Landcare

Forging community connections: the benefits of Landcare for people and nature

This is a guest article by Kathleen Brack.

I hate to go all Gruen on you, but apparently 85% of Australians recognise the Landcare “caring hands” logo. This is significant brand recognition for the Australian-founded movement and shows just how established the Landcare brand is in broader Australian culture. It’s an iconic logo and whoever came up with it is genius. (Note: Google who developed the Landcare hands logo. Give them a prize.) But even though recognition for the Landcare logo is very high, it would be pretty safe to assume that most Australians only have a superficial understanding of what Landcare actually does. Groups planting trees, right?

If only it was that simple. Founded 30 years ago, Landcare has become an incredible nationwide grassroots movement. There are more than 6,000 groups across Australia focusing on anything from waste reduction, mental health, coastcare, soil health, whole farm planning, controlling weeds and pest animals, horses, citizen science, junior Landcare, agroforestry, local food, urban Landcare, and just about anything that is associated with sustainable agriculture. No two groups are the same. The local nature of each group enables them to be super nimble and change their focus to whatever issue is pertinent to them at that time. This means it is often Landcare groups who are the first ones to band together to help their community during sudden fire, flood or drought.

The Landcare logo is arguably one of the most recognisable symbols in Australian conservation culture.   Image:  Landcare Australia

The Landcare logo is arguably one of the most recognisable symbols in Australian conservation culture. Image: Landcare Australia

The positive impact Landcare groups have on the environment is well known (and can be easily measured by things like total number of trees planted). But Landcare’s contribution to a community’s social fabric has remarkably less awareness. In short, the environment is not the only thing that benefits from a Landcare project. Landcare projects also have significant benefit for the local community, such as increasing skills, emotional wellbeing, and connections.

The West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority studied a small Landcare project to see if we could better understand this social benefit. Using the Social Return on Investment (SROI) technique, we studied the benefits of a small $15,000 project provided to the Merriman Creek Landcare Group. This project funded and managed the delivery of small environmental operations on members’ properties, such as removing blackberries, putting up fencing to stop stock access, and planting indigenous trees along the Merriman Creek.

Peter and Norma Garlick, longstanding members of the Merriman Creek Landcare Group.  Image: Andrew Northover

Peter and Norma Garlick, longstanding members of the Merriman Creek Landcare Group. Image: Andrew Northover

The group boundary loosely covers an area south of Sale in the south-eastern part of Gippsland, following the creek from its headwaters to its mouth at Seaspray. They consist of 33 mostly farmer members and meet several times a year at the Stradbroke Hall, a cute building situated on the side of a long road in the middle of flat sheep and beef paddocks. We interviewed members of the Landcare group who directly benefited from the project (they had works funded on their own property) and those who saw the overall benefit of the project (but did not have any works funded on their property).

We found because of the Landcare project, group members overwhelmingly experienced an increased connection with their local community. This was particularly important as farming or living in a remote area can sometimes be isolating and lonely. Studies have proven that people who are more socially connected are happier, healthier and live longer than those who are less well connected. And this connection is not just about getting to know other group members, but rather developing a stronger relationship with them, having a shared sense of purpose and responsibility for improving the landscape. This greatly increases a sense of belonging and increases the likelihood that someone will take action to help their community. As one member put it, the project ‘gave me a reason to stop at the shop and have a big chat to someone who otherwise I would just say hi to in passing otherwise.’ Another member said that ‘I have a greater respect for group members as a result of working on the project.’

All about the chats. Landcare legends Eddie and Pat Brand talk with Peter Garlick.  Image: Andrew Northover

All about the chats. Landcare legends Eddie and Pat Brand talk with Peter Garlick. Image: Andrew Northover

A typical Landcare morning tea feast prepared by the Merriman Creek Landcare Group.    Image: Andrew Northover

A typical Landcare morning tea feast prepared by the Merriman Creek Landcare Group. Image: Andrew Northover

We also found that members of the Landcare group experienced greater emotional wellbeing from being part of Landcare. As one member said, ‘there’s a lot going on in the world, and being part of Landcare makes me feel less guilty. I feel good about doing my bit.’ Other members reported that being part of the project made them feel proud, reduced the guilt they felt about their impact on the environment, increased their self-esteem, and made them feel good about their contribution to the community. Increased emotional wellbeing means members are more likely to be resilient, have a reduced risk of mental health problems, and be generally happier.

Interestingly, one of the greatest outcomes identified by all members from the group was that the funding gave them an increased sense of purpose. This might sound like a weird concept, but as one member stated, ‘the money has resulted in better attendance at meetings, more interaction and more enthusiasm to apply for other project funds.’ Having something to do (i.e. manage the project) meant members were brought together more regularly with something to talk about and work towards. Meetings are more exciting, dynamic and people actually want to attend them.

Merriman Creek Landcare Group member, Paul Harrison.  Image: Andrew Northover

Merriman Creek Landcare Group member, Paul Harrison. Image: Andrew Northover

Members also reported the project improved or strengthened their group skills in things such as project management and reporting, while others described how it increased their knowledge of environmental issues. This knowledge didn’t just stop at the Landcare members’ fenceline either, as we learnt that members often spoke to others in the community about their project; for every one member, at least one other person was spoken to about this Landcare project. Information shared like this – from neighbour to neighbour- can be an extremely effective way of dispersing knowledge, as it is often more trusted when compared to more formalised communication.

The responses from the Merriman Creek Landcare Group members show that the environment is not the only thing that benefits from a Landcare project.  Landcare projects also have a significant benefit to the local community. As part of the study we found that for every $1 spent on a Landcare project, there was at least $3.41 return in social value in terms of increased social connectedness, emotional wellbeing, increased natural resource management knowledge and skills, improved group dynamics, increased physical activity and participation, reduced labour and chemical costs, better weed control, and improved relationships with the local community. Pretty great really, isn’t it?


Kathleen Brack is the Regional Landcare Program Officer at the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority and co-founder of Gippsland Intrepid Landcare. She was recently awarded the Victorian Young Landcarer of the Year.


Banner image courtesy of Andrew Northover.

Changing Landscapes: Following the Regent Honeyeater Project

The countryside near Benalla in northern Victoria has been strongly marked by its two centuries of farming and forestry. The logging industries of early settlement have given way to agriculture, and now pastureland spreads like a sea between townships. Speckling the land are a few pockets of heavy, old eucalypts, left behind on roadsides and hard-to-reach hills.

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The beautiful regent honeyeater.

The beautiful regent honeyeater.

It’s not easy finding time to speak with Ray Thomas, coordinator of Victoria’s Regent Honeyeater Project. Any spare second he gets is devoted to restoring the ancient forests that once covered the hills and plains around Benalla. Our conversation twice needed rescheduling – some unexpected rain had brought an unmissable opportunity of extra planting.

Acting on small chances like that has clearly paid off. This year, the Regent Honeyeater Project celebrates its 20th year of continuous work in the district, a testament to the tenacity of Ray and his associates. From an initial aim to protect the region’s last fragile remnants of ironbark and box forest, the project has grown in myriad directions: boosting the presence of food trees, to bring migrating birds back to the area; planting wilderness corridors between bushland patches, which allow wildlife movement and prevent inbreeding; a vast network of nest boxes to house rare mammals like the squirrel glider and the brush-tailed phascogale. The program’s eponymous bird has been saved from declining numbers, with wild populations increasing each year.

The project has always relied on the donations and cooperation of landowners: “We started out by cold calling, trying to find and fence the remnant box-ironbark forest around the district.  That was our goal at the start, just to protect these rare, incredibly important fragments.” In Australia’s famously harsh climate, the idea of giving up any agricultural land was a hard sell.

“We saw pretty early on that the program needed to be a part of people’s farms that made sense to them... Everything I was bringing to landowners, I researched and tested beforehand. There was heavy prior investigation. I had to be sure of what I was saying – people can spot hoodwinkery a mile off, they know if you’re trying to put one over on them.”

Our habitat corridors reduce erosion, create windbreaks, and maintain water quality in streams – practical outcomes that mean everybody wins.

Things have changed in two decades, however. A combined space of 1540 hectares of revegetated farmland is showing results: “Now, people are approaching us and asking how they can help. Recently we’ve been getting the choice of what land will be most beneficial for each year. But I still make cold calls, absolutely. There are always areas of land that would help the program, and sometimes people aren’t aware of how important they can be.”

This August, for instance, close cooperation with the owners of an ideal property has allowed the landmark creation of a seed orchard – a carefully choreographed planting that mingles the genes of isolated populations for the first time in decades. Robust and healthy vegetation will be bred from local sources, functioning as a new patch of forest while also providing seedlings for future locations. It’s a vital measure to stave off the effects of inbreeding, which has become so severe in some places that plants are incapable of reproducing.

On the left were seeds collected from a parent group of 50 plants. On the right, from a parent group of 10. They were planted at the same time. Photo: Paul Jones

On the left were seeds collected from a parent group of 50 plants. On the right, from a parent group of 10. They were planted at the same time. Photo: Paul Jones

The RHP team have always had another goal in mind: to work with the community rather than just amongst them. One of the keystone decisions was to bring schoolchildren from Benalla, Wangaratta and the nearby districts to help with planting. For Ray, involving schools was a crucial component of the project’s early design. The goal was to encourage members of the community to begin thinking about their land as early as possible, and to begin taking ownership: “We’ve included school groups from the first year of the project. Year One. There wasn’t much point otherwise – this needs to be bigger than any of us who are on the inside.

There’s a missing age group in volunteering, and it’s just after people are leaving high school. It isn’t always easy being green in a country town - like anyone of that age they’re getting on with other aspects of their life. But the students who help us do remember. Sometimes men and women will see me in the street and say, ‘Ray! You took us planting in high school, remember us? That was a great day!’, referring to a time 10 years ago or more. And then they come back once they’ve got the time.”

Squirrel gliders use the nest boxes set up by the Regent Honeyeater Project team. Image curtesy of the Regent Honeyeater Project. 

Squirrel gliders use the nest boxes set up by the Regent Honeyeater Project team.
Image curtesy of the Regent Honeyeater Project. 

That idea of patient nurturing is central to Ray’s operation: “There’s no point in pushing, or aggressive arguing. One thing we’ve found over the years is that people are ready when they’re ready – they need to decide on their own, and there’s nothing we can say to force that. It’s best for people to digest an idea in their own time. That way when they come to us they’ve chosen to, and it creates longevity and faith in the project.

In any year, we’ll have around 20 schools involved. They need to see the whole program – propagation and planting, and seed collection too. We’ve seen volunteers from school groups coming back on the open weekends. Students from Northcote came to us on a school camp, and later in the spring we had some come back and bring their parents along.”

Of course, there’s no chance to rest on their well-deserved laurels. Monitoring and understanding the benefits of the revegetation is crucial in shaping the future direction of the project. With ever-present restrictions on time, labour and funding, selecting actions with the most benefit is an uncertain business.

“There have been some studies published about the vegetation establishment success rates, and some trapping studies looking at the insects and reptiles using the sites. But they were quite early in the program – sites are less weedy now, with changing bird populations. One of our rarest birds, the grey-crowned babbler, has increased from 50 to 120 birds over the past decade. It’d be great to know more about how they’re using the space.

And our nest boxes – we’ve got years of data collected by volunteers about box occupation. Squirrel gliders and phascogales move through our corridors just four or five years after planting. Our data from this year hasn’t been compiled yet, because we’ve been so busy with growing and planting and collecting. We need to look at how we’re going if we want to be as smart as possible next year.” The next year, next season, is always under scrutiny.

That’s not to say that the project will expand indefinitely: “I think it’s best for us to stick to our patch, and make it the best we can. But you can’t just think about one property or one district. The land doesn’t work like that. A farmer can invest thousands in restoring and maintaining his creek, but unless his neighbour upstream is doing the same, then it doesn’t count for much. We try to get conversations across fences. Landcare groups are starting to band together, to raise bigger voices – ideally we’ll be able to work alongside other groups who are improving their own land, and join at the seams.”

It’s a fair point. While the Regent Honeyeater Project has given us a stalwart example of community achievement, we mustn’t settle into the idea that a few others will do the work. The chance to make a change is open, for anyone who wants to step forward.

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If you’re interested in further information, you can visit the Regent Honeyeater website or contact Ray Thomas directly: ray@regenthoneyeater.org.au


PAUL JONES

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development