The plant and animal species on Cape York Peninsula can show whether the country is healthy for wildlife and being managed sustainably. We place particular value on some of these species because they are rare or threatened in Queensland, Australia or worldwide, or are only found on the peninsula. Others are important because their presence shows that the special needs they share with a wide range of other species are being met. You will find profiles of 21 Healthy Country Indicator Species for Cape York Peninsula in this guide, along with information on where they live, the habitat features they need, why they are important as indicators, and on how to manage your country well for them. These guidelines contain a range of management actions because a diverse range of habitats is needed to support the diversity of wildlife that is found on the peninsula. Advice should be sought before applying them other parts of northern Australia, where conditions may be different.
The few species that only flourish where key habitat is fenced to exclude grazing animals deserve special attention, but most species can co-exist with good cattle management. Most pastoralists already manage in a way that supports native wildlife, by avoiding loss of ground cover across much of the property, and controlling pest animals and weeds. So the profiles can be used to demonstrate the positive role pastoralists already play in conservation when healthy populations of these species are present on their properties.
These profiles also give information on management that can improve the sustainability of your property. Most adjustments needed are also considered best practice for pasture management, such as wet season spelling. Even if you do not know if these species occur on your property, following these guidelines will benefit a wide range of plants, animals and country types, and help ensure healthy and productive native pastures.
A range of best practice management actions has been identified for each group of species. These management actions include:
Both cattle and wildlife depend on a healthy environment, particularly a good cover of perennial grasses. The most important grasses for cattle on the peninsula are the 3p (palatable, perennial and productive) grasses, especially Plume Sorghum, Black Spear, Giant Spear and Cockatoo Grass. These grasses and their seeds provide food for kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, parrots and finches. Spiders and lizards shelter in the grass, emerging to feed in the natural breaks between tussocks. Continual overgrazing without spelling removes the best grasses, replacing them with poor grasses, and eventually weeds, bare ground and soil scalds. Best practice pasture management includes moderate grazing and wet season spelling to ensure useful grasses have the opportunity to produce seeds and regenerate. So this also benefits native wildlife.
Dividing a property into several paddocks and destocking one each wet season is the best way to spell pastures. Where fencing is not an option, then it important to keep stocking rates at a sustainable level, with recommended use rates of 10-30% (ensuring 70-90% of available forage remains at the end of the growing season). As cattle gather to feed on burnt grass, burning different patches each year can also help to spell heavily grazed areas. While spacing waters and lick sheds across the property helps to spread grazing pressure, keeping some parts of the property at least 6 km from waters will ensure the more grazing sensitive plants and animals survive.
Learn to identify which grasses are important for cattle, and keep track of them to see whether the condition of your property is improving or declining. Taking photographs of the pasture from the same place each year can also help you track changes in pasture condition. Grazing land management staff at Queensland Department of Primary Industries & Fisheries, Mareeba, can help you assess the condition of your property and establish monitoring points.
Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Mareeba
Phone: 07 4048 4600
Maintaining ground cover and minimising erosion are the basis of good pasture management. They are also important for many native species. Grasses that are important for cattle grazing, such as Cockatoo Grass, Plume Sorghum and Giant Spear, are also important for wildlife. A variety of herb seeds are also important. Maintaining the ground layer is possibly the best protection against vegetation thickening, as a healthy grass cover competes with suckering woody plants. However, a continuous ground cover is not essential, as many smaller animals shelter in the grass or litter and hunt across bare patches of ground.
Maintaining ground cover means grazing moderately and allowing pasture to regenerate by spelling pasture over the wet season every few years. Fire is also important. Late dry season fires remove grass cover, causing erosion. Also if early dry season burns are too small in area, the green pick they produce may be overgrazed by cattle. So burning the same areas repeatedly can cause permanent loss of ground cover and soil compaction.
Introduced pasture plants may be good for cattle, but are not always good for wildlife. Before using them, ask advice on the likely impacts. Species that smother or out-compete native plants, or lead to overgrazing or an increase in fire intensity are best avoided. Introduced species that have been highlighted for their negative impact on wildlife include Para Grass and Gamba Grass.
Most of the tree cover on Cape York Peninsula is still intact, providing important habitat for wildlife. However, canopy scorch from intense fires can destroy the leaves, flowers and fruits used by tree-dwelling animals for food. Looking after species that depend on tree cover therefore means preventing large areas being burnt in the late dry season.
Many parrots, finches, owls, possums and gliders nest or shelter in tree hollows. These are abundant on Cape York Peninsula, particularly in the tall forests along rivers and edges of scrubs. This is yet another indication of the good condition of environments on the peninsula. Tree hollows are both formed and destroyed by fire, cyclones and termite activity. However, repeated late dry season fires are most likely to bring down the older trees in which hollows are found. Fire management that ensures these areas are not frequently burnt by late dry season fires is the best way to protect these hollows.
Vegetation thickening is an issue throughout Queensland, and its causes are not completely clear. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be helping the trees to grow faster, but loss of ground cover - through overgrazing, lack of burning or too much burning early in the dry season - also encourages thickening. The main thickening issues on Cape York Peninsula are the loss of grasslands to woodlands dominated by Broad-leaved Ti-tree (Melaleuca viridiflora), but also other species such as Lemon-scented Ti-tree (Melaleuca citrolens) and Red-flowered Ti-tree (Asteromyrtus symphyocarpa), and the expansion of rainforest into wet eucalypt forests. There are also patches of grassland being lost under Yellow Wood (Terminalia aridicola subsp. chillagoensis) woodland.
Thickening seems most likely to occur when the grass layer is removed early in the dry season, either by overgrazing or by burning. This removes the main source of competition for trees and shrubs, so suckers and seedlings can grow above the grass layer before the next rains get the grass growing. Keeping a healthy grass layer is the best way to prevent thickening of the flats. Storm-burning when there is a decent fuel load is then effective at removing woody suckers. Messmate suckers on sandridges may be a nuisance, but do not seem to have got thicker over the years.
Shrubs are not particularly abundant on Cape York Peninsula, except in heathlands and along the edges of flats. Many pastoralists see shrubs such as Soap Bush (Acacia holosericea) and Grevillea (Grevillea pteridifolia) as a nuisance, making mustering more difficult and competing with grasses. However, where they occur, shrubs provide important shelter, nest sites and a wealth of foods - nectar, fruit, seed and sap - and many animals depend on them.
Shrub cover is affected by fire. Many shrubs, including Soap Bush and Grevillea are killed by fire, but their germination is promoted. So fire can make shrub cover thicker. Fire also delays the flowering and fruiting cycle of many shrubs. Most shrubs need several years between fires to ensure they produce decent flower and fruit crops. Fruit-eating possums and gliders are most likely to be found in areas that have not been burnt for some years. Shrubs that are particularly important include some wattles (Acacia) and Cocky apple (Planchonia careya), a species that is frequently only found as short, sterile suckers. A well-managed fire regime that leaves patches of country unburnt for a few years will allow shrubs to flower and fruit, and continue to support possums and gliders.
Many animals, particularly small mammals and reptiles, use fallen logs and leaf litter for shelter, nesting sites and protection from predators. Leaf litter helps keep the soil temperatures low and reduces soil erosion. Fallen logs and leaf litter are characteristic of the large paddocks and open grazing systems of the peninsula, yet again showing the good conditions pastoral properties can provide for wildlife. However, animals that rely on logs and litter may also be sensitive to fires that open up the ground layer and expose the soil. To look after country for the many animals reliant on fallen logs and litter, ensure fire management is good enough to prevent large areas being burnt in the late dry season. Early dry season fires leave unburnt patches, in which litter and logs continue to provide animal habitats and soil protection. When linked with tracks and creek-lines to form a network of firebreaks, early dry season fires also help prevent large areas of logs and litter being burnt in late dry season fires. If there are enough unburnt patches left at the end of the year, small mammals and reptiles can re-establish the rest of the landscape once the ground layer recovers following wet season rains. Avoid overgrazing, which can remove both grass cover and leaf litter leading to large areas of bare ground that are not suitable for wildlife.
The riparian zone includes creeks and rivers and the vegetation along them. Good riparian health is important for wildlife, especially frogs and fish, and influences how much sediment builds up in rivers and downstream. On Cape York Peninsula most rivers have healthy riparian zones, but are vulnerable to invasive weeds, such as Rubber Vine and Sicklepod. Trampling by stock removes ground cover, also encouraging invasion by weeds. Pigs can do even more damage, pugging the ground and grubbing out roots and tubers. Some streams on the peninsula appear to be filling with sediment, possibly linked to loss of ground cover through the catchments from late dry season fires or overgrazing. Good land management - with moderate grazing and effective firebreaks to prevent the spread of late dry season fires - is the best way to prevent river silting and to maintain water quality. Fencing out rivers also helps in their management, allowing stock to be kept out when necessary. Control of pigs and weeds is essential, even in fenced areas. Riparian health checks can be done using Tropical Rapid Appraisal of Riparian Condition (lwa.gov.au/products/pr061169). This scheme uses measures of vegetation cover, woody debris, weediness, native plant regeneration and evidence of disturbance to assess condition of the riparian zone. Cape York Peninsula Landcare officers can help with management and monitoring of riparian zones.
Pigs are possibly the most significant pests on Cape York Peninsula. They dig up wetlands and foul the water. They selectively graze plants such as Cockatoo Grass and Wild Rice, and knock over termite mounds. Approaches to controlling pigs include baiting and hunting. Small areas with high wildlife values may need to be fenced using pig-wire. Other pest animals that cause a problem for wildlife on the peninsula include feral horses and feral cattle. These are not a problem on a well managed property. Cane Toads affected many native species when they first arrived on the peninsula, but most affected species have now recovered. Cape York Weeds & Feral Animal Program staff can help with pest animal management.
Cape York Weeds and Feral Animals Program
Phone: 07 4069 5020
Good weed control benefits both pastoral production and wildlife. Weeds that form a dense thicket to the exclusion of all other species are a particular concern. Weeds such as Sicklepod, Rubber Vine, Lions Tail, Para Grass and Gamba Grass alter the environment so severely that other species cannot survive. Gamba Grass also increases the fuel load, so that tree death from fire becomes more likely. These weeds need active management using appropriate pesticide, fire and/or physical means of removal. Control of new weeds before they become a problem is particularly important. Look out for strange plants that could become a menace, and send them to Queensland Herbarium for identification. Avoid use of hay from weed-infested areas. Wash-down your vehicle if you think you have been driving through areas where it might have collected weed seeds. Cape York Weeds & Feral Animal Program staff can help with weed management.
Cape York Weeds and Feral Animals Program
Phone: 07 4069 5020
Managing wildfire means ensuring that no fire can burn a large area of the property. Extensive fires are more likely to occur in the late dry season, and are equally damaging for cattle and wildlife. They can eliminate a range of animals from the area or make their habitat unsuitable, exposing them to predators and reducing food by delaying flower and fruit production by at least a year.
Fire management is best achieved by burning breaks at the start of the dry season. The property should be protected by burning along the perimeter and access tracks, and large blocks of country should be broken up into smaller areas by linking natural fire barriers, such as tracks, rivers and ridge-tops, with strategically placed burns. Know where the gaps in these breaks are, and keep a watch out for fires that might cross them, by using the Fire North website www.firenorth.org.au. Fight fires that threaten in the late dry season by back-burning from established breaks. If uncertain about lighting or fighting fires, seek advice from an experienced neighbour or Queensland Rural Fires.
Peninsula District Inspector
Queensland Rural Fire Service, Cairns
Phone: 07 4039 8240
Burning at storm-time has been shown to reduce and sometimes reverse thickening of grasslands and grassy woodlands, and has been adopted by many pastoralists on Cape York Peninsula. Storm-burns are most effective when lit 2-3 days after the first heavy storm, when the sap has risen in woody plants, but before most grass seed has germinated. Timing can be difficult, and impossible in years when first rains are widespread and persistent. Storm-burning needs to be part of a strategic approach to fire management across the whole property. It may be necessary to burn early dry season fire breaks around areas designated for storm-burning to stop them being prematurely burnt by wildfires. Storm-burns can spread uncontrollably if lit when rain has been insufficient or patchy. If they are lit too long after first rains, they can cause loss of ground cover and erosion. If uncertain about lighting storm-burns, seek advice from an experienced neighbour or Queensland Rural Fires.
Peninsula District Inspector
Queensland Rural Fire Service, Cairns
Phone: 07 4039 8240
Many species can live in a moderately-grazed landscape that still has most of its trees, shrubs and grasses. However, a few species survive only where their habitat has been fenced to prevent cattle grazing and pig rooting. This includes species such as Crimson Finches that need long seeding grasses around wetlands, and some of the more unusual plants, such as Cycads. Fenced areas will need to be actively managed for fire, weeds and feral animals, excluding pigs wherever possible. Upkeep of fences is also important. It is a good idea to take photographs before erecting fences, and then a series of photographs from the same place to track improvement in habitat condition. Measures of other features, such as ground cover or bird numbers are also useful to demonstrate improved habitat value. Funding bodies are often prepared to assist with fencing materials and/or labour. Cape York Peninsula Landcare officers can help with funding applications for fencing and establishing monitoring programs.
Cape York Peninsula Landcare Program
Phone: 07 4069 5046
How much effort is needed to protect a species is shown by its Conservation status. This is determined separately for World, Australian and State/Territory populations on the basis of the size of populations, extent of distributions, and changes in them, as well as threats faced.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) sets the World conservation status for all species. Australian and State/Territory governments also set conservation status for all species with populations within their borders, based on numbers and trends in those populations alone. These classifications may differ because of different population sizes, trends and threats in each area. They can also differ if not all available information has been considered in each case. Each jurisdiction has its own classification system for Conservation status, mostly based on these IUCN classes:
(Queensland plants currently classed as rare will soon be changed to other categories)
Some species are actually rare. Others seem rare because there are few official records of them. People on the land often know most about local plants and animals. Sharing knowledge about plants with botanists at Queensland Herbarium or about animals with ecologists in Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service can help determine if these species are indeed threatened, or need to be reclassified as Least Concern. Reclassification can prevent decision makers from putting unnecessary restrictions on land managers. Sharing information about rare or threatened species on your property can also help to demonstrate that land management practices in use are compatible with the conservation of wildlife.
Queensland Herbarium, Mareeba
Phone: 07 4048 4609
Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service, Atherton
Phone: 07 4091 1844
Many generous people provided assistance for this project. They include Alaric Fisher, Mark Ziembicki, Leanne Coleman, Michael Braby, Simon Ward, John Woinarski, Brooke Rankmore, Kym Brennan, Damian Milne, Carol Palmer and Martin Armstrong (Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts); Alex Kutt, Eric Vanderduys and Elizabeth Poon (CSIRO); Joe Rolfe (Queensland Department of Industries & Fisheries), Sue and Tom Shephard (Artemis); Sally Witherspoon (Bertiehaugh); John Clarkson, John Winter, Keith MacDonald, Scott Burnett, Alistair Freeman, Peter Latch and Paul Williams, (Queensland Environmental Protection Agency), Stephen Garnett (Charles Darwin University), Euan Ritchie, Chris Johnson and David Gillieson (James Cook University), Peter Thompson (Cape York Peninsula Development Association), Ian Morris (Frogwatch), Sam Abell (National Geographic), Guy Dutson, Jeff Davies, Mike Weston and Sid Cowling (Birds Australia), Michael Todd (Wildlifing), Ian Montgomery (Birdway), Peter Jacklyn, Penny Wurm and the late Jill Landsberg (Tropical Savannas CRC) and Lloyd Nielson (Birding Australia).
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