture is not an attempt to wind the clock back to 1788 and re-establish the ecosystem that was here then. It is an understanding of the impact of farmers’ decisions on all aspects of an ecosystem and an effort to repair and re-establish that ecosystem whilst still running a productive agricultural unit,” he explains.

Ultimately, Vince, Barry and the volunteers involved in the Adopt-A-Tree plantings want to leave the land in a better shape than they found it. Regreening privately owned land through community planting events is an important (and highly rewarding) piece of this puzzle. The plantings help those involved connect with nature and reinforce the reciprocal relationship between humans and the environment. 

Claire Laws
Claire joined the Planet Ark team in 2021. With a background in Environmental Science and a Masters in Environmental Law and Sustainable Development, Claire is keen to build on her previous work in ecological research and be part of Planet Ark's actions-based approach to environmental protection.