Desert Jewels Project

Trial Spring Burns conducted on Finniss Springs

Over the past three years the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR), in collaboration with FOMS and others, has been conducting the Desert Jewels project aimed at improved management of mound springs to achieve conservation objectives. A primary area of interest has been the management of reeds (Phragmites), which have tended to proliferate in springs fenced to exclude stock. While Phragmites is a natural component in the landscape in mound spring country, it is thought that many decades of cattle intrusion into the mound springs has elevated nutrient levels and, when stock are excluded from the springs, the elevated nutrients have favoured prolific regrowth of Phragmites at the expense of other vegetation. It has been postulated that burning of the Phragmites, possibly in line with traditional Aboriginal burning practices, might be a useful management tool to help restore a more diverse vegetation cover at these springs. The burning process may help to hasten a decline in nutrient levels in these springs.

Phragmites burning strongly at Bopeechee Spring. To provide some scale, Dean Stuart can just be discerned on the right-hand side (photo: Bruce Gotch)
Phragmites burning strongly at Bopeechee Spring. To provide some scale, Dean Stuart can just be discerned on the right-hand side (photo: Bruce Gotch)

With this in mind, DEWNR collaborated with the local Arabana people and with FOMS personnel in June 2016 to burn two Phragmites springs on Finniss Springs (Bopeechee Spring and a spring described as HBO004). A trial burn was also conducted at nearby Beatrice spring – a spring with bulrush (Typha) cover rather than Phragmites. Also participating was Dr Jasmin Packer, Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide. Dr Packer is working on a project on Phragmites management at a national and international scale and is keen to integrate the information from the mound spring burning trials into her own project.

Despite the regular and sometimes heavy rainfall in the Far North during 2016, the burning of Phragmites at Bopeechee and HBO004 springs was very successful burning virtually all above-ground or above-water vegetation and leaving a thick mat of ash.

The burning of the Typha spring (Beatrice) was less successful. The Typha was quite green and only a partial burn was possible. In the last week of July 2016 FOMS members Colin Harris, Bruce Gotch, Claire Bockner and Simon Lewis, along with Arabana elder Dean Stuart, paid another visit to Beatrice, Bopeechee and HBO004 springs. The group was interested to note quite prolific regrowth of Phragmites at Bopeechee and HBO004 just six weeks after the burns – with up to 70 Phragmites stems per square metre up to 0.65m high. The group repeated a number of one metre square quadrats at these springs to measure the extent of regrowth.

It is intended that monitoring will continue at these springs for several years to assess the longer term response of the reeds and of other vegetation associated with the springs. This will link in with monitoring at other springs – such as Outside and the Fountain, on the Peake – where the Phragmites appears to be in a state of natural decline. Another aspect to be considered is whether repeated burning at a particular spring – rather than a single one-off burn – should be trialled as a management option.

Protective Fencing organised for Levi Springs

One of the springs at Levi to be protected in the proposed enclosure

As part of DEWNR’s Desert Jewels project, it is proposed that a number of springs at Levi Springs, on Peake Pastoral Lease, be fenced to provide protection from stock. In August 2015, a combined group from FOMS and DEWNR inspected Levi Springs and plotted a proposed fence alignment that would include all of the springs at Levi and most of the associated rock formations. In early 2016, DEWNR’s Sam Gitahi, then Project Officer for the Desert Jewels Project, re-visited Levi with representatives of the Arabana people to check the acceptability of the proposed fence alignment to the Arabana community.

Subsequently, the proposal was considered by the Directors’ Group of the Arabana Aboriginal Corporation, which decided not to support the proposed alignment. The Directors’ Group indicated that a modified fencing alignment, taking in the springs but not the main associated rock formations, might be acceptable.

Accordingly, in the July 2016 trip FOMS volunteers returned to Levi Springs to review the situation.  Arabana elder Dean Stuart accompanied the group. Along with Dean the FOMS group comprised Colin Harris, Elizabeth Lay, Bernice Cohen, Claire Bockner and Simon Lewis.

These ruins of a shepherd’s hut will also be included in the fenced area

An agreed alignment was readily identified, taking in several springs on the northern side of the main rock formations, as well as the ruins of the former shepherd’s hut nearby. Peake manager Jim Wheeler met the group at Levi Springs and foreshadowed no particular concerns from the Kidman perspective in relation to the fencing. Following the field inspection of July 2016, the Directors of the Arabana Aboriginal Corporation met in Marree on 20 August and endorsed the revised fence alignment. Pastoral lessees S. Kidman and Co have also given the go-ahead.

Materials for the originally proposed fence alignment have already been purchased by DEWNR and this Department and FOMS are now in discussion about arrangements for erection of the fence. This work will provide protection for an important area of springs and, as such, will be a significant milestone for the Desert Jewels project.

Grazing Trial to be conducted at Billa Kalina

As can be seen from the photo, the spring has a fairly uniform coverage of low sedges, in this case the bore-drain sedge Cyperus laevigatus. There are currently no reeds, Phragmites, at the site.

The Desert Jewels project conducted by the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) covers many aspects of mound springs management, some of which are described in other items in this newsletter. One particular area of interest is the effect of controlled or pulse grazing on mound springs. Following consultation between DEWNR and FOMS personnel and Colin Greenfield at Billa Kalina Station, a spring is to be fenced on Billa Kalina in a configuration that will allow controlled grazing in part of the fenced area and complete exclusion of stock in another section. Another part of the spring wetland will be permanently open to grazing so, in effect, there will be three management regimes to monitor at the spring.

During FOMS’ trip to the mound springs in July 2016. Brendan and Elizabeth Lay and Bernice Cohen visited Billa Kalina. They met with Colin Greenfield to discuss arrangements for the fencing, then drove on to the spring to be fenced to check the alignment for the fencing and to collect baseline vegetation data. The data will provide a useful comparison for future measurements when the fencing is in place.

Ongoing consultation with Colin Greenfield will be needed to keep records of grazing patterns around the spring and within the exclosure which will be stocked from time to time.

As can be seen from the photo, the spring has a fairly uniform coverage of low sedges, in this case the bore-drain sedge Cyperus laevigatus. There are currently no reeds, Phragmites, at the site.

Update on Desert Jewels Project

Colin Harris, Bernice Cohen and FOMS colleagues inspect prolific Phragmites growth at the Fountain.

Members may recall that the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) initiated a project in mid-2013 to develop clearer ideas about the management of mound springs in South Australia. This project – over three years and funded through a $1million Commonwealth Government grant – is known as the Desert Jewels Project and FOMS has been a partner throughout. The project is now in its final year.

A particular interest for FOMS has been the proliferation of reeds (Phragmites) at many springs that have been protected from grazing impacts. This proliferation has been to the apparent detriment of other wetland species and FOMS has been keen to see active management trials undertaken with the aim of restoring greater habitat diversity at springs affected by Phragmites. Two springs – the Fountain on the Peake pastoral lease and Beatrice Spring on Finniss Springs – have been selected for burning trials and DEWNR’s project team has obtained clearance from the local Arabana people for the burns to be undertaken. The Arabana will assist with the trial burns so that they mimic traditional burns as much as possible.

The trial burns at the Fountain and Beatrice were planned for March 2016 but heavy rains in the area during that month have led to their deferment. Weather permitting, the trial burns will take place shortly.

A second focus for FOMS in the Desert Jewels project has been the fencing of additional spring areas. At Billa Kalina Station, a spring will be fenced in a configuration that will allow part of the spring wetland to be grazed by cattle in a controlled manner. Another part of the fenced spring will remain ungrazed to provide a comparison in terms of grazing impacts.

DEWNR has purchased and delivered the required fencing materials and Billa Kalina manager Colin Greenfield will erect the fence.

Fencing of Levi Springs on the Peake is also planned. FOMS originally hoped to fence Levi Springs within one enclosure of about 1.5 square kilometres, in a configuration that would also include the impressive rock formations at this site. However, following an inspection of the site with representatives of the local Arabana people and further consultation with the Arabana Directors’ Group, it has been agreed that fencing will be limited to the springs and their immediate environs.

Spring and rock formation at Levi Springs

Desert Jewels Project into Final Year

Grazing impacts
Grazing impacts

Previous newsletters have included progress reports on the Desert Jewels project a three year, $1m project funded through the Australian Government to develop improved management programs for South Australia’s mound springs. DEWNR has led this project but FOMS is a significant partner and has had considerable input. The project commenced in mid 2013 and is due for completion in June 2016.

While the Desert Jewels project has several facets, including fish surveys at Dalhousie Springs, FOMS’ involvement has focussed on improved management of springs subject to cattle grazing and of springs that have been protected from grazing but where proliferation of reeds (Phragmites) appears to be impacting upon other spring flora and fauna.

Interestingly, at some springs fenced to exclude cattle in the mid 1980s and where reed growth has been prolific, there are signs that the reed growth is now waning. One theory is that a long history of cattle ingress led to elevated nutrient levels which, in turn, prompted prolific reed growth when cattle were excluded. In springs where reeds are now declining, it may be that nutrient levels are gradually diminishing.

This has been a complex project and progress has not always been optimal.

Reed proliferation
Reed proliferation

However, over the remaining nine months of the project, DEWNR and FOMS are focussing on the following:

  • Burning trials at Beatrice, the Fountain and Big Perry Springs. Burning may hasten the nutrient reduction process and therefor expedite the diminution of reed growth.
  • Fencing of Levi Springs on the Peake Pastoral Lease. These are important springs: Peake lessees S Kidman & Co have been very supportive of this fencing proposal.
  • Fencing of a spring on Billa Kalina Station, whereupon a controlled grazing trial will be run in collaboration with Billa Kalina manager Colin Greenfield.
  • Water and sediment testing will be undertaken, including nutrient sampling.

The above work requires clearance by the local Arabana community and negotiations about this have been undertaken. DEWNR Project Officer Sam Gitahi and FOMS’ Simon Lewis met with the Arabana Directors’Group in early September 2015.

FOMS will continue its involvement in this work and may have a longer term role in helping with data collection and monitoring.

More information about FOMS’ involvement in the Desert Jewels project is included in the FOMS trip reports.

Report on FOMS Field Trip, June 2015

As reported elsewhere in this newsletter, the Friends of Mound Springs (FOMS) are working with the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) on a major project – the Desert Jewels Project – which aims to improve the management of South Australia’s mound springs.

This report describes the field trip held in June 2015 to visit springs on the Peake pastoral lease to consider management trials and fencing options. A second objective was to check the walking trails established by FOMS in 2011 at Strangways Springs and the Peake Overland Telegraph / Freeling Springs site.

Participants: Sam Gitahi (DEWNR Desert Jewels Project Officer), Sam Stuart (Arabana liaison officer), Clinton Warren, Colin Harris, Elaine Smyth, Bruce and Sherrie Gotch, Margie Barnett and Simon Lewis. Brendan and Elizabeth Lay also intended to join the group but were prevented by wet weather which led to the closure of roads in the area.

Weather Conditions. As noted below, weather proved to be a limiting factor with this trip.

Rain was predicted for the start of the trip as far north as Leigh Creek but not for the springs country further north. With just a little trepidation, therefore, we decided to proceed with the trip.

Getting Started

Several participants drove to Port Augusta or thereabouts to stay overnight on Saturday 13 June. Sam Stuart and Clinton Warren travelled in advance of the main party and reached William Creek by Saturday evening.

On Sunday 14th the Port Augusta contingent awoke to drizzling rain and a report that both the Borefield Road and Marree to William Creek road were closed to traffic. However, a phone call to the Peake Station revealed that little rain had fallen in that area. The group travelled to William Creek via Coober Pedy, meeting Sam Stuart and Clinton. With light fading fast the group moved north to camp on Douglas Creek north of William Creek.

Work under way – Monday 15th June

Breaking camp after a damp night on Bulldog Creek
Breaking camp after a damp night on Bulldog Creek

In very foggy conditions, Colin, Elaine, Bruce and Sherrie headed off to the Peake Overland Telegraph site to check the walking trails and replenish the brochure supply.

Sam G, Sam S, Clinton, Margie and Simon inspected Big Perry, Fountain, Twelve Mile and Outside Springs. Comments on those inspections are provided on the next page.

Following the above work, the group selected an overnight camp-site on Bulldog Creek.

Later that evening, after a display of lightning to the NW, some steady rain set in, with around 9mm recorded at the nearby Peake homestead. That precipitation was to significantly influence our program over the next two days.

Getting Muddy – Tuesday 16th June

Levi Springs: one of several springs with rock formation in background
Levi Springs: one of several springs with rock formation in background

Following the rain of the previous night, an exploratory drive suggested that the station tracks might be firm enough for the group to continue to Levi Springs. The group did make it to Levi, although the going was a little heavy at times. However at Levi there was a hitch when the lead vehicle crossed a very muddy section and it was decided that the other vehicles should not attempt the same crossing. With the sun shining and a nice drying breeze, it was decided to proceed with our work at Levi Springs and to review track conditions later in the day.

The task at Levi was to survey a possible alignment for a fence to enclose Levi springs and most of the impressive basement rocks outcropping at the springs – as well as the ruins of a shepherd’s hut and old coolibah yards nearby. GPS readings were taken to enable an updated map of the proposed fence-line to be prepared.

The day concluded with the bulk of the group camping on Levi Creek while the two occupants of the lead vehicle camped near the springs to the south.

Final Stages – Wednesday 17th and Thursday 18th

With another sunny day dawning, the group decided to press on south towards William Creek. However, after a few kilometres, it became evident that the boggy conditions would prevent further travel south. The group turned around and headed back towards the Peake homestead. After negotiating several soft patches along the tracks we reached Peake homestead to be greeted hospitably by newly appointed Peake manager Jim Wheeler and his wife Lee.

At this point the group split into three. Margie and Simon, with Thursday commitments at home, made an early departure and drove home via Marree, arriving home somewhat weary by 1.30 to 2 am, Thursday morning. Sam S, Sam G and Clinton left to check camera equipment set up at the Bubbler and at springs near Bopeechee to detect fauna movements.

Colin, Elaine, Bruce and Sherrie continued down to Strangways Springs to replenish the walking trail brochure supply. They then spent the night at Coward Springs camp-ground, before returning to Adelaide the following day.

In summary, this was an eventful and memorable trip. Rain created a number of difficulties but the group achieved its main objectives and this should help to progress the Desert Jewels project.

Progress Report: Mound Springs (Desert Jewels) Management Project

In our previous newsletter (Spring 2013) we reported on a major project to examine options for improved management of South Australia’s mound springs. Natural Resources, SA Arid Lands has secured $1m through the Australian Government’s Caring for our Country Investment program for the project.

This three-year project, described as the Desert Jewels Project, is investigating, amongst other things, improved grazing management of springs, management of reeds (especially Phragmites) that have proliferated at some fenced springs, weed management (e.g. date palms and polypogon at Dalhousie) and fire management.

The funding application was developed in close consultation with the Friends of Mound Springs. The Friends group developed a project brief which has been incorporated into the much larger Board application.

Progress on this project includes the following:

  • A Desert Jewels Project Officer (Sam Gitahi) has been appointed to work full-time on the project under the direction of Travis Gotch. In addition, an Arabana Springs Cultural Officer (Shannon (Sam) Stuart) has been appointed to help coordinate the involvement of Arabana people in the project at springs of interest to the Arabana. Both Sam Gitahi and Sam Stuart commenced work in October 2014.
  • A national Mound Springs Data Base is being developed.
  • Fish surveys have been undertaken at Dalhousie and potential burn sites have been identified. A remote sensing project is also to be undertaken at Dalhousie – reviewing remote sensing data from the last 20 to 30 years to assess changes in open water habitat.
  • As reported elsewhere in this newsletter, the FOMS trip of July 2014 gathered data at a number of mound springs (Outside, Twelve Mile, Fountain, Big Perry, Hawker and Fanny Springs), with observations also at Levi Springs. FOMS members Brendan Lay and Simon Lewis have also met with S Kidman and Co’s General Manager Greg Campbell prior to the FOMS trip to discuss the project.

Some Clues Emerging

A major area of concern in mound springs management is the proliferation of reeds (Phragmites) in springs that were formerly open to grazing but have since been protected. Measurements and observations by researchers and by FOMS personnel suggest that the proliferation of Phragmites in protected springs may be linked with the increased nutrient levels introduced during decades of cattle grazing.

It is also hypothesised that, with prolonged exclusion of cattle, nutrient levels will gradually diminish and Phragmites abundance may decrease.

Implications for Springs Management

A primary focus of the Springs Management Project is the development of management prescriptions that, as a general objective, will maximise habitat diversity in the springs and,
in doing so, will address the perceived negative effects linked with Phragmites proliferation at fenced springs. It is planned that management trials will be implemented to help clarify optimal management prescriptions.

Observations made by FOMS members during the July 2014 field trip (see trip summary elsewhere in this newsletter) and other discussions suggest that the following management trials and related research should be considered.

  1. Outside Spring, fenced main vent. The cover of Phragmites in the vent has diminished markedly over the last few years.
    Outside Spring, fenced main vent. The cover of Phragmites in the vent has diminished markedly over the last few years.

    Outside and the Fountain would be useful trial and/or reference areas as both are showing an apparent decline in Phragmites abundance. One of these springs (e.g. Outside) could be left as a reference area, with a burning trial at the Fountain. Burning half a spring (longitudinally) is seen as a good objective, although it may be difficult to achieve. A logistical issue is that summer burning may be optimal and it may be difficult to secure a fire crew at that time, given priorities elsewhere in the State. Burning would test the theory that fire will hasten the depletion of the Phragmites rhizomes and therefore hasten the decline of Phragmites. A burning trial at Twelve Mile could also be contemplated to test this theory. Further discussion is needed to confirm the best timing for trial burns.

  2. A noteworthy occurrence at both Outside and the Fountain is the residual mat of Phragmites rhizomes in the spring vents. Even if there is very little growth of Phragmites in these areas, the rhizomatous mats could persist for many years. A trial is recommended to remove a section of this mat at Outside or the Fountain (probably the Fountain, if Outside is left as a reference).
    • Some concerns have been raised about the proposal to remove a small section of rhizomatous mat. Those concerns focus on two aspects: (a) possible impact upon invertebrate fauna in the spring sediments; and (b) exposure of the spring sediments to air and oxygenation of sulphur compounds in the muds to form sulphuric acid, with flow-on deleterious effects. In relation to invertebrates, it is proposed that only a small proportion of the rhizome mat be removed, meaning that the bulk of the invertebrate population would not be directly disturbed and should re-colonise the area where the mat is removed. The acid-sulphate soil issue warrants further discussion but the intention would be to remove only a small section of mat in a patch where the sediments would remain submerged. This should limit the risk of acidification.
  3. Outside Springs comprise several vents, of which one is fenced. Further fencing could be contemplated at Outside to add more information about grazing exclusion in this area.
  4. Spring at Levi - potential candidate for fencing
    Spring at Levi – potential candidate for fencing

    At Levi Spring fencing of the spring adjacent to the track and rock outcrop would be of interest and could be easily done, as the spring has no significant tail, is on “easy ground” and is currently free of Phragmites. This relatively minor work could provide useful information about grazing impacts and cessation of those impacts.

    • In discussion, it has been suggested that fencing of this small spring at Levi could lead to prolific growth of Phragmites. An alternative suggestion has been to fence a larger area at Levi to include other springs also. Fencing of a larger area would be of interest but could be logistically difficult because of rock outcrops. Fencing of the single spring would be a simple task that could provide useful information. At the moment there is nothing really to suggest that it would be rapidly colonised by Phragmites.
  5. FOMS’ observations at Hawker Springs support the hypothesis that grazing impacts are most pronounced at the outer springs of this large group, diminishing towards the centre of the group. A more rigorous research project at Hawker Springs would provide useful information about grazing impacts. This could be promoted as a University research project.
  6. FOMS believes that fencing of some of the springs at Fanny Springs should be considered further. This is a fairly linear group of about eight springs and we believe it may be instructive to fence up to half of the springs (within one enclosure) and leave the rest open to grazing.
    • It has been suggested that fencing of some of Fanny Springs is not a priority as these are low-flow springs of limited interest. However, FOMS believes this should be considered further. The terrain and linear nature of this spring group means that this is an opportunity to fence on a larger scale than most other fenced springs on pastoral lands and follow-up monitoring could provide useful information for the project.
  7. The springs at Finniss Springs have been free of significant grazing pressure for twenty years or more. They will undoubtedly be good reference areas but may also be suitable for active management trials. FOMS proposes that there should be joint inspections at Finniss Springs, as soon as possible and before the end of 2014, to consider the merit of Finniss Springs for trials and/or as reference sites.
  8. An important hypothesis emerging in this work revolves very much around elevated nutrient levels created by cattle access. A good deal of chemical analytical work has been undertaken in the mound springs over the years and this should be reviewed as part of testing the above hypothesis. In addition, a systematic program of nutrient testing is needed in springs with a range of grazing (and non-grazing) histories to help assess the links between cattle grazing, elevated nutrient levels and Phragmites incidence and abundance.

FOMS will continue to work closely with DEWNR personnel and others on this project. The next twelve months should prove very interesting as field trials get under way and FOMS volunteers are likely to play an active part in assisting those trials.