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Macca is revegetating

Macca is revegetating

The airwaves over Macquarie Island are fair bit quieter these days and the field huts nowhere near as busy as they were during the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project (MIPEP), but the recovery of the landscape continues to bring pleasant surprises.

Ranger-in-charge Chris Howard reported on the vegetation recovery in this latest dispatch from 54 degrees south:

This cluster of Huperzia on the plateau contains about 80 plants, part of a larger site of about 120 plants

This cluster of Huperzia on the plateau contains about 80 plants, part of a larger site of about 120 plants

The revegetation process is really kicking into gear now as the island’s plants rebound with new found vigour.  I first came to Macca early in 2013 along with the last MIPEP team.  I was among a new generation of rangers that would thankfully not see rabbits on the island. There was plenty of old poo, the odd skeleton or mummified carcass discovered by the hunting teams and their dogs, but the battered landscape of severely grazed tussock, megaherbs and the very short cropped grasslands was proof enough of how things had been.  The hunters and dogs went about their job patiently scouring the countryside looking for clues of rabbits or rodents. Thankfully none was found and the project was declared a success in April 2014.

I was particularly reminded of the dedication and diligence of the hunters on my last field trip. Taking a break from the track markers task, I revisited sites hoping to confirm the ongoing presence of one of the rarer plant species on the island – Huperzia australiana. Huperzia is a species of small terrestrial plant, a firmoss or tassel fern, in the Lycopodiaceae (clubmoss) family.

It is native to Australia and New Zealand. This small epiphytic plant looks not unlike a tiny pine tree and grows only to about 60mm tall.  On Macquarie Island, this species is listed as rare and was confirmed at only a handful of locations on the plateau.   An added bonus of having so many people in the field with MIPEP was that eagle-eyed hunters were often able to report the presence of the plant at different locations. By the project’s end, Huperzia was recorded at just over 30 locations.

Most recently I was checking on some of these previous sightings, as well as gathering additional site information that could be added to the DPIPWE Natural Values Atlas, an electronic database that helps guide management decisions on the reserve.  Data collected included site soil type, slope, landform, plant associations, area occupied, potential threats, plant number, and breeding status;  all valuable information.  There were a number of sites to check in the general area of rodent dog handler Leona Plaiser’s observations, so it was well worth deviating off the normal track network to follow up.

Green Gorge basin looking south. The gravelly terrace in the foreground is typical Huperzia australiana habitat.

Green Gorge basin looking south. The gravelly terrace in the foreground is typical Huperzia australiana habitat.

I set off from Green Gorge hut on an average Macca day; overcast grey skies and a clear view of the plateau.  Of course that all changed by the time I got up on top – with low cloud and visibility reduced to 100m.  Relying mainly on the GPS, I navigated to the plant site – watching as the distance gradually decreased on the screen, finally the proximity alarm indicating arrival at the site!  Treading carefully knowing that I was looking for a needle in a haystack, a careful search of the site finally paid off – one little plant 20mm high, 20mm across!!  An interest in plants and a passion for the island combined to keep the motivation up as the visibility and temperature decreased and the wind picked up.  I checked out a few more sites on the way back down to the hut and confirmed all sites previously recorded had plants present.

Quietly processing the data back at the hut that night,  I couldn’t help but reflect on  the people that who made the eradication project a success.   Day after day, week after week, they methodically walked the hills, checked the ground, searching for sign, often in the fog, most often in the wind and the elements and to stay focussed enough to pick up a plant so small …..what a job well done!

As for the Huperzia australiana population on Macquarie Island, there are now almost 70 site registrations for the species. Some sites I’ve visited recently have recorded 70 or more plants, with  some specimens up to 70mm tall …the plant is still not common but certainly appears to be enjoying life after rabbits.stilbocarpa-and-pleurophyllum